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Kids and Climate Anxiety

Helping them handle big worries in healthy ways

Hannah Sheldon-Dean

If you’re worried about climate change, you’re not alone. The dire headlines and frightening predictions have lots of people on edge, and kids are no exception. In a recent survey  of young adults ages 16–25, almost 60 percent said that they felt “very worried” or “extremely worried” about climate change.

Often, the things that kids get anxious about aren’t realistic threats. Parents can validate how scary the situation feels for the child while still helping them understand that their fears are exaggerated.

With climate change, the story is different. In a situation where the threat is so clear and lots of powerful people don’t seem to be worrying enough, it’s especially hard to tell whether your child is worrying too much. And with kids often taking the lead in climate action, the boundary between activism and anxiety can get blurry.

Here are some strategies for helping your child keep their climate worries, however legitimate, from becoming unhealthy — while also navigating your own fears.

Validating fears, encouraging bravery

If your child comes to you with worries about the climate, the first step is just to hear them out and acknowledge how they’re feeling.

Because climate change is such a rational thing to be afraid of, “there has to be a little bit more validation of their feelings, and clear acknowledgement that they’re not making it up,” says Jennifer Louie, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. For instance, if a child hears frightening climate news on TV, you might say: “That report on the news was upsetting. I understand why you’re scared. Tell me more about what’s going through your mind.”

At the same time, “you want to balance validating the fear with belief in the child’s bravery,” says Grace Berman, LCSW, a clinical social worker at the Child Mind Institute. “So much of anxiety stems from this inherent fear kids have that they won’t be able to deal with those anxious feelings.” You can say: “I know this is making you feel really anxious. I also know you can handle this, and we can work together to find ways to make that easier.”

Planning ahead

Next, help your child find practical ways to manage their anxiety in daily life. Even young children can learn to identify their feelings and then use simple mindfulness and relaxation techniques when they’re experiencing intense emotions.

If your child has direct experience of the impacts of climate change, for example, if your family lives in an area that’s prone to flooding or wildfires, making a clear emergency plan can also help. “You don’t want to tell kids that it’s not going to happen, because they know that it might,” says Dr. Louie. “But you can help them focus on the parts that they can control and what the plan is if something does happen.” At the same time, be sure your child knows that you’re in charge. “It’s helpful for parents to emphasize that keeping the family safe is a parent job, and that you’ll let kids know if there’s anything they need to do,” Berman notes.

And, regardless of where you live, it can help to limit anxious kids’ exposure to news coverage, especially for younger kids who don’t yet know how to put scary information into perspective.

Taking action                       

A somewhat unique aspect of climate anxiety is that, unlike many kinds of anxiety, there are real steps that kids can take to address the problem. And all around the world, they’re doing exactly that through actions like school climate strikes. Helping kids turn their anxiety into activism is a great way to validate their worries while building up their confidence.

For kids (and adults!) of all ages, taking action to contribute to solving a problem is empowering. Young children might get excited about recycling, composting, trying to use less plastic, planting pollinator gardens, or walking or biking instead of driving. Older kids can organize awareness campaigns, raise money for environmental organizations, or contact their representatives about policy change. Organizations like Climate Action Families, Science Moms and Parents for Future can help you find more ways to get involved as a family.

Avoiding accommodation

Kids with more intense climate anxiety might get obsessive when it comes to taking action. They might try to rigidly control themselves — or the whole family — in an attempt to do everything perfectly. Dr. Louie gives the example of a girl who was so worried about climate change that she insisted that her family completely avoid taking long car trips or buying food packaged in plastic.

The trick is taking action without letting anxiety call the shots. When parents give in to kids’ anxious attempts at controlling an upsetting situation, kids don’t have a chance to build tolerance for being uncomfortable, and their anxiety gets stronger over time. “It makes sense that parents want to try to stop their kid from being upset, but it doesn’t help the child to accommodate everything. It can actually make anxiety worse,” says Dr. Louie.

Practically, avoiding accommodation often means finding compromises and steering clear of absolute rules. Cutting down on takeout containers? Yes. Refusing to eat dinner if it comes out of one? No. If your child consistently gets very upset about any deviation from strict rules, they might benefit from professional help dealing with their anxiety (more on that below).

Modeling resilience

Helpings kids with climate anxiety can be especially tough for parents who share those same worries. And kids tend to follow their parents’ lead. “If you’re worrying a lot and letting it get in the way of living life, they’re going to feel that and worry too,” says Dr. Louie.

Showing that you care about climate change without letting worry overwhelm you helps kids learn to do the same. Be explicit with kids about your thinking and coping strategies. “For example, if you’re going to the grocery store together, you might talk about bringing reusable bags,” says Berman. “But if you forget them, you can say aloud: ‘It’s okay, I’ll remember next time.’”

Being honest with kids about your own feelings will help them learn that anxiety is both normal and manageable. You can agree with them about the seriousness of the situation while also emphasizing that feeling less anxious doesn’t mean caring less, or being less committed to action. “If your child comes to you with a concern about the climate,” says Berman, “you might say: ‘I worry a lot about that too. When I’m feeling worried, it helps me to take some deep belly breaths, or to go for a walk outside and appreciate nature, or to sign up for a volunteer event. Let’s see if we could do something like that together.” By practicing coping skills together, you and your child can both learn to tame anxiety and focus on action.

If you notice you’re getting overwhelmed during these conversations, or if you’re dealing with especially intense anxiety, it’s best to take some space for yourself and resume the conversation when you’re feeling calmer.

When to seek help

If your child is having particularly serious worries about climate change, it could be a sign of a bigger anxiety issue.

“When we think about anxiety, we think about, how much is it interfering with their daily life? How persistent and ongoing is it?” Berman says. Kids who worry a lot about climate change often have other major worries as well, and some may be dealing with undiagnosed anxiety disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Here are some key signs that your child could benefit from professional support:

  • Their anxiety is so intense that it gets in the way of school, friendships, family life, or day-to-day activities like sleeping or eating
  • This intense worry happens more days than not
  • This pattern of anxiety continues consistently for at least two weeks

Spending a lot of time talking about climate change or taking action against it is only a problem if the child is so anxious that they can’t go about their regular life. For instance, a kid who watches YouTube videos about climate action every day might be doing fine, but skipping school or staying up all night to keep watching them would be signs of trouble.

Effective treatment for kids dealing with intense climate anxiety works much the same way as treatment for other kinds of anxiety. An evidence-based treatment called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help kids learn how their thoughts and behavior influence their feelings.

For kids who have personally experienced upsetting effects of climate change — for example, if they or a loved one lost their home in an extreme weather event — it’s also important to consider whether their symptoms may be stemming from trauma rather than anxiety. Trauma is treated differently than anxiety, so getting an accurate diagnosis from a mental health professional is the first step to helping your child feel better.

Keeping the conversation open

New worries and questions will come up, and that’s okay — even when you don’t know the answers. Learning alongside your kids is empowering for them and reinforces that you’re there to help them sort through whatever frightening information might come their way. “I often remind kids that there are a lot of really smart people who are working on this,” says Dr. Louie. “It’s okay for the child to be worried, but it’s not their problem alone. You can even make a point to show your child positive news like new technologies that are being developed to fight climate change.”

Berman notes that making fighting climate change a core family value, rather than a one-off activity, can also help kids keep anxiety in check. “Having conversations about it in a really responsible, teaching way — this is why we limit our vacations, this is why we recycle, this is why we’re planning to get an electric vehicle — minimizes panic about it,” she says. By making simple actions like these a regular part of family life, “you can help your child be a responsible citizen, live in line with your values, and not get into a place of despairing about it.”