If you found yourself relating to the Big Little Lies episode where Renata’s daughter Amabella panics over climate change, you and your child are not alone.
Studies show that 45 percent of children experience depression after a natural disaster. Eco-anxiety in children is a real thing, and it’s relevant now more than ever.
“Eco-anxiety is a specific type of worry or fear focusing on environmental destruction,” says Rebecca Railon Berry, PhD, the clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. But just because your child is worried doesn't automatically mean they are experiencing eco-anxiety—this type of anxiety must impede with their everyday life.
“It has to be at a level serious enough to interfere with their lives,” says Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster and coauthor of a 2017 report titled “Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance.“ “A little worry is normal given the environmental threats we are facing.”
Signs that are easy to detect—which are similar in adults as well—include nightmares, difficulty sleeping, and losing focus on school and interest in socializing with friends. Berry says a child’s reaction to environmental reports can be very telling.
“Many youths will request certainty about when humankind will become extinct as a result of global warming; they will ask for reassurance that the future will be okay and that they are safe,” she says. “Others might become rigid about their own and their family’s conservation practices.”
She adds that children who are naturally predisposed to anxiety will be more likely to develop a fear over the environment. If your child is experiencing a version of eco-anxiety, Berry says it’s best to bring it up rather than waiting to have the conversation when a child is older. “Early adolescence may be the best time for youth to fully engage in the issue, when they have a better grasp of the impact of their efforts and can cope with the complicated—and somewhat abstract—nature of the issue in general,” she says.
So what can you do to ease your children’s eco-anxiety? First, Berry says to listen; it’s important to understand how they feel and validate those feelings. Once you hear them out, she says to use the talk as a teaching moment. “Use these conversations as...a way to have kids reflect upon their consumer practices and aim for improved environmental conscientiousness and conservation where possible,” she says. She suggests getting them involved in simple efforts to conserve, such as recycling.
Psychologist and author of Freeing Your Child from Anxiety Tamar Chansky encourages parents to get their kids involved in some sort of activism. She cites climate activist Greta Thunberg as inspiration: At 15, Thunberg made news for protesting outside the Swedish parliament for immediate action against climate change and started the movement known as the “school strike for change.” On March 15, 2019, over 1.4 million students across the globe joined her in demanding change from representatives, proving it doesn’t matter how old you are when it comes to making a change. “Kids can get involved in these actions and bring their friends along or do fundraisers to support organizations,” Chansky says.
Still, don’t feel pressured to explain everything at once: Chansky explains that kids have more trouble putting information in context, and risk falling into an existential hole of fear and hopelessness. “I think providing too much information can be harmful in some cases, especially when it is not paired with brainstorming solutions, review of efforts already in place, and hope,” Berry adds.
“Focus on small actions that your family can take and help your child see them connected to the big picture,” she says. “Why do we walk to your friend’s house or bike instead of drive the car? Why do we have reusable water bottles instead of plastic ones? Children can begin to see the connection of their actions to the ‘big picture.’ This can become a shorthand answer in your house for a lot of decisions you make.”
If the anxiety worsens, look into getting outside help. “Whenever a child’s anxiety is escalating rather than resolving or is morphing into physical or behavioral symptoms...then it makes sense to seek professional help and learn specific strategies to respond to your child’s distress,” Chansky says.
So don’t take a cue from the Monterey Five—lying to protect your kids doesn’t help in the long run. Chances are, they’re already acutely aware of what’s going on with the world, so empowering them to take action is the next best step.
Originally Appeared on Vogue