According to the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, humanity has only a few years left to prevent environmental catastrophe. Should we fail, natural disasters will likely grow more frequent, food may become scarcer, and millions of people could be displaced from their homes. Many people across the globe are already experiencing these consequences.
Much of climate change’s burden falls on today’s children and adolescents. They are the ones who will have to survive in this hotter, harsher world. This threat has caused pervasive distress in many youths today—perhaps more than many adults realize.
However, all is not lost. Parents, teachers, and other concerned adults can help address this crisis. They can keep an eye out for potential mental health issues caused by environmental factors. They can offer emotional support. They can help kids develop emotionally healthy coping strategies. When climate change causes mental health issues in children, the support of adults can be invaluable.
Mental Health and the Environment
Children and teens, with their developing bodies and brains, can be more vulnerable to the consequences of global warming than adults. These include:
- The spread of infections. As mosquitos and other animals spread to new areas, diseases such as the Zika virus can flourish. The Zika virus can cause intellectual disabilities to children in utero.
- Exposure to air pollution. Rising temperatures allow fossil fuel pollutants to form more quickly. Pollution, in turn, can lead to cognitive impairments and behavioral issues.
- Natural disasters. Children caught in hurricanes or forest fires are especially likely to develop mental health concerns. One study found half of preschool-aged children displaced by Hurricane Katrina met the criteria for posttraumatic stress (PTSD).
Even the heat itself can influence mental health. Research shows that as temperatures rise, people have more emotional arousal. They are more likely to have negative thoughts and aggressive impulses. Youth who already have mental health issues may see their symptoms worsen.
Heat can also reduce people’s ability to cope with intense emotions. Research suggests that as temperatures rise, our cognitive functioning can diminish, making us less able to solve problems without violence. Some individuals may resort to aggression or substance abuse to cope with distress. Increasing temperatures have also been linked to higher levels of suicide.
How Eco-Anxiety Manifests in Kids
Eco-anxiety, or climate anxiety, is severe and persistent distress about global warming. Research suggests climate anxiety is quite common among kids. One study surveyed 600 Australian kids ages 10-14. Among the respondents:
- 43% were worried about air and water pollution.
- 52% were worried about whether they would have enough water in the future.
- 25% were worried the world would end before they got older.
Similar numbers have been found in other studies.
If these fears are left to simmer without relief, they can lead to chronic stress. Some children may compulsively check the news or weather reports. Others may develop a perfectionist attitude toward recycling and water conservation. They may feel excessive guilt for circumstances outside their control.
A child could also go to the other extreme, developing a sense of hopelessness. Some children could feel that the end of the world is inevitable. They may lose motivation to do well in school or pursue hobbies, believing their effort won’t matter in the long run. Grief for a lost future could overwhelm any attachment to the present.
How to Talk to Kids About Climate Change
Many adults find it difficult to discuss global warming with children. Climate change is an upsetting dilemma with no easy answers. However, children are already getting information (and misinformation) on climate change from their friends, the internet, and elsewhere. It is often better for children to get clear information from a trusted source than to try and sift through the data themselves.
As an adult, you may be tempted to downplay the situation in order to soothe a child’s fears. This strategy can easily backfire. The child may misinterpret your attitude as apathy and conclude nothing is being done about the problem. They may develop resentment, believing adults don’t care what kind of environment they leave the next generation.
At the same time, it’s also important to avoid overwhelming the child with negativity. It may help to show the child examples of activists and scientists who are working to solve the problem. Role models can reassure kids they will not have to face this crisis alone. Emphasize that there is hope for the future.
Coping with Climate Change Anxiety
When faced with an environmental crisis, many individuals do not know how to cope. Andrea Bell, LCSW, SEP, from Long Beach, California, says, “When faced with overwhelmingly terrible news, such as mass extinctions of beloved animals, or the breakdown of the natural systems that sustain all life…it is entirely normal to feel anxiety and despair, rage and overwhelm. We must not pathologize that. However, we should neither act out violently nor remain stuck in passive stress. We all must mobilize to help regenerate our ecosystems. As it turns out, this moving into action to help the planet also stops the stuckness and helps the individual start to feel better. It’s a little bit of stubborn optimism: ‘I’m still here, and I can do something.’ ”
Confronting an issue head-on is sometimes called problem-focused coping. It involves taking concrete steps to solve or mitigate a problem. You can help your kid with problem-focused coping by:
- Teaching your child how to compost, recycle, etc.
- Planting a garden to help feed bees and other pollinators.
- Volunteering in conservation work as a family.
- Participating in an activist rally or march.
Another strategy is called meaning-focused coping. Its purpose is to help people maintain a sense of purpose and hope in difficult situations. Examples of meaning-focused strategies include:
- Positive reappraisal: reminding a child of the victories that have been made in the fight against climate change, such as the increasing use of solar energy.
- Building a sense of community: showing a child that many people and organizations are working hard to fight climate change.
- Turning to spiritual beliefs or religious traditions for guidance.
Research shows children and adolescents with climate anxiety respond especially well to meaning-focused strategies. Since most youths cannot drive, work, or vote, their ability to directly enact change is limited. Furthermore, climate change is too large of an issue to be solved quickly. Meaning-focused strategies can help children maintain optimism and avoid emotional overwhelm.
A child may benefit from counseling if climate anxiety has affected their quality of life. A child counselor can work with the child individually to treat related mental health issues such as depression. A family therapist can work with the entire family to cope with climate anxiety. Visiting a school counselor may also be beneficial if a child’s academic performance has dropped.
No matter what a child’s needs may be, there is a mental health professional who can help them. You can find a counselor near you through GoodTherapy’s directory.
- Clayton, S., Manning, C., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017). Mental health and our changing climate: Impacts, implications, and guidance [PDF]. Retrieved from https://ecoamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/ea-apa-psych-report-web.pdf
- Ojala, M. (2013). Coping with climate change among adolescents: Implications for subjective well-being and environmental engagement. Sustainability, 5(5), 2191-2209. Retrieved from https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/5/5/2191/htm
- Salas, R. N., Jacobs, W., & Perera, F. (2019, May 30). The case of Juliana v. U.S. : Children and the health burdens of climate change. The New England Journal of Medicine, 380(1), 2085-2087. Retrieved from https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1905504
- Tucci, J., Mitchell, J., & Goddard, C. (2007). Children’s fears, hopes and heroes [PDF]. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.590.5217&rep=rep1&type=pdf
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