A new guide for parents: managing eco-anxiety in your children

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It’s hard to be a parent. Not only is the daily routine relentless with school lunches, balancing screen time and homework, but in 2022 it’s all compounded by worries about social media and raising a family in a global pandemic.

My eldest is now 11 years old. So I’m adding one more issue to my list of parenting challenges: dealing with eco-anxiety.

All of these concerns – while valid and important – are overshadowed by the risk that our children will not live in a safe climate. The adverse effects of climate change threaten our children’s right to a healthy existence in a safe and stable environment.

In reality, today’s children are expected to be less healthy as they age than today’s adults, due to the worsening and intensifying effects of climate change.

My fellow psychologists and pediatricians report that once children reach preteen age, they begin to understand the urgency and enormity of the climate challenge, and this can lead to anxiety and depression.

A recent survey out of 10,000 children and young people (aged 16-25) in 10 countries (including Australia) found that 59% were very or extremely concerned about climate changewith 84% at least moderately worried. Of note, climate-related anxiety and distress were correlated with “perceived inadequate government response and associated feelings of betrayal.”

It is also important to note, as mental health professionals are quick to point out, that “Eco-anxiety” isn’t actually anxiety – it’s an appropriate and rational response to the solid scientific evidence and the climate breakdown we are beginning to witness.

Given Australia’s unfortunate international reputation as a climate laggard, today’s Australian children and young people are likely to be particularly affected in their lifetimes.

As parents, our primary responsibility is to keep our children safe and prepare them for the future. The climate crisis will affect their lives more than anything else, so what can parents do?

Jhe advice of psychologists

  • Listen to your children, be honest in acknowledging the challenge, and validate their feelings.
  • Attempts to discredit science, diminish their reaction, or shield them from the truth will only make the situation worse.
  • Provide examples of the great climate actions underway by so many people around the world – and focus particularly on the ones that inspire youtoo.

As a healthcare professional, I tend to talk to my kids about what I know: climate solutions in healthcare. So many climate actions have public health benefits: cleaner air, healthier diets, greener and cooler cities. Parents working in other sectors – particularly in energy, business, agriculture and transport – could talk about Australia’s many opportunities to become a renewable energy superpower and the exciting transformations taking place in their areas.

But these conversations don’t have to be limited to your field of work. Discover the Climate Council instagram and Facebook pages where every Friday they share some of the best climate solutions and good news of the week – you’re sure to find something worth getting excited about with your kids!

Changel can start in your own home

Another advice from psychologists is to think local. Work with your children to bring about change in your home or in your community. You can also suggest that they join a local youth climate action group. This reinforces your child’s ‘self-efficacy’: their belief that they can make a difference. This step has very important benefits for mental health, because action is one of the best antidotes to anxiety. The Australian Psychological Society has a great guide for parents to the climate crisis.

Of course, if you have a budding lawyer, you can always follow important legal precedents of children suing the government in court for their failure to protect children’s rights – as in the Sharma case – and now countless others around the world. They are fantastic examples of children taking charge of their situation.

Finally, give yourself some time and focus on the important things: don’t sweat the small stuff. A few canteen lunches here and some screen time there won’t do your kids’ future too much harm. But continued inaction on the climate crisis will. So in the next election, vote like your kids would if they had the chance: vote for climate action.

An image of climate adviser Dr Kate Charlesworth

Dr Kate Charlesworth is a mother, public health physician and advisor to the Climate Council.

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