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Navigating Eco-Anxiety in Children

Newspaper clipping style images of a young boy and girl with the Earth
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Read time: 9 minutes

It's late and I’m trying to get my boy to sleep. That’s when the deepest meaningful questions arise.

“Does pollution harm the planet?” he asks. “Yes, it does,” I reply.

“Can the planet defend itself?” he continues. “No, it can’t,” I say.

“But then, people are harming themselves; why do they do that?” and without waiting for an answer, he irately says, “I’m starting to hate people because they throw garbage, and the animals eat it and they die. That’s so stupid!”

He just turned six, and it’s not the first time he has made questions and statements revealing his concern about environmental issues. He cares about it, and failing to understand why all this happens makes him truly upset. I wonder if this is part of the so-called “eco-anxiety” phenomenon.

This new and complex concept has diverse definitions across the literature. Dr. Susan Clayton, professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster in the USA, defines eco-anxiety as “a pattern of negative emotional responses, especially anxiety but also possibly mixed with grief or guilt, associated with a perception of environmental degradation.”

We all are susceptible to suffering eco-anxiety to some degree. “A common predictor of negative emotions triggered by climate change is to embrace universal and biospheric values – such as animals’ right to exist, global justice and peace. Since climate change threatens these values, a very rational and normal reaction is to worry,” explains Dr. Maria Ojala, associate professor in psychology at Örebro University in Sweden.

Everybody on the planet, as far as I'm concerned, has mild climate anxiety; how could you not? It’s a healthy response. But it affects children differently as they have an empathic connection with nature and are completely tuned into things being fair or unfair. As adults, we're able to rationalize the problem and accommodate it by our recognition that life is not always fair. But children have not learned about injustice yet,” adds Caroline Hickman, psychotherapist and lecturer at the University of Bath in the UK.

Learning about environmental degradation can trigger a plethora of emotions – such as worry, stress, hopelessness, irritability, despair, anger, frustration, confusion, grief and guilt – that children (and adults) need to learn to navigate.

Measuring the problem

The largest global survey on eco-anxiety in children and young people was conducted in 2021. It collected data from 10,000 young people aged 16–25 years old living in 10 countries across the world. The results showed that nearly 60% of young people are very or extremely worried about environmental problems.

Between 50% and 67% said climate change makes them feel sad, scared, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless and guilty. Remarkably, 45% reported a negative impact of these emotions on daily functioning such as eating, concentrating, sleeping and playing. An overwhelming 83% of the young people surveyed think adults have failed to take care of the planet, and 75% believe that the future is frightening. Moreover, 48% reported they have been dismissed or ignored when trying to talk about the environmental crisis.

The survey also offers insight into young people's perceptions of governmental responses to climate change. Participants tended to rate government responses negatively; around 64% think governments are not taking their concerns seriously, are not doing enough to avoid a climate catastrophe and are failing young people around the world. Thus, the source of eco-anxiety seems to be twofold; one part is the actual ecological problem, and the other is the realization that our leaders are not doing enough to change it.

“Climate anxiety, particularly in children, is a moral injury caused by the people who are supposed to be looking after us but are failing us. A big portion of the children’s distress comes from realizing that we live in a world that doesn't care about their future," highlights Hickman.

Although responses varied across countries, strong negative feelings were present in all populations, despite differential access to resources and exposure to the physical effects of climate change. “The overall responses are the same among young people from different cultures that have different experiences in terms of poverty and climate impact; this is a shared generational phenomenon,” explains Hickman.

Several scales have been developed and validated to measure eco-anxiety in adults over recent years, such as the Clayton & Karazsia’s Climate Change Anxiety Scale (CCAS) and the Hogg Eco-Anxiety Scale (HEAS). But, unfortunately, measuring eco-anxiety in young children is quite complex. “The CCAS has been used with children as young as 11–14 years old but would probably not be appropriate for younger children. I don’t know of [any] attempts to assess eco-anxiety in younger children,” explains Clayton.

