Climate Change, Climate Anxiety and Young People - Dr Averil Cook

June 24, 2022

Climate change is one of the biggest issues facing humanity. Thinking about it can be overwhelming for most adults. Tackling this discussion with our children can feel even harder.

As a Clinical Psychologist in private practice and education, and a mother of two young children, I too struggle with this conversation. I struggle with feelings of fear about the future of our planet and hope for the future, and yet I also seek to help others to make meaning of this situation; with clients, the Psychologists I teach, and my children. To a certain extent we ourselves have to come to accept the reality of several things before we can help our kids with these issues.  

1. We have to accept climate change is real and is happening.

2. We have to grapple with our own fears and natural reactions like denial or avoidance of the topic.

3. We have to find a way to synthesise these issues in real but digestible ways for our children to process.  

We as parents need to balance overwhelming our young children with despair, hopelessness or terror, with having a meaningful and real discussion about climate change. Fortunately we don't have to have it all figured out ourselves. 

How can we do this?

1. You need to think about the developmental age and stage of your child and think about the words and images they can relate to.  

For a typical 2 year old, your conversations may simply be about how we turn off lights after leaving a room, recycle or reduce single use items so that we can keep our earth healthy and strong.  

For a typical 6 year old, you may engage in conversations which explain why certain activities are harmful or helpful for the earth. For example, you may explain that you want to start walking or riding to school together to reduce your car and petrol use as the burning of fossil fuels makes the air polluted which earth and the people less healthy. You can talk about the importance of plants in cleaning air and other modes of transport which are more environmentally friendly. You can also explain to young children where our rubbish goes. Show your young person images of rubbish dumps around the world when explaining reduction of single use items like straws, excess packaging or taking care of clothing. For older kids and teenagers, you may be able to speak more explicitly about the science of climate change.

2. Think about what you can do as individuals, as a family and as a community to combat climate change. Action on climate change which involves your child makes them feel useful, gives them a sense of agency and control, and creates conversations between you and your child. Some projects or changes you can make as a family include, creating a compost and collecting food scraps. Can you join a climate change rally or a local community garden? If your child receives pocket money, teach them to put a small proportion aside each time for a charitable cause such as a climate change research group.

Explain how these actions link to helping the environment. For example, you might explain that a compost heap means that your food scraps go into making rich soil to help plants grow, that it also diverts food scraps from toxic rubbish dumps and reduces the amount of rubbish each week in your bin. If your child comes up with their own ideas to help the environment, encourage them through discussion, help with research, and your own excitement and interest in their project. 

3. Be honest about your own feelings about climate change, but tailor this message depending on the age and developmental stage of your child. For instance, you may be able to say to a teen, "I also have fears for our planet and sometimes I don't know what to do with that. I deal with this feeling by talking about it, being involved with things important to me and also by contributing to improving climate change by doing ...." For a younger child you might instead need to say "I am sometimes worried about the planet, and this is why I do (recycle, ride to work etc)" What can we figure out that you can do so you are doing something also. Would that help you with that feeling?

4. Balance your conversation about the environment and the future of the planet with less heavy topics. Allow kids to play, have down time, think and talk about fairies, music, arts, sports or their favourite tv show. You'll need to do the same for yourself.

5. Teach through your actions and explanations of your actions. Explain to your kids the changes you’re making in the household or your personal practices and why this is important. This can occur across children's ages. For example, you can say we're going to reduce buying unnecessary things like toys we play with once or clothes we only wear once. Instead, we'll focus on just buying quality things or second-hand things we really love less often. Another example is, "I'm not buying shampoo in a bottle anymore because there is so much plastic packaging. I've found this shampoo bar which is only wrapped in cardboard. How cool is that?"

6. Access resources which help you have conversations such as YouTube videos for kids, this organisation (Genus), story books or literature on the topic.

7. Seek support. If you are finding your anxiety is consistently heightened or you are feeling hopeless, seek support by speaking to your local GP for a mental health care plan or by making an appointment with a psychologist or qualified mental health practitioner. 

For your first conversation with a younger child, you can try the following script:

"The earth is a living thing just like us and just like pets and plants. For the earth to be happy it needs us to treat it with respect and kindness. There are some things that we all do which is not good for the earth and can hurt the earth and make it sicker. I want our family to do things to help the earth. What do you think? Do you think we can work together to figure out some ways we can make sure we're helping the earth? Some of these things we're only just realising are not good for the earth and we all have to learn how to do things differently. Let’s think about some things we can start doing together. "

For an older child or teenager, you might try the following script:

"I've been thinking about climate change and what we can do as a family to slow it down. Have you got any ideas of what we can do from what you talk about at school, or on social media? These are some of my ideas. "


About the Author of this article

Dr Averil Cook is a Clinical Psychologist and Director of Bodhi & Psychology, an organisation that brings together clinical treatment of young people, families and adults; training and development of Psychologists; research in mental health, and corporate consultation in Diversity and Inclusion.  

Averil is an associate lecturer at UNSW and an advisor for Professional Psychology Programs at the University of Notre Dame. Averil has previously run Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services in NSW and was the Program Lead for the Professional Psychology Masters training programs at ACAP.  She is an invited speaker and well-regarded writer on mental health issues.  

Averil is also a Mum to two kids aged 7 and 9 and spends a lot of time trying to figure out how to explain big ideas to little people.

Dr Averil Cook
© 2022 Genus Earth PTY Ltd | ABN 81 652 050 998