illustration of mother and daughter holding plant

A Calm Guide to Climate Anxiety for Parents

The average child will live through roughly three times as many climate disasters as their grandparents did. Climate scientists who are also parents share how all of us can stay hopeful.

From the moment our children are born, we strive to protect them. But as climate catastrophes grow more frequent, this goal has become painful to contemplate. The average child will live through roughly three times as many climate disasters as their grandparents did. Right now, almost every child in the world is exposed to a major climate or environmental hazard, and one in three are exposed to four or more, according to UNICEF. Spend even a moment pondering this, and it's hard not to sink into despair. But there are reasons to keep the faith. Says who, you ask? The people most intimately familiar with the problem: climate scientists. We asked six experts in the field—all of them parents—how they stay hopeful.

Take Action

By Catherine Coleman, Flowers Madison, AL

Environmental and climate justice activist, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Economic Justice, and mother of one.

One of the things that's helped me deal with my dread as a parent facing climate change is taking action. So the first task is to get involved. We all have to decide what role we're going to play in addressing this crisis. Of course, sometimes I get overwhelmed by my work, and when that happens, I stop and I breathe, and I start figuring out how I can act in a way that won't add too much to my plate. Not everyone is able to plan a major campaign. Your form of action will depend on your area, the community you're in, and what issue you're dealing with. There are things that may be unique to your area that need to be addressed, like air or water quality, flooding, or unsustainable infrastructure. For example, a parent in Mount Vernon, New York, where raw sewage is flowing back into homes, will take a different course of action from a parent in Benton Harbor, Michigan, who is dealing with lead in the water. No one knows what a community needs better than someone who's in that community.

Parents will also need to determine what they can do with the time they have available. Sometimes you just have to start however you can. There may be things parents are already doing that they might increase or modify in a way that turns it into climate action. Another step any parent can take is to vote, and write letters to officials at the state, local, and federal levels that support climate justice for all.

There is no template for taking action. When I started working on water sanitation and climate justice 20 years ago, I didn't know where it would lead. My goal was to fix a problem, but I had no idea how. Sometimes you just have to put one foot in front of the other and be willing to learn. We may need to change course sometimes, but each step will move us in the right direction. My fight has involved amplifying these issues by writing a book and several op-eds, proposing policy, and grabbing the mic to share stories of impacted families. None of it would have happened if I hadn't taken that first step.

I always keep in mind the Seventh Generation Principle, which I learned while working with the indigenous community. The idea is that the decisions we make today should help build a sustainable world seven generations into the future. We need to act with concern not only about what happens in the here and now but also by understanding the impact of our actions on our children, our children's children, and the many generations that will come after.

illustration of clouds and plants within silhouette of father and daughter holding hands
Illustration by Stephanie Singleton

Educate Those Around You

By Melissa Burt, Ph.D., Fort Collins, CO

Atmospheric scientist, assistant dean for diversity and inclusion at Colorado State University, co-founder of Science Moms, and mother of one.

One day not long ago, I was chatting with a few moms on my street. Mostly, we talk about our kids and only rarely about our jobs. A mom who was new to the neighborhood asked me what I did for a living. I said, "I study climate change." She said, "Oh, that's not a real thing, is it?" Another mom echoed her question. So I started to pick their brains a bit. I asked questions like, "Haven't you noticed that here in Colorado, it's been getting hotter every year? Haven't you noticed the increased prevalence of wildfires?" And through my prodding, these women began to question how it was that they hadn't known what a big problem climate change is today. I started to see the impact that simple conversations like this can have, which motivated me to co-found Science Moms, a group of scientist mothers who provide the public with information on combatting climate change. But we really need all parents to have these kinds of conversation, to hopefully educate others and alleviate some of the feelings of guilt or anxiety that many of us are having. Our organization provides parents with the resources they need to understand the urgency of the climate issue and take action.

As a Black woman, I also want people who look like me to understand that this is a problem that affects them, as climate change is disproportionately impacting communities of color. I was recently speaking on a panel, and a Black woman emailed me afterward to say, "I never thought that climate change impacted me or my community before I heard you speak." I want moms of color, particularly Black moms, to know that I am speaking to them and their kids. We all have a voice that deserves to be heard. The way we manage our fears about the future is by using those voices—which you can't do if you don't know about the problem.

Think Bigger Than Yourself

By Katharine Hayhoe, Ph.D., Lubbock, TX

Climate scientist, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, Texas Tech University professor, cofounder of Science Moms, and mother of one.

I don't think about climate change as a separate issue on my list of concerns, because it affects everything on my list. My child's future, the air they breathe, the safety of our home. It's important to acknowledge to yourself that all the difficult feelings you're experiencing because of climate change, like anxiety, fear, or being overwhelmed, are completely natural. How can you not feel those fears when you understand what's truly at stake for our descendants?

A long time ago, the folk singer Joan Baez said that the antidote to despair is action. So rather than allowing those feelings to paralyze us, we can use them to motivate us. When we act, that's where we find real hope. The most important thing we can do is use our voices. And we parents have some pretty loud voices! We can advocate for action at our kid's school or where we work or in our neighborhood or church. The point is, start where you are and speak up.

Collective action is the only thing that's ever inspired big societal change in modern society. We need to tackle climate change. We need to remember that we're part of groups that are bigger than ourselves. And when we work together and use our voices to call for change, that's how we change the world.

illustration of mother and daughter holding plant
Illustration by Stephanie Singleton

Help Your Kids Work Through It Too

By Lise Van Susteren, M.D., Washington, DC

Psychiatrist with expertise on the mental health effects of climate change, author of Emotional Inflammation, co-founder of Climate Psychiatry Alliance, and mother of three.

