Top Tips for Helping Young People Manage Climate Anxiety



Humanity has just a few years left to prevent environmental catastrophe: that’s the message from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Many people across the globe are already experiencing increased natural disasters, food shortages and displacement from their homes. Much of this has been bought to the attention of the world stage by young activists such as Greta Thurnberg and many others indigenous young people that are less recognized. Young people are striking from school and taking to the streets in cities worldwide in huge numbers in order to bring focus on the potential devastation of climate change and the need to take action.

It’s also no secret that much of the burden to combat the damage being done to our environment falls on the shoulders of younger generations: our children and young people. It is their lifetime that will see the most disruption, the effects of climate change and its threats to existence. What’s more, young people don’t have to look further than their social media platforms to see the threats of climate change, and the pressure being put on the government by the younger generation to act, and to act now.

Climate Threat

Research shows us that the feeling of uncertainty and potential threat is directly related to anxiety and distress. Psychologists at Newcastle University tell us that threat is made up of two things. First, how likely we think it is that something bad will happen and, second, how bad we think it will be if it does. If we think about this in relation to the current climate messages. How likely – very likely if we don’t do something big over the next 12
years. How bad – disastrous for the future survival of humankind.

Climate Uncertainty

Uncertainty is about how uncertain we feel about future situations and how much they bother us. No wonder a lot of uncertainty around the climate exists when often we see people very bothered about the future but unsure what they can do to help – for example is not using plastics or driving to school enough?

From psychology research we know that the combination of threat and uncertainty are common sources of anxiety and can impact negatively on our mental wellbeing. What makes things even more frustrating for younger people is that they have little to no power to make impactful changes: they are often too young to vote, aren’t taken seriously and find it hard to appeal to adults with any real outcome. So we have the perfect storm, young people perceiving lots of threat, together with much uncertainty, and low ability to make changes. It can feel overwhelming.

Talking About Climate Change

Many adults find it difficult to discuss climate issues with children. Climate change is an upsetting dilemma with no easy answers. It can be tempting to downplay the situation in order to soothe a child’s fear, but this strategy can easily backfire. Downplaying a situation that is being covered so widely across so many platforms might lead children to misinterpret their parents’ attitude as apathy and worry that they don’t care or that nothing is being done to stop disaster from happening. On the other hand, being too graphic about the potential threats may not be the way to approach the topic either.

So, how do we talk to children and young people about climate change, and any anxiety associated with it?

  1. Acknowledge the threat: It is important not to sweep information under the rug and rather to acknowledge the anxiety, the threat and the uncertainty
  2. Use problem-focused coping strategies, for example, teaching children how be kinder to the environment by recycling, learning to compost, planting trees, building bee gardens, and so on.
  3. Engage children in research: Piquing the interest of younger people when it comes to the environment can be fun and inspiring. Plan activities such as researching wildlife and the conservation of natural habitats.
  4. Get involved in local events: that contribute towards changing attitudes and creating action around climate change.
  5. Reappraise: Help your child / young person to reappraise the situation – to focus on real victories and advances in climate change as well as future goals.
  6. Seek professional support: If anxiety about the climate is impacting on your child’s quality of life, it may be helpful to see a counsellor or therapist who can work with children and young people individually to treat mental health difficulties such as anxiety or depression.

For more information, or to discuss any of the issues in this article further, please contact us.

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