Helping kids cope with climate change

By Cathy Jordan
February 24, 2021

In recent years we’ve seen images of young people from around the world speaking out to increase awareness of climate change and to demand action. After all, its certain impacts—if we continue on the current trajectory—will affect them more significantly than their parents’ or grandparents’ generations.

Not all young people feel moved to act, however. Some feel paralyzed instead. “Climate anxiety,” a relatively new addition to our vocabulary, is a chronic fear of ecological doom that can feel overwhelming, sometimes debilitating.

But our climate situation, however precarious now, does not have to be a source of toxic stress for our children. Adults can do a lot to help kids understand it, cope with it and participate in addressing it.

Develop a nature connection

No one is going to care about climate change unless they feel emotionally connected to the natural world. This can happen at any age, but childhood provides a special window of opportunity.

Wilderness adventures can be awe-inspiring, but a connection can also be established through backyard gardening, building forts in the woods, sledding at College Park or having family time at the cabin. Frequent solitary free play and contemplation in nature, complemented by family time or adult-guided experiences, are ideal. In addition to sparking environmental concern, contact with nature enhances mental and physical health, which support coping with climate related stressors.

Validate emotions

Always validate feelings, no matter the emotion or child’s age and assure them they are not alone in feeling that way. The younger the child, the more you can reassure them they will be cared for by adults and that adults are working to make things better. The older they are, the less that message will resonate.

Uncover motivation

When responding to children’s questions about climate, figure out what they are really asking and why. Do they mostly want information or reassurance? One is about problem-and-solutions-focused coping; the other is emotion-focused coping. The older the child, the more you can provide information (at a developmentally appropriate level) about climate change’s causes and potential solutions. However, it is always important to be sensitive to children’s emotions, even if information is the spoken need.

Encourage “systems thinking”

One of the most important things for young people to understand about climate change is that it’s a “system.” This means that everything is connected.

When we burn fossil fuels to heat our homes or run our cars, the Earth heats up. Warmer air holds more moisture; this causes heavy rains and floods, which can be dangerous to humans, animals and our infrastructure. It’s complex, with multiple causes and effects, but fortunately, also with multiple possible leverage points to address the problem.

Promote hope, efficacy and agency

Creating angst or cynicism diminishes mental health and can immobilize youth (or anyone). This is what happens when kids only hear about or see images of devastation. Talking or reading to children about what a verdant, sustainable world could look like is critical.

But we also need more than vision. We need to see a path forward and believe we have self-efficacy, the skills and qualities to contribute to that sustainable world.

And we also need to have a sense of agency that if we act, we can have a positive impact at some level (sense of agency). Caregivers and teachers play a role by validating children’s beliefs that they can make contributions, helping them see how their capacities align with the need and offering meaningful opportunities to act.

Meanwhile, home activities such as recycling or composting can help younger children see how they can impact the system. Older children need opportunities to take action in their schools and communities, including speaking their minds to policy makers. Youth oriented organizations working locally include Climate Generation at https://www.climategen.org and the Sunrise Movement at https://www.sunrisemovement.org/hubs/

Encourage compassion and justice

Climate change affects different people differently and some of our most vulnerable citizens, due to age, disability, disadvantage—who have the fewest resources to cope—are hit hardest when climate change creates something like an extreme weather event. Globally, those most at risk for climate impacts are often those least responsible for the problem. If age appropriate, caregivers might place this fact in the context of widespread and ubiquitous inequities in our national and global society.

Though we cannot lay the responsibility for climate change action on youth, we can support them to cope in healthy ways and to take responsible action that is developmentally appropriate.

Cathy Jordan, Ph.D., is director of leadership and development at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and consulting director of research of the Children & Nature Network. Until recently, she was a longtime resident of St. Anthony Park.

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