Environment

Today’s children will inherit a climate-changed planet. Can they handle it?

Children are already experiencing “eco-anxiety” — and psychiatrists don’t really know how to help them cope

January 14, 2019
Two people look at a cellphone on the side of a road as a large wildfire burns in the background.
Wildfires on Highway 175 in Lake County, California. [Credit: Bob Dass on Flickr | CC2]

Ten-year-old Jonas Kaun witnessed the destructive potential of climate change when one of California’s biggest-ever wildfires reduced his Santa Rosa neighborhood to a foot of ash last October.

At 2 a.m., his mom, Megan, scooped him out of bed and, choking through the thick smoke, got him into the car. They left behind his favorite books, his inhaler and the family cat.

The physical tolls of climate change — uncontrollable wildfires, brutal storms and inexhaustible heat waves among them — are the stuff of nightmares for children like Jonas.  They’re also part of the reality he’ll face as an adult.

“They will be affected by climate change more than we will be,” says Megan Kaun, “and they can’t be as strong as they have to be to deal with it if they’re plagued by anxiety.”

We know a warming planet, left unchecked, will violently transform ecosystems and profoundly impact the physical and mental health of humans. But we know far less about how climate change will impact children’s inner landscapes or how professionals should help them cope with the altered world they will soon inherit, according to a study published last May in the journal Current Psychiatry Reports.

“It’s a dimension of global warming issues that we don’t think about,” says Daniel Schechter, who studies the effect of trauma on children and adolescents at New York University’s Langone Child Study Center and was not involved in the study. “Parents can’t protect them. The government can’t protect them. Scientists can’t protect them.”

“There needs to be more research, more clinical focus on what helps them feel empowered in a world that feels out of control,” Schechter says.

One of the things we do know is how much a child’s healthy physical and mental development hinges on stability, says Susan Burke, the paper’s lead author and a senior psychologist at the Australian Psychological Society.

Water or food scarcity, rising sea levels and extreme weather put children at higher risk of mental health consequences such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and phobias, according to Burke. In turn, “eco-anxiety” can stunt a child’s ability to control emotions, acquire language or perform in school, which can cascade into further mental health issues in adulthood.

Young people are already battling environmental dread, according to Burke’s study and others.

In one U.S. study, four out of five of the 10- to 12-year-olds surveyed expressed strong feelings of fear, sadness and anger about environmental problems. A majority of the survey’s 50 participants shared apocalyptic pessimism about the planet’s future.

Things that are out of their guardian’s control — for example, images from natural disaster movies or news footage of floods and fires — sap them of the comfort that their caregivers can protect them, Schechter says.

“They may not understand that if they’re living in New York City, the tsunami in Indonesia won’t affect them, that it’s very far away,” he says. “Their world becomes less safe. They wonder if it’s some kind of punishment.”

Psychiatrist Elizabeth Haase, who teaches at the University of Nevada, has begun to warn her patients about the impact of air pollution on the brain, the importance of nutrition for mental health and the potential effect of heatwaves on psychiatric medications.

On the whole, though, the psychiatric field is unprepared to guide a generation of young people through potentially crippling environmental despair and anxiety, Haase says.

“But what does it mean for children to live in a world where things will be changing faster than the human brain can absorb? There’s extremely little research,” says Haase, who is also a committee member for the Climate Psychiatry Alliance.

One of the few researchers who has studied how children respond to sustainability issues is Maria Ojala, an associate professor of psychology at Örebro University in Sweden. Over the past 15 years, her research has shown that young people — much like grown-ups — handle the looming threats of climate change in a variety of ways.

Some opt for denial, insisting that it’s an exaggerated problem, while others become utterly consumed by worry and fear. Still others channel their eco-anxiety by studying climate change or volunteering for environmental organizations. Those in the latter group best cope with environmental challenges, Ojala’s research demonstrates.

For a study published last year, 700 Swedish high school students completed questionnaires about their attitude toward climate change, pro-environment habits and conversations with friends and family about ecological issues.

Ojala discovered a strong relationship between environmental optimism and young people who quell their fears and anxiety by engaging with climate change: reading about it, discussing it with loved ones or reducing their environmental impact.

“What I have shown is that worry can be something very positive. It does not need to be related to low wellbeing and helplessness,” Ojala says. “It’s not worry or hope; it’s both.”

It just so happens that problem-solving is Megan Kaun’s parenting strategy.

This fall, Jonas and his six-year-old sister Wrenna made care packages for families affected by California wildfires. As a family, the Kauns chart household water use and attended town council meetings to support a local ban on the use of synthetic pesticides in public spaces.

“I’m trying to teach them there’s a lot of things that are upsetting, but there’s ways to fix them,” Kaun says. “You can’t just shield them from it. If there’s something you can do, that’s better than feeling helpless.”

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About the Author

Marion is a Brooklyn-based science writer who enjoys covering the outdoors, history of science, creepy crawly insects and trash and waste. Prior to coming to New York, she reported for newspapers across the Midwest including the Columbus Dispatch, Chicago Tribune, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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