How To Help a Child Dealing With Climate Change Anxiety

Climate change is impacting the healthy psychological development of children around the world. But here's what parents can do to help them cope with their eco-anxiety.

eco anxiety illustration
Photo: Joanne Imperio

At the end of especially busy days, my 9-year-old is often snoring before we've even finished the nightly bedtime ritual we've been following for the better part of four years now. Our routine begins with sharing the things we're most grateful for each day, followed by several rounds of "I love you," and his favorite part: "Don't let the bedbugs bite!"

But on more than a few occasions lately, rather than happily drifting off to sleep after the playful banter that usually brings him comfort, my son's voice will break through the darkness, and he'll say, "Mom, I'm having bad thoughts again."

And that's when my heart sinks.

My son often lays awake at night, wracked with anxiety about climate change. His mind has absorbed all the news headlines about global warming, the worried chatter he overhears amongst adults, and the disturbing imagery he stumbles across on television. And then—left to his own imagination—he struggles to process and cope with such weighty and intimidating information.

What often comes next during our nighttime conversations is this: "Mom, I'm worried about what will happen in 10 years. What will happen to you and me? Will we be OK? What's going to happen to the world?"

These fears and concerns have been troubling my son for a few months now, but his eco-anxiety isn't unique. A research paper published in Clinical Psychological Science in 2021 says climate change is indeed impacting the healthy psychological development of children around the world. Children 6 to 12 years old in particular are vulnerable to acute and chronic environmental stressors, and they're more able to understand climate change and its anticipated impacts. This, in turn, increases their stress and anxieties about life amid climate change.

I've struggled to find the appropriate answers to soothe my son's overwrought spirit. How do I both comfort him in these moments of worry and give him the meaningful hope for the future that he's desperately seeking? Particularly when I also have deep fear about the realities we're facing.

Recently, I resorted to doing what has always come so naturally to me as a journalist—I began researching and looking for answers. I used my free time to hunt for tangible actions and steps I could take to help my son feel proactive and more hopeful amid a climate crisis. And I began educating myself about how to respond to his questions in a more constructive and optimistic manner. Here's what I learned.

Kids Look to Adults for Their Emotional Responses

I bear a fair amount of guilt for my son's worries about a world upended by climate change. For years, I'd been active in local environmental groups and would often unpack all that I'd learned from my volunteer experiences over dinner with my son—sharing my sadness or fears about everything from the endangered bee population to the decline of monarch butterflies, and the planet's rapidly melting glaciers. According to experts, I was increasing my child's worries.

"Children are looking to parents to decide what their attitude should be about a problem, and how worried they should be," says Ziv Cohen, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and a member of the medical staff at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

Dr. Cohen, who treats patients suffering from higher levels of eco-anxiety and depression caused by climate change, says parents should avoid excessively alarming their little ones. "It doesn't serve any purpose," he adds. "It's just going to lead to anxiety in the child that they're not going to be able to cope with."

This one tip alone has had a significant impact on my behavior and the conversations now taking place in my household. I may personally carry the weight of the world on my shoulders and have regular meltdowns about the latest report or foreboding headline, but that doesn't mean my son has to do so also. He doesn't need to be the sounding board for all my climate change worries and fears.

Taking Action Together Can Help

When your children have questions about climate change or when you're discussing your own concerns, it's important to provide hopeful talking points.

"The message can be, 'Yes, we do have to take care of the Earth. The Earth is fragile and there are things we can do to make sure it stays healthy,'" explains Dr. Cohen.

Parents can also offer specific activities and actions children might take part in to make a positive contribution to the planet. This could include signing up for local environmental clean-up efforts or taking children for walks in nature and explaining the importance of caring for the ecosystem. Or it might encompass modeling actions at home, on a daily basis, to cut back on household emissions, and allowing children to play a role in such household efforts.

Harriet Shugarman, executive director of ClimateMama, often speaks with elementary school students about the climate crisis. She says there's an opportunity for everyone to get involved, no matter their age. Shugarman suggests parents help their children write or create a picture to send or hand deliver to an elected official in their community. You might also take them to a climate march or rally—and they can even wear their favorite superhero cape or costume. Holding a family meeting and letting young ones help create a family climate plan is another way to move children from "angst to action."

"Creating a family climate plan is a great family exercise that can be expanded, adjusted, and discussed on a regular basis and over time," says Shugarman, who is also the 2020 New York City Climate Hero and a professor of climate change and society and world sustainability at Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey. "Let your children help define your plan. It should be simple but straightforward. This is a positive way to keep the climate conversation open for more questions, and also provides positive climate solutions as part of your family's everyday lives."

No matter which approach you choose, these conversations and activities should focus on themes of harmony between humanity and the ecosystem. "If children are exposed to doomsday scenarios about the environment, it's important for parents to reframe that," says Dr. Cohen. "You could say, 'Yes, scientists are worried, but I'm confident that if we are able to do our part, we can avoid this.'"

All of these messages and actions help children take control of any anxiety they may have. "You don't want to turn kids into worriers," says Dr. Cohen. "We want to help them develop a sense of responsibility."

It's Not Too Late to Reframe Conversations

The good news amid all of this (and it's a truth many parents already know well) is children are very flexible in their thinking. Even if you've had a few overly emotional responses in the past regarding climate change challenges (raising hand sheepishly), it's not too late to shift the narrative.

"Children are very adaptable," explains Dr. Cohen. "You have a lot of scope to influence their thinking. And if in retrospect you feel you've been too anxious or alarming, you can rebrand the discussion and give them a more positive or supportive stance that's more helpful, and they will accept that."

What's more, if you're working on yourself and moving yourself to a better place, your kids will pick up on that—whether you explicitly discuss your revised approach and outlook with them, or they simply witness it in action.

At the same time, however, Shugarman says it's important to always be honest and realistic with children in an age-appropriate way. "Our motto at ClimateMama is: tell the truth, actions speak louder than words, and don't be afraid. Even our youngest children, when they ask, should hear the truth about the climate crisis from their trusted adults—you."

Lean Into Hope

As part of my own search for hope and inspiration, I began tuning in to Jane Goodall's Hopecast a few months ago. As the name implies, Goodall's podcast is designed to fuel positivity and bring about action. She's a lifelong hero of mine, and I figured if a dedicated environmental champion like Goodall has found a reason for continued hope amid these challenging times, then there can be no better beacon of light to guide me through my own despair.

More recently, it occurred to me, that if I find sustenance and power in Goodall's program, then my son might as well. And so, listening to Goodall's Hopecast has become a new tradition in our household.

On one of the latest episodes, Goodall played a series of audio messages from podcast listeners who shared their concerns about the condition of the planet. As we drove along in our car listening together, the voices of one child after another could be heard among those who submitted comments for the podcast. There were messages from a 7-year-old, a 13-year-old, and a 14-year-old. As these young voices filled our car, I watched my son in the rearview mirror. I could see the light in his eyes as he listened to his peers talk. And his body language softened tremendously as he quietly absorbed their words while staring out the car window.

Suddenly, he wasn't alone in his fears. But more importantly, he heard the voices of people his age who were intent on taking action. And he heard the wisdom of Goodall herself, as she responded to one young listener's message:

"If there's a problem in your area that you are upset about, talk about it with your friends and try and work out how you could help," Goodall said. "Maybe you could write letters about it. Maybe you could actually, physically roll up your sleeves and help to make a difference. Get some friends like you who want to make the world better for people, or for animals, or the environment, and start your own group and plan what it is you want to do."

I peeked in the rearview mirror one more time as Goodall spoke and saw something new in my son's eyes. In that moment, I saw eyes filled with inspiration and hope.

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