As children learn about the impacts of climate change, many are experiencing anxiety and fear about the planet’s future. Dr. Susan Clayton, researcher and professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio, discusses strategies for supporting children to help them cope with climate anxiety.
“In a worldwide survey of 16 to 25-year-olds conducted in 2021, we found very high levels of negative emotions and pessimistic beliefs about climate change”, explains Dr. Susan Clayton. “Over 80% of the respondents reported being moderately worried, more than 50% were sad, anxious, and angry, and 75% said the future was frightening. I had not realized how widespread such negative beliefs and emotions were among youth.”
Trained as a social psychologist, Clayton is one of the leading experts in climate and conservation psychology researching the implications of climate change for psychological well-being. “The other important insight from my research is that among a small but significant proportion of those who are worried about the climate, this anxiety is threatening their mental health.”
While wildfires, droughts, floods, and hurricanes increase and the negative news cycle around climate change continues, children and youth try to make sense of their emotions linked to the issue. So how can young people thrive despite environmental fears and develop the right tools to cope? The first step, Clayton recommends, is taking the concerns of children seriously and not trying to downplay or dismiss them. Also, honesty about environmental problems is crucial while emphasizing that many dedicated people are working on solutions. Parents who carefully listen can learn about what their children already know about climate change. What are their hopes and fears? Do they have questions about a specific topic? That’s an excellent opportunity to search for answers together and look into helpful resources that explain complex environmental issues in a digestible way. Here we have assembled a range of resources that address climate change:
Climate change resources for teenagers and young adults
- WaterBear is a free streaming platform dedicated to the future of our planet. WaterBear describes its mission to “provide access to award-winning inspirational and educational documentaries, short films and series that focus on environmental issues. According to WaterBear, it empowers members to dive deeper, learn more, and take action. Over 100 global NGOs support the project, which also has an interactive element as its members can donate to charities or volunteer on campaigns.
- Founded by the two brothers Jack and Finn Harries, earthrise is a multimedia storytelling studio for the climate. Their YouTube channel and Instagram account deliver bite-sized educational content on climate solutions.
- Climate Change from A to Z by The New Yorker The stories we tell ourselves about the future.
- Marine biologist Carissa Cabrera educates her followers on TikTok about ocean conservation in colorful videos from her home Hawai. She also publishes the podcast Sustainability & The Sea discussing socially sustainable fisheries, and interviewing change makers from her local community.
Climate change resources for elementary school children:
- Little Inventors is a creative education organization that fosters the imagination and creativity of children by celebrating their ideas. The platform connects little inventors with makers worldwide who help them turn their plans into reality. The aim is to showcase children’s creativity and problem-solving skills and build their confidence, curiosity, and resilience to become caring citizens of our planet.
- Nasa Climate Kids delivers engaging content for upper-elementary-aged children applying the findings of NASA missions studying Earth. The site features games, activities, videos, and articles to explain the changing climate in an accessible way.
- The education resources by National Geographic provide learning experiences for young people and their educators through immersive experiences, interactive lesson plans, maps, and other free resources.
- Mystery Science is, first and foremost, a content resource for elementary teachers to teach children how to think critically and foster their problem-solving skills by crafting explanations around real kid questions. But all educators, including parents, also benefit from the platform. According to its homepage, “Mystery Science sees kids as active explorers who learn not by listening and consuming, but by discussing, building and observing hands-on models, and by writing about what they know.
- The book “The Parents’ Guide to Climate Revolution: 100 Ways to Build a Fossil-Free Future, Raise Empowered Kids, and Still Get a Good Night’s Sleep” by author Mary DeMocker is “not another overwhelming pile of parental ‘to dos’ designed to shrink your family’s carbon footprint through eco-superheroism.” Instead, it aims to provide a lively, empowering, and doable blueprint for engaging families in climate change.
Taking a break from negative news
To foster the mental health and resilience of children and youth, it’s also crucial to take breaks from the negative news cycle and focus on fun, stress-reducing activities, and solutions surrounding climate change recommends Susan Clayton. Especially for very young children, it’s reassuring to learn about projects and people tackling problems and care about the planet’s future. “It has also proven effective in engaging with the issue, for example, by joining groups taking action,” knows Susan Clayton. “Participation in age-appropriate, collective local action tends to increase a feeling of empowerment, but children and young adults who are overly worried may need help dealing with their emotions, which could include visiting a mental health specialist. Learning to take time off from worrying about the climate and getting outdoor exercise is important too.”
Another focus of Clayton’s work is environmental identity’s role in understanding our relationship with nature.
Environmental identity refers to the way in which we perceive and understand our relationship with the environment. It includes our beliefs, values, attitudes, and behaviors towards the natural world and our place within it. It also includes our sense of connection to specific places, such as our hometown, and to broader environmental issues, such as climate change. According to Susan Clayton, Environmental identity can even shape our actions and decisions, influencing our behavior in ways that promote or detract from environmental sustainability.
“Very simply put, the greater a sense that we are interdependent with the natural world, the more we feel personally involved in the threats that nature is facing,” explains Clayton. “We pay more attention to these threats and perceive them as greater personal harm. But we also recognize ourselves as a part of the system, which can be reassuring as people report feeling a greater sense of connection.” Fostering environmental identity in children can help lay the foundation for a lifelong commitment to protect and engage with the natural world.