Thunberg was clearly in distress, using powerful phrases such as “mass extinction” and “people dying.” It was incredibly moving, but if adults were affected by the teen’s words, then how must children her age or younger feel?
This is just one of a few recent, dramatic examples of what our children are being exposed to. More and more, our provocative efforts to arouse care and concern on environmental issues are creating a growing amount of fear and anxiety in our children and youth.
Some have called this “eco-anxiety” and it challenges parents to find that elusive line between sharing enough information with our children so they can learn the facts about climate change and hopefully develop a sense of caring for the environment, while not stirring up doomsday fears that leave them emotionally overwrought with worry about their future.
Part of why that line is hard to find for parents is because every child is unique. Some children are naturally more anxious in their disposition, and it takes very little to set their imaginations off about all the “what ifs” and thoughts of world collapse.
Children also develop their cognitive capacities at different rates, so their ability to make sense of what they are learning has a high amount of variability, too. While we do have much to be concerned about, children can misunderstand and then catastrophize the situation more than what is appropriate. Some children are also very empathetic, and simply watching the video of Thunberg’s palpable distress and anger will create concerning distress, as they feel another’s suffering acutely.
How do we help address the anxiety being raised in our children as they learn about the impact climate change is having? Here are a few tips to consider as you navigate this.
1. Limit time spent on the subject matter
Long gone are the days of getting world information on the six o’clock news, or through a headline in the daily paper that your kid may or may not notice as they step over it on their way to school.
Our news is delivered digitally as headlines which pop up in social media streams 24/7, pulling our eyeballs to enticing images and subject lines. Discuss the amount of time your kids are consuming information on this topic and suggest appropriate limits as a way of preserving one’s perspective.
2. Focus on positive efforts
To keep a more positive attitude, it’s important that our children don’t only hear stories of doom and gloom, but instead shift the focus to the efforts that are underway and making a positive impact on the environment. Those can be feel-good stories that show humans care.
WATCH: Thunberg calls out world leaders in Montreal. Story continues below.
3. Take action
Anxiety can be reduced when we put our energies into positive action, rather than passive ruminations. Discuss what you and your family could be doing in your own efforts to address climate change and listen to what your children have to say on the matter.
They may be budding social activists who want to join marches and get people to sign petitions, or speak up for changes in their school’s cafeteria recycling program. Or, they may discuss how the family can use less electricity or reduce excessive packaging.
4. Teach coping strategies
Regardless of the type of anxiety, all children can benefit from learning how to cope more effectively with anxious thoughts and feelings. Some basics include a good night sleep, healthy food and exercise. And digital detoxing and solid family time helps children (and everyone) feel more rooted.
You can also see if they would be interested in learning some meditation techniques that have proven very effective in reducing anxiety. There are lots of child-friendly apps they can explore. And lots of websites, like AnxietyBC.org, have online anxiety exercises for children.
5. Validate but don’t indulge
Anxiety feelings can be crippling. By definition, they are slightly irrational, so it can sometimes be difficult for parents to remain empathetic. Remember, for your child, these feelings are real and scary, so let them know you have their back and will help them with their anxiety.
WATCH: How to spot anxiety in kids. Story continues below.
However, we also have to let our children know that they can face their anxiety, and we can’t allow too much special dispensation. Children can unintentionally discover that being anxious can also provide a secondary benefit, like extra time with parents, skipping school, or having a parent lie down with them until they fall asleep. They’ll be less interested in treating their anxiety if they find it can lead to some perks and indulgences.
6. Seek help
There are lots of professionals trained in helping children and youth manage an anxiety disorder. It’s better to seek treatment than suffer. Ask your pediatrician for a referral to a counsellor or psychotherapist who specializes in this area.