Meet generation panic. Their social media feeds are filled with images of plastic-polluted oceans and the Amazon on fire. No wonder that environmental worries are impinging on their wellbeing. Although not yet a recognised mental health condition, eco-anxiety – which some practitioners say has symptoms including low mood, insomnia and headaches – is a topic the UK Council for Psychotherapy has begun to discuss.
And though it’s often unclear where reasonable concern for the environment ends and full-blown anxiety begins, it’s indisputable that raising an eco-worrier has never been more of a minefield. One thing experts agree on is that frank conversation is key. Here’s how they suggest you handle it:
Help them gain perspective
Children need to recognise there are limits to what they can do, and that they shouldn’t feel guilty about it. ‘Everyone’s going to use single-use plastic sometimes, but to then feel guilty or anxious about that is like a double wounding,’ says Dr India Whitehouse, a child clinical psychologist. She advises parents teach kids it’s not possible to be perfect at limiting environmental impact. ‘The main thing is trying to help them deal with the guilt and anxiety.’
Encourage a questioning approach
Much of what our children absorb about climate change comes from their peers and social media. Our responsibility as parents is to help them differentiate what’s accurate from what is not. Dr Whitehouse recommends creating a home environment where your children can come and talk to you about things they’re worried about, as ‘they’re more likely to come to you and say "what do you think about this?"’
Accept their feelings
‘Make sure they know it is a concern,’ says Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist at the University of Bath and the Climate Psychology Alliance who co-hosts a podcast on the subject called Catastrophe. ‘The first thing I would always say to a child is ‘your feelings make perfect sense’. Always say ‘what you’re feeling is OK, it’s a healthy response’.’ But the fear can be mitigated by discussing what positive steps are being taken, and what progress has been made.
Consider where their anxiety stems from
Is climate change the actual cause of your child’s anxiety, or have they latched on to it to explain underlying feelings? ‘There’s something called projection and displacement,’ says Dr Whitehouse. ‘Our minds want to attach to an understanding of why we feel anxious, and because in the media there’s all this stuff about climate change, young people [might] displace their anxiety on to that.’ It could be coming, in part, from other, unrelated pressures from school, social media and society.
The more you understand, the more you can help your children understand. But parents should not give themselves a hard time for feeling overwhelmed and confused, as well.
Tailor your approach
How you deal with your eco-anxious child depends in part on how old they are, and how emotionally resilient they are. For children under 10, create a safe space for them to be able to discuss what’s on their mind, advises Dr Whitehouse. ‘Children, particularly between five and 10, haven’t got a frontal lobe that’s fully developed. That’s to do with executive functioning, planning, seeing into the future and problem solving. So they need help from parents to sort through their thoughts and think about the pros and cons of thinking in this way, whether their thinking is realistic and how it’s making them feel.’ When it comes to 10- to 14-year-olds, there are other factors to consider. ‘This group is hitting adolescence so hormones are coursing through,’ says Dr Whitehouse. For this age group, writing about their worries could be helpful.
Make it relevant
When your children ask you to explain the climate crisis, ‘talk about the impact on the local environment that your child might be familiar with,’ says Hickman. ‘Talk about bees, trees, nature, what’s happened over the hot summer – stuff that children can relate to.’ By bringing the conversation closer to home, children may feel more empowered to help effect change.
Help them take action
A sense of helplessness is natural, but your child will feel better if they’re able to do something, however small, to make a difference. ‘You can help them come up with practical solutions,’ says Dr Whitehouse. Tell them that together you will cut out single-use plastic, for instance.
Tell them you’ll be there
Young children, especially, need to know that although you can’t promise them it will all be OK for everybody, you can promise you’ll be there with them. And you can promise to tell them the truth, says Hickman. ‘You can say, "I won’t abandon you." That makes them feel secure.’
The Daily Telegraph