How to support children’s wellbeing in the face of climate change
Professor Ann Sanson, Australia, November 2020
The reality of climate change
The 2019/2020 Australian bushfire season was shocking in its ferocity and duration. These fires, along with unprecedented hurricanes, floods and droughts, melting glaciers and icecaps, broken temperature records, and rising sea levels, issue a serious warning. It is no surprise that ‘climate emergency’ was the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2019.
Children’s emotional responses to climate change
Surveys show that most children know about climate change and are worried about its impact on their future (Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience, 2020; Burke, Sanson, & Van Hoorn, 2018; Chiw and Ling, 2019; Strife, 2012). Even for those who have not yet experienced a climate disaster first-hand, common emotional reactions include (Burke, Sanson & Van Hoorn, 2018; Strife, 2012):
- fear and anxiety over what the future will bring
- distress, grief, and a sense of loss over loved places and animals that are being lost
- anger and frustration at the adult generation, especially decision-makers, for causing the issue but doing so little to address it
- helplessness – feeling there is nothing they can do themselves to stop climate change
- despair and hopelessness – believing that decision-makers will not take the urgent action that is needed.
These feelings have been dubbed ‘eco-anxiety’ (Clayton, Manning, Krygsman, & Speiser, 2017). It is important to recognise that while they are rational responses and can motivate action, for some children these feelings can be debilitating, leading to reactions like nightmares, numbness, and despair (Albrecht et al., 2007; Burke, Sanson, & Van Hoorn, 2018; Gifford and Gifford, 2016). For those of us responsible for caring for children, they are certainly a cause for concern.
How can professionals and parents respond to children’s concerns?
Four broad strategies can be adopted to help children manage their feelings around climate change and cope effectively (Sanson, Van Hoorn & Burke, 2019; Australian Psychological Society, 2018a):
1. Listen and respond to their feelings and concerns
Some children may share their feelings easily, but many feel shy about admitting they are scared or worried, think it’s not ‘cool’ to show they care, or think adults are not interested. Adults can (Sanson, Van Hoorn & Burke, 2019; Australian Psychological Society, 2018a):
- create times and places for children to share their feelings safely
- recognise their feelings as valid (e.g. ‘Yes, I can understand that you feel scared, it’s a big problem.’)
- avoid false reassurances but give messages of realistic hope (see below).
2. Find out what they know and build their understanding
It is tempting to try to shield children from the truth of climate change, but widespread media coverage makes this impossible. Nor does it accord with children’s rights: the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990) states that children have the right to know about things that will affect their future, and to be involved in decision making about them. The responsibility of adults is to recognise children’s right to know, and to support them in coping with that knowledge. Therefore, adults can (Sanson, Van Hoorn, & Burke, 2019; Australian Psychological Society, 2018a):
- respond to children’s questions honestly (while still taking their age into account)
- correct misunderstandings – some children have exaggerated fears, such as ‘the whole world is going to catch on fire’
- help them to learn basic climate science, emphasising solutions
- encourage schools to provide climate change education. One example is New Zealand’s curriculum for 11 to 15 year olds, which can be found under ‘Useful Resources’ below.
3. Build ‘realistic hope’
‘Realistic hope’ means acknowledging that humanity is facing a huge and urgent problem, but that it is still possible to prevent climate change from worsening. Adults can (Australian Psychological Society, 2018b):
- explain that people already know how to stop carbon emissions and draw down the excess carbon already in the atmosphere
- show children how lots of good people are working on the problem – from scientists and engineers to farmers, communities, and activists
- give them examples of the big problems we have solved before, such as abolishing slavery and apartheid, winning women the right to vote, and saving the Franklin River
- build their sense of efficacy and control by showing them how many people, working together, solved these big problems.
4. Build their capacity to take action
Research shows that a powerful way to overcome anxiety is to take action against the source of that anxiety. For example, Hart, Fisher and Kimiagar (2014, p. 93) concluded that “being able to take action through playing a meaningful role in the face of adversity can often offer a kind of psychological protection by helping children to feel more in control, more hopeful and more resilient.” Thus, adults should (Burke & Sanson, 2019):
- treat children not just as victims of climate change, but also as problem-solvers with a right to be involved
- view children not only as consumers, but also as citizens
- model environmentally responsible behaviour and expect children to do the same
- build children’s active citizenship skills by, for example, helping them to make posters, write letters, visit their MPs, join climate action groups, and take action themselves if they wish to.