That is because studies on younger children are very difficult to perform, explains Ojala: “I have worked with 11–12 years old; it is possible to do interviews as well as let them write and paint pictures about their worries and anxieties, but you need a lot of assistants present in the classroom.” Interestingly, her data showed that 11–12 years old are more hopeful than older children. “Hope can reside side by side with worry and can help people feel well, confront their worry and do something constructive with it,” she concludes.

More work needs to be done to overcome the challenges of measuring eco-anxiety in younger children. Until then, our understanding of their emotional well-being will be limited to personal experiences and sparse qualitative data.

The mental health impact

There is overwhelming evidence that climate change is having a negative effect on the mental health and emotional wellbeing of people around the world. The experts agree that eco-anxiety is a rational, rather than a pathological response. “However, it may lead to diminished mental health, especially clinical anxiety or depression if it becomes extreme and people don’t have good coping skills,” explains Clayton.

Eco-distress constitutes a chronic and long-term stressor that can increase the risk of developing mental health problems in vulnerable individuals, and exacerbate pre-existing mental health problems in some children. Maybe the best-known example of the latter is the case of Greta Thunberg. She was eight years old when she first heard about climate change and felt extremely distressed because could not understand why so little was being done about it. The distress was followed by depression. At the age of 11, she stopped talking and eating. The same year, she was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder and selective mutism. Thunberg struggled with depression for almost four years before beginning her school strike campaign when she was 15. This is certainly an extreme case, but a very enlightening one.

“Eco-anxiety is a normal emotion to a very serious and difficult problem. The question is not to get rid of worry but to promote constructive ways of coping with these feelings. To transform it into active citizenship without lower mental wellbeing in general. And to prevent a feeling of hopelessness, emphasizes Ojala.

Coping strategies

Climate anxiety is a correlate of care and empathy for our planet. Nonetheless, the scale of its emotional and psychological effects on children and young people is disturbing. Exploring how to cope with these emotions seems paramount in this context.

Ojala's research focuses on how children and young people cope with global environmental problems. She identifies three main coping strategies: emotion-, problem- and meaning-focused coping. During emotion-focused coping, people usually take distance from the problem to avoid the negative emotions associated with it. “This can be done by doing something else than to worry or avoiding information about the topic, but it could also involve de-emphasizing the problem by denying it,” she explains.

Problem-focused coping, in turn, involves taking action and trying to find solutions. “Often these are small actions in everyday life, like eating less beef, asking your parents not to drive you to school but take the bicycle instead or to talk to your friends and parents about the importance of the problem,” she says. Although this strategy is associated with a feeling of empowerment, it can also have negative effects on young people. This is because there is no individual action that can solve the problem. “It is important to balance external activism with internal activism; that is, building emotional intelligence and resilience to tolerate these complex emotions. Because you're not going to save the planet by taking the streets; and chasing after something impossible to achieve, can massively damage your mental health,” stresses Hickman.

When, as in the case of climate change, the stressor cannot be removed, a meaning-focused coping strategy seems to be the best approach. “This involves promoting constructive hope by acknowledging the seriousness of the problem but also being able to switch perspectives and see positive aspects. Constructive hope can be facilitated by trusting in other more powerful actors such as the climate change movement, the young generation or technological progress. Meaning-focused coping can buffer worries and anxiety from turning into low wellbeing,” explains Ojala. This strategy is positively correlated with both active engagement and wellbeing. Thus, the more meaning-focused coping the children use, the more they experience life satisfaction, purpose and optimism. Constructing meaning requires navigating (not controlling, nor managing) all the emotions triggered by the problem. “This allows the children to reframe the problem and turn eco-anxiety into something positive such as eco-empathy, eco-compassion, eco-awareness or eco-community. It’s all about learning to be okay with not being okay,” concludes Hickman.

How can we help our children?

