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Climate Anxiety - a daily concern amongst children and teens

Updated: Jan 17

a teenage boy with a model of the earth on his shoulders, weighing him down

It’s frightening how frightening the findings are - about children and teens facing climate anxiety. Sadly, it seems well warranted. 

“Children worldwide worry about the future and feel let down by governments …Climate Change is causing distress, anger and other negative emotions in children and young people worldwide…” 

Young people’s climate anxiety revealed in landmark survey. by Tosin Thompson. Nature. Vol 597. 30 Sept 2021.

Climate anxiety isn’t a clinical mental disorder but a collection of feelings (anxiety, fear, sadness, grief, anger, helplessness, powerlessness, and guilt) that are a natural, rational response to a real and existential threat says Dr. Britt Wray, 2023 Canadian Eco-Hero Award winner*.

Although we are all facing climate change, young people today sense an added degree of disempowerment as they very often (81% of the time) feel ignored or dismissed when they talk with others about climate change (Thompson). Beyond current feelings, 39% of respondents aged 16-25 in a 2021 study** reported being hesitant to have children of their own because of the climate crisis.

However by asking children and teenagers direct questions about Climate Anxiety we demonstrate that we (adults) acknowledge that their feelings and concerns exist - as recommended by the Australian Psychological Society in ReachOut’s resource for parents “How to support a teenager who experiences climate anxiety”.

By extension, teachers and youth engagement facilitators have an added opportunity to support young people in supporting direct action. Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams, a clinical psychologist from Oxford University and co-author of Turn the Tide on Climate Anxiety: Sustainable Action for Your Mental Health and the Planet claims; “the best way to help with climate anxiety is to regain a sense of control by taking action”.

And actions have an added value when done collectively. Not only does working together with other young people bring them together, face-to-face, IRL (in real life) it also offers a break from an ongoing stream of social media while embracing a reality that “solutions for this crisis aren’t reconcilable by any individual” (Wray in Education Weekly***). And this camaraderie is how direct action can lead to a feeling of positivity according to Finnish professor Panu Pihkala in an interview with the Climate Mental Health Network.

“Positivity is the very attribute that can result from the spirit of engagement and camaraderie.” Panu Pihkala

Happily, strategies to link climate action with managing climate anxiety already exist. One tool that can be used is the SEL model from CASEL. Social & Emotional Learning

SEL framework of Social & Emotional Learning

outlines the process through which we acquire and apply knowledge, skills, and attitudes across five broad skills; self-empowerment, managing emotions, developing, setting, and achieving goals.

These skills “can easily be applied to the conversations that (adults) are having with (children and teens) around climate change” says Shai Fuxman****, a senior research scientist at the Education Development Center. Achieving goals of direct action to lessen the greenhouse gas emissions are within the scope of what children and teenagers can do - especially within the realm of student leadership to reduce car-trips to school. Here is a strong opportunity for agency, collective efficacy and achieving goals!

Not only does successful student leadership inspire others into action, it allows youth participants to “to feel a part of something bigger can actually help build self-esteem. Like, ‘I’m part of the movement and part of something that is happening to save our planet.’ I think it can be restoring, too, from a mental health perspective.” says Fuxman.

And being a part of a successful movement can contribute to managing feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, and guilt. …which might help today, and the future feel a bit less frightening.

* Dr. Britt Wray is an author and researcher working at the forefront of climate change and mental health. Britt is the Director of CIRCLE - a research and action initiative focused on Community-minded Interventions for Resilience, Climate Leadership and Emotional wellbeing at the Stanford School of Medicine.

*** Britt Wray: “[The anxiety] can be really hard to deal with because of the intensity of the climate crisis, and the fact that solutions for this crisis aren’t reconcilable by any individual,” Wray said. “There can be a bit of a trapping in the anxiety that occurs when a person feels like they aren’t in control and aren’t able to address the threat by finding the right solution for it.” in Education Weekly

**** Shai Fuxman, MEd and EdD, is a behavioural health expert and senior research scientist, who leads initiatives promoting the positive development of youth. Shai has extensive experience in social and emotional learning (SEL), school-based trauma-informed care, and substance misuse prevention as senior research scientist at the Education Development Center.

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