The world is on fire, and that’s not an understatement. From the U.S. to Canada to Italy to Turkey and Greece, wildfires have been raging for months, and the worst news — Mother Nature is just getting started. The climate crisis is evidentially worsening, exacerbating drought and fire conditions around the world, which means fires are not only burning earlier each year but also making “fire season” a real (and scary) thing. Not surprisingly, many of us are now experiencing a condition called “eco anxiety” and its effects are very real. A 2017 report released by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that climate change can take a significant toll on mental health, including inducing trauma-like symptoms and defines eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.”
If you find the recent headlines of the state of our planet to be overwhelming, then, no doubt, your kids feel the same way.
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“Kids hear the adults in their lives discussing these messages and they may not understand what it all means, but they do internalize the eco-anxiety that their loved ones are feeling,” Dr. Erica Dodds, CEO of the Foundation for Climate Restoration, tells SheKnows. “They understand that there are major concerns about what the future–their future–will look like.”
Growing up, climate activist Rohan Arora tells SheKnows, “I truly felt the world was ending. Every couple of months, some news report or article would come out indicating that we were one step closer to a state of ‘impending doom.’”
Arora says his experience is similar to what many young people are feeling today: “I was worried about my future, or potential lack thereof. And, sometimes it kept me up at night.”
“I was worried about my future, or potential lack thereof. And, sometimes it kept me up at night.”
Dr. Dina Hirshfeld-Becker, PhD, Co-Director of the Child Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital, says worry, fear, catastrophic thoughts, and associated difficulties with sleep, mood, and concentration are normal symptoms when it comes to eco-anxiety in children. “At an extreme, children who have faced traumas may experience frequent nightmares, fear and avoidance of stimuli that remind them of the trauma, feelings of hopelessness about the future, and withdrawal from friends.”
According to Arora, the reason why most children suffer from eco-anxiety is because the ways to combat climate change appear too “out-of-reach” or “ineffective” for most folks.
Dr. Hirschfeld-Becker agrees. “The messaging children get [on climate change] tends to emphasize catastrophic outcomes, which has the effect of triggering anxiety rather than productive action.”
This messaging “leads to people feeling helpless because they don’t see the fruits of their activism,” says Arora whose own eco-anxiety led him to become the executive director and founder of The Community Check-Up, a national environmental health organization that makes environmental health resources more accessible and empowers youth to become changemakers in their local communities.
With eco-anxiety on the rise, Dr. Dodd says it’s important parents know “just how many youth are experiencing stress and worry about the climate, too, so that they can have those challenging — but important — conversations with their kids.”
Wondering how to approach your child and their eco-anxiety? Read on for tips from our eco experts.
Let them know it’s not all on them
“Not one individual is responsible for saving the planet, but we can as individuals contribute to positive change,” says Dr. Dodd, adding teaching children early that everyone has a role to play in climate change is key to proactively and positively addressing it. “A deeper understanding of climate change and environmental degradation can help make kids’ eco-anxiety less all-consuming by placing boundaries around the problem.”
Use strategies to cope with the anxiety itself.
It’s hard to simply snap out of anxiety, but Dr. Hirschfeld-Becker says it is possible to change the thoughts or actions that underlie the feeling and make it worse.
“The child could substitute helpful thoughts for their worries. For example, they could think about all the scientists, activists, and policy-makers who are working on improving the environment. Or they could do actions that help them stay calm, such as exercising, spending time with friends, or spending time in nature.” Meditation is also something she recommends children can do to “let go of worried thoughts at times when they’re unhelpful.”
Highlight the intersectionality of climate change
“Parents can help their kids cope with eco-anxiety by highlighting the intersectionality of climate issues,” says Arora. “The climate movement is so much more than just increasing CO2 levels; it has to do with food systems, health equity, racial justice, and more. There are several ways that you can do this, and the majority, if not all, are free or affordable. I’m a firm believer that important lessons regarding environmentalism and sustainability can start from home.” Arora recommends checking out the hundreds of free videos and informational resources online about environmentalism and related issues that can help both you and your child become more informed about certain issues and how you can make a change together.
Remember that you do not need to be a climate expert
“The uncertainty of climate issues doesn’t have to be scary: if you don’t have all the answers, these conversations can be a way for parents and kids to explore learning together,” says Dr. Dodd. “If a question comes up that you can’t answer, you can say: ‘What a great question. I don’t know the answer yet but I will look into that so I can answer it properly.’” Which is why she also suggests taking her climate restoration course together.
“In collaboration with multiple teachers and educators, I created a free climate restoration course for kids. It teaches them to have a hopeful view of the climate crisis and to feel empowered to restore the climate. Kids can take the course here.”
Dr. Hirschfeld-Becker says using problem-solving to think about ways the child or teen might help prevent the outcomes they are worrying about. “This plan might involve focusing on practical steps the child could take to help the environment and figuring out which one the child might be able to try first. Focusing on practical solutions can help children feel empowered and less hopeless. Also, helping others can be a means of reducing one’s own distress.” For example, teens might lobby their school to convert to renewable energy or to reduce paper waste; children might decide to walk or bike to school instead of driving.
Encourage your child to get involved if they’re passionate about the environment
“My main piece of advice for young people is to get involved and to start in their own communities,” says Arora. “There are so many opportunities for you to get involved whether that be on the local, regional, state, or federal level. Join organizations and clubs in your region or school and see what their work is all about. Attend climate strikes and be part of the climate community! There are so many parts of advocacy and you might like certain parts of it more than others, so I encourage you to get your feet wet. This will help you see where your interests lie.”
Remind your child to be kind to themselves
“I encourage young people to be kind to themselves,” says Arora. “Social justice issues often weigh on us heavily; however, while it is important to fight for justice in your community, it is also equally important to care for your mental and emotional health and try to strike a healthy balance. If you are feeling overwhelmed, it is perfectly fine to take a break and jump back in when you are ready. People are most impactful when they are healthy and well, so please make sure to prioritize that.”
Before you go, be sure to check out our favorite mental health apps to give your brain some extra TLC:
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