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Children and Climate Anxiety



A recent survey of 10,000 adolescents and young adults worldwide revealed that 59% reported feeling very or extremely worried about climate change. In Canada, 56% of youth reported feeling afraid, sad, anxious, and powerless. Almost 8 in 10 Canadian youth reported it to impact their mental health and almost 4 in 10 youth reported their feelings related to climate change to be negatively impacting their daily functioning. 


It is becoming increasingly clear that today’s children and youth are impacted by the present state of their world and its future when they have contributed the least to rising greenhouse gas emissions and hold the least opportunity of influence in policy change and decision making. In this sense, climate anxiety and emotions can be considered an appropriate response to the scale and urgency of the rapidly shifting world around them.


Climate change is recognized to impact children’s mental well-being in three ways:

  1. Direct: When children are living in communities experiencing the effects of a climate change-related extreme weather event such as forest fires or flooding.

  2. Indirect: When children are impacted by social or economic shifts that affect their wellbeing such as stress related to income insecurity.

  3. Awareness: When children experience negative emotional responses to the awareness of the threat to the planet while not directly experiencing it. For example, hearing parents speak about their concern of the changes in weather compared to when they were children or overhearing news reports of extreme weather events. 


 As opposed to some sources of anxiety that we know as parents, are unrealistic, responding to our children’s climate anxiety is particularly challenging as we sometimes cannot discount the possibility of their fears being realized. So how then can we support our children?


  1. Validation: Provide validation of their feelings and allow them opportunity to explore their thoughts with you. For example, “What you saw on TV was upsetting. I understand why you are scared. Tell me more about what you’re thinking”. 

  2. Self-Awareness: Try to be mindful of how your own climate anxiety may be communicated to your children. Demonstrate your care about climate change but also communicate to them the coping strategies you are using, perhaps even practicing them together. 

  3. Make a Plan: Once removed from heightened distressing emotions, work together with your child to devise an age-appropriate plan for the things that they are able to control if faced with a feared experience. Further, work together to help your child learn to identify their distressing emotions and practice relaxation strategies to apply in the moment. 

  4. Active Strategies: Children and youth tend to feel more anxious when feeling powerless. Work together to identify manageable active steps that can be taken to address climate concerns (for example, biking to school or composting). Encourage flexibility in active strategies, as children experiencing anxiety may be seek increased control through rigidity. It is valuable to encourage their active participation, however, be careful not to place the full weight of the responsibility of their future world in their hands.


Continuing to keep your communication open with your child and looking for ways to step into action can be supportive. Further, schools can play a supportive role in equipping our children with climate content and solution focused strategies in which they can participate. If your child has directly suffered the traumatic impact of an extreme climate-related event or if their climate-related worries are impacting their daily activities, you may find it supportive to reach out to a therapist.


References

  •  Hickman, C., Marks, E., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, R. E., Mayall, E. E., Wray, B., Mellor, C., & Van Susteren, L. (2021). Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: A global survey. Lancet Planet Health, 5: e863-873.

  • Galway, L. P., & Field, E. (2023). Climate emotions and anxiety among young people in Canada: A national survey and call to action. The Journal of Climate Change and Health, 9, e: 100204

  • Hayes, K., Blashki, G., Wiseman, J., Burke, S., & Reifels, L. (2018). Climate change and mental health: Risks, impacts and priority actions. International Journal of Mental Health Systems, 12(28).

  • Martin, G., Reilly, K., Everitt, H., & Gilliland, J. A., (2022). Review: The impact of climate change awareness on children’s mental well-being and negative emotions—a scoping review. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 27(1), 59-72.

  •  Sheldon-Dean, H. (2022, November 4). Kids and climate anxiety. Child Mind Institute. https://childmind.org/article/kids-and-climate-anxiety/ 



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