Our responsibilities in the face of climate change
As professionals with a responsibility for the next generation, we need to acknowledge that we are working in unprecedented times, and that without urgent and large-scale action now, climate change will have very serious negative impacts on children’s futures (Sanson et al., 2019).
Our responsibilities include supporting children’s emotional wellbeing in the here-and-now – for example, by incorporating the strategies above into our interactions with children and encouraging parents, teachers and other child-oriented practitioners to do the same. Beyond that, we have a responsibility to work to ensure children can realistically hope for a safe future on a habitable planet.
- A guide for parents about the climate crisis by the Australian Psychological Society
This information sheet provides guidance for parents on responding to climate change, including ideas about how they can support children’s coping and resilience.
- Raising children to thrive in a climate changed world by the Australian Psychological Society
This information sheet provides guidance and ideas about how parents can help their children to thrive and adapt in the face of climate change.
- The climate change empowerment handbook by the Australian Psychological Society
This handbook outlines psychological strategies to help people engage effectively with the challenge of climate change.
- Sanson, A.V., Van Horne, J., & Burke, S. E. L. (2019). Responding to the impacts of the climate crisis on children and youth. Child Development Perspectives, 13 (4), 201–207. DOI: 10.1111/cdep.12342
- Sanson, A.V. & Burke, S. E. L. (2019). Climate change and children: An issue of intergenerational justice. In N. Balvin & D. Christie (Eds), Children and peace: From research to action. New York: Springer Peace Psychology Book Series.
These school curriculum resources, produced by the Ministry of Education, were developed to guide teaching on climate change for all 11 to 15-year-olds in New Zealand.
Albrecht, G., Sartore, G. M., Connor, L., Higginbotham, N., Freeman, S., & Kelly, B. (2007). Solastalgia: the distress caused by environmental change. Australasian Psychiatry, 15(1), 595-598. Available here.
Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience. (2020). Our world our say: National survey of children and young people on climate change and disaster risk. 2020; Foreword. Available here.
Australian Psychological Society. (2018a). A guide for parents about the climate crisis. Available here.
Australian Psychological Society. (2018b). Raising children to thrive in a climate changed world. Available here.
Burke, S. & Sanson, A. (2019). Facing the realities of climate change. In E. Johnson (Ed), Future kind: Essays on raising the generation our world needs (pp. 13-26). Melbourne: Radiate Publishing.
Burke, S., Sanson, A., & Van Hoorn, J. (2018). The psychological effects of climate change on children. Current Psychiatry Reports, 20, 35. Available here.
Chiw, A. & Ling, H. S. (2019). Young people of Australia and climate change: Perceptions and concerns. A report for Millennium Kids. Available here.
Clayton, S., Manning, C., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017). Mental health and our changing climate: Impacts, implications, and guidance. Washington: American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica. Available here.
Gifford, E., & Gifford, R. (2016). The largely unacknowledged impact of climate change on mental health. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 72, 292-7. doi:10.1080/00963402.2016.1216505.
Hart, R., Fisher, S., & Kimiagar, B. (2014). Beyond projects: Involving children in community governance as a fundamental strategy for facing climate change. In UNICEF Office of Research (Ed.), The challenges of climate change: Children on the front line (pp. 92-97). Florence: UNICEF Office of Research.
Sanson, A.V., Van Horne, J., & Burke, S. E. L. (2019). Responding to the impacts of the climate crisis on children and youth. Child Development Perspectives, 13(4), 201–207. DOI: 10.1111/cdep.12342Strife, S. J. (2012). Children’s environmental concerns: Expressing ecophobia. Journal of Environmental Education, 43, 37–54.
UN General Assembly, United Nations. (1990). Convention on the rights of the child. London: UNICEF UK. Available here.