The news has been filled with the dire reality of climate change, in no small part due to the voices of Greta Thunberg, Timoci Naulusala, Jaden Anthony, and thousands of other young people speaking out about this urgent worldwide issue.
Across social media platforms, “eco-anxiety” is surfacing as the impact of this crisis is felt around the globe. Our children, the most vulnerable ones, are suffering the most. A deepening grief is creating heightened anxiety about the future.
“You have stolen my dream and my childhood.” Greta Thunberg’s words are haunting. We as mental health professionals specializing in grief and traumatic loss have heard echoes of her words in the counseling room. They are the words of grieving children sitting with the anger, hurt and disappointment of those left behind after a death: they are natural expressions of grief, confusion and uncertainty about the future.
Young people cannot carry the worry alone when grieving, and that includes grieving the reality facing the globe. Climate change is so big that even adults struggle to hold its weight.
This worry is one that we must hold together. The best predictor of how a child will cope after a loss is how the adults around them move through their own grief. When grieving, kids seek out trusted adults to normalize their emotions. Our work is not to diminish their feelings nor overwhelm children with our own emotion. Our job is to acknowledge their concerns, let them know that we also are concerned and commit with them to take action.
Here are some ideas for parents, educators and other adults:
• Acknowledge their worry and share climate facts on a small scale, noting what is reversable. As children share their worries, test how probable each concern is with them.
• Pick up the worry and model by educating yourself about the environment: “I am going to read some articles on what steps we can take in our community to safeguard our environment.”
• Let them know that it is okay to worry, but that you will hold most of that worry and act.
• Share positive steps that are happening around the world. The Climate Optimist (climateoptimist.org) is a great resource for environmental good news.
Acknowledge their worry and share climate facts on a small scale, noting what is reversable. As children share their worries, test how probable each concern is with them. Pick up the worry and model by educating yourself about the environment: “I am going to read some articles on what steps we can take in our community to safeguard our environment.”
Let them know that it is okay to worry, but that you will hold most of that worry and act.
Share positive steps that are happening around the world. The Climate Optimist (climateoptimist.org) is a great resource for environmental good news.
When experiencing trauma and grief, the sense of having no control is overwhelming. To counteract this, focus on where children can have some agency and control. For example, you can make a chart, perhaps on the inside of a leftover pizza box, and every time a child in the family or in the classroom makes a choice for the Earth, they can add a blue dot to the chart.
Affirm when a reusable water bottle is taken to school, or when a light is turned off when leaving the house, or trash is picked up or recycled. Support them in writing letters to elected officials, joining an environmental group at school, or talking to Grandpa about why they choose to go meatless one day a week. Celebrate even small things making a difference.
These interventions give kids something to do with their worries, providing a sense of agency while making a difference. They also help children self-identify as environmentalists and foster leadership while encouraging others to join in the efforts, amplifying the impact.
We understand climate change impacts physical health. We must also acknowledge the impact on mental health. As mental health providers, we must see this as a social concern that needs advocacy. We are in a unique position to help bring an awareness of the link between mental health and climate change. If we fail to address this impact, we are ignoring possible harm to the mental health of our youth.
Do we have a lot to learn? Yes. Do we occasionally forget reusable bags, use a Styrofoam cup, or choose to drive somewhere instead of a greener alternative because it is convenient? Yes! But we can also try again, making little choices along the way and modeling for our children that each thing we do matters. If we as adults listen to youth, and pick up the worry, we will be doing our part in taking care of Earth’s children and protecting their future.
By Sarah Montgomery LCSW-C and Amy Stapleton LCPC