All adults – parents, teachers and policymakers – have the responsibility to help children and young people deal with the emotions triggered by the environmental crisis.

We might recognize that confronting the truth is the first step towards hope, yet it is not always easy knowing what to do and how. “I do think parents of young children need more support and advice with this,” explains Hickman. “Because a natural thing for a parent is to protect your child from scary things. But we're trying to turn parenting on its head today with the climate crisis. Instead of protecting your child from scary things, you now need to introduce them to scary things. Otherwise, they will find out by themselves from school, the internet or their friends, and then they will often misunderstand some of it. So, my advice to parents is to start talking to the children as soon as possible and normalize these conversations.”

“Do not be afraid of negative emotions but listen, be empathic and help children put words to their worries. This will give a sense of control and worry will not be transformed into free-floating anxiety. Also, talk about how a sustainable society could look like and how can we work together to promote it,” adds Ojala.

When talking with children around the world, Hickman asked an eight-year-old about how we should talk to kids about the climate crisis without frightening them. You have to tell us the truth because if you don't tell us the truth, you're lying to us. And if you lie to us, we can't trust you. And if we can't trust you, we can't tell you how we feel. And then we're alone,” she replied.

The role of teachers is also fundamental. But they need help. A recent survey in the UK showed that 70% of teachers feel they haven’t received adequate training to educate students about climate change, and 79% believe they are not teaching about the ecological crisis in a meaningful and relevant way. Climate change education should be an integral part of school curriculums. For this, teachers need to be trained in how to teach about the ecological crisis and also how to deal with the emotions triggered by this knowledge. “Meaning-focused coping can (and should) be promoted in school,” says Ojala.

Validation is crucial for children and young people. “Children would be less anxious if they felt confident that those in charge were paying attention. We can support our children by providing them with accurate information about the climate crisis and by listening to their concerns, not dismissing them,” says Clayton. “We can show young people that there are adults who do take climate change seriously by for example inviting climate scientists and politicians to the classrooms,” adds Ojala.

Finally, government representatives and legislators can act to reduce eco-distress by validating the emotions of young people and prioritizing their rights when making decisions. Promisingly, international legal bodies are starting to recognize the negative effects of climate crisis on physical and mental health as a human right issue. In a unique and inspiring case, 6 Portuguese children and young people (aged between 11 and 24) filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights against 33 countries in 2020. They argue that climate change impacts their physical and mental health, their right to life and their right to non-discrimination (because children disproportionately suffer these effects during their lifetime). The complaint alleges that by failing to take sufficient action on climate change, these countries have violated their human rights and seeks an order requiring them to take more ambitious action.

In an address to the British Parliament in 2019, Thunberg said: “You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to. And the saddest thing is that most children are not even aware of the fate that awaits us. We will not understand it until it’s too late. And yet we are the lucky ones. Those who will be affected the hardest are already suffering the consequences. But their voices are not heard.” She was only 16.

“I always apologize to children; I always say I'm sorry that you're having to deal with this because previous generations didn't deal with this quickly enough. And I'm sorry that this is now going to make life harder for you and your generation. We have to say sorry. Children respond brilliantly to this because they know they can then trust you,” concludes Hickman.

My boy is sleeping now. His future might be daunting, but I am committed to nurturing constructive hope and amplifying his voice. That might hopefully help.

About the interviewees:

Caroline Hickman is a practicing climate-aware psychotherapist and lecturer in social work and climate psychology at the University of Bath in the UK. Her research focuses on eco-anxiety and distress about the climate and ecological crisis in children and young people globally.

Maria Ojala, PhD, is a senior lecturer in psychology and one of the research directors of the Center for Environmental and Sustainability Social Science (CESSS) at Örebro University in Sweden. Her research focuses on how young people think, feel, act, learn and communicate about global environmental problems, with a specific focus on climate change.

Susan Clayton, PhD, is a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster in the USA. She studies the psychology of climate change and people’s social and emotional responses to changes in the natural environment.