When talking to kids about climate change, I advise using the three L's: listen, learn, and leverage. First, listen to what your child is saying about the environment or natural disasters or the effect of climate change on animals, whatever it may be. Validate the emotion they've expressed, then seek more information about the issue they've raised so you're in a better position to help them make sense of it. For example, one friend's child heard that animals were going extinct because of climate change and thought their dog, Charlie, was going to die. By learning more, a parent can respond more authoritatively: "Charlie is going to be just fine, but there are other animals in the world that we need to protect."

The most critical aspect of this process is the leverage part, which involves taking what you've learned and coming up with a plan. In some cases, you can start by telling your child what your family already does to fight climate change: "This is why we eat a plant-based diet" or "This is why we recycle." The leverage component lets you acknowledge to your child that, yes, climate change is a problem, and we're vulnerable because of it, but we also have agency; this is what we can do. You can empower your child by explaining that because they brought up this topic, because of their very valid concerns, you're going to start doing X as a family. It's an opportunity to find an action that the family can take collectively. You want to coach your kids to adopt the psychological framework of community, to value the idea of contributing to the greater good. You can tell your kids that while some may say an individual's actions don't make a difference, what we do isn't counted individually but together. And our collective actions add up to a whole lot.

Talk to Someone About Your Fears

By Elizabeth Allured, Psy.D., Manhasset, NY

Psychologist, co-president of Climate Psychology Alliance North America, and mother of two.

We as parents need to first unpack how we feel when we really look at the climate crisis. There is a large range of emotions that parents can experience: fear, guilt, sadness. To sort out these feelings, you need a listener—a partner, a friend, an adult family member. Ideally, someone who is empathetic, who can help you tolerate difficult feelings. It's very painful to feel terror when you're alone, but if you know that someone is open to listening, it becomes a little less terrifying. It's important to first ask if this person is open to hearing your fears. If they are, ask them not to respond but just to listen and to try to understand you.

Counseling and psychotherapy support the belief that when a person feels heard and empathized with, their distress levels decrease. However, if your feelings get too intense to be helped by a "lay" listener, you can find a climate therapist in the directory on our website, It's a growing need, as more and more people report feeling distraught about climate change, and as extreme weather events leave thousands with post-traumatic stress. There are mental health clinicians who have been trained to understand the emotional impacts of the climate crisis and do not pathologize people for feeling distressed. Learning to cope with this very difficult subject is not going to be a simple, one-day process. Some days, you may feel hopeless. But other days, you may feel we're making progress and that more progress is on its way.

Do What You Can—That's Plenty

By Thomas Doherty, Psy.D., Portland, OR

Psychologist specializing in applying environmental perspectives to mental health, fellow of the American Psychological Association, and father of one.

There's this idea in counseling of "good enough parenting," where you don't have to be perfect, just good enough. And if you are, your kids will be okay. We can start to imagine what good enough parenting means with respect to the environment. What are changes that we as parents can make that are also within our ability? Things like: How many cars should we own? Do we have electric or gas heating? Do we have efficient appliances? How many children are we going to have?

I want parents to be their best selves in regard to climate change, but it's also important not to saddle people with unfair responsibility. Parents can only take the actions that are within their ability, and sometimes the only available action is simply to bear witness to the issue. One driver of eco-anxiety is people feeling inadequate, like they aren't doing enough. We have to be careful with this push for personal responsibility. Climate change is a systemic problem. We wouldn't tell parents to fix the bridges in our town. That would be absurd. We expect the government to do that. So we need to think about how to elect people who will do what we need.

One of the most powerful things I can tell parents is that even with the dire scenarios predicted, there are going to be good days in the future. There will be bad days: disasters, fires, floods. But that doesn't mean that there won't be sunny, good days for ourselves and for our families. Throughout human history, there have always been both kinds of days. That isn't going to change.

illustration of speech bubbles recycling symbol and plastic bag
Illustration by Stephanie Singleton

Now for Some Good News

Knowing there are winnable battles out there helps. Here are some recent victories.

Fossil fuel is no longer the only game in town.

In December 2021, United Airlines operated a passenger flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C., using sustainable fuel. Last December, New York City banned the use of natural gas in new buildings; it's predicted that this will cut 2.1 million tons of carbon emissions by 2040. Forty percent of the greenhouse gases emitted in New Jersey, a major shipping hub, comes from transportation, but the state will be among the first to adopt Advanced Clean Truck Rules, phasing out diesel trucks and requiring manufacturers to sell zero-emission trucks. And at the climate summit in Glasgow last year, the world's leaders acknowledged for the first time the role of fossil fuels in the climate crisis and pledged to roll back their reliance on coal as a fuel source.

The fight against food waste is ramping up.

An estimated 30 to 40 percent of the food in America is wasted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But composting is one part of the solution, and last year, legislation passed in California requiring people to toss excess food into bins to be composted by their town or city and grocery stores to donate unsold but edible food to food banks.

Renewable energy is becoming more widespread.

In 2021, the U.S. Department of the Interior advanced three solar projects in California that will generate enough electricity to power 132,000 homes.

Emissions are being reduced.

General Motors announced last year that it would phase out gas- and diesel-powered cars and trucks, pledging to sell only vehicles with zero tailpipe emissions by 2035. And climate-tech start-ups reportedly raised a record amount of capital last year (almost five times what they raised five years ago), and more than 80 percent of those funds will support alternative energy and transportation start-ups.

These issues are more on our mind than ever.

Netflix's climate change allegory Don't Look Up became the most-watched film in the streaming service's history, sparking countless conversations—some with viewers who'd been unaware of these issues—about the realities ahead. And a fall 2021 study from the Pew Research Center showed that concern about climate change around the world has risen sharply since 2015. The more we look this crisis in the eye, the better our chances of turning the tide.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's April 2022 issue as "Coping With Climate Change Anxiety." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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