Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

How to Talk to Children and Teens About Eco-Anxiety. The words that will turn anxiety into hope, courage, and direction.

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How to Talk to Kids and Teens About Eco-Anxiety

The planet is hurting and our children are feeling it. For too many of our children and teens, the environmental crisis is feeling bigger than humanity’s capacity to turn it around. When this happens, eco-anxiety – anxiety about the environmental crisis – drives hopelessness, helplessness and despair, stealing their sense of safety and security in the world. As part of a humanity that is facing a global environmental crisis, we have some important work to do. We have to heal and protect our planet, and just as urgently, we need to give hope back to our children. We need to ease their anxiety, and help them discover their own power to make a difference. 

There are two important reasons for this. The first is because our children deserve so much more than to be growing up feeling hopeless, helpless and frightened. The second is because we can’t solve the environmental crisis without them. They are powerful and important, and everything they do matters. When anxiety gets too big though, it will steal their capacity to realise this – but as the important adults in their lives, we can change that.

We can help them realise that eco-anxiety is not a prediction of doom, but a call to action – a call to that important, powerful, brave part of them that can make a difference. We can help them realise that their anxiety does not speak of the hopelessness of it all, but of something meaningful that needs their attention. Even more importantly, it speaks to their power to respond to this meaningful, important thing in a way that can make a profound difference.

Shifting the mindset. ‘That feeling you’re feeling – it’s anxiety, and it’s there to give you what you need to do powerful, important things.’

Our children can be change-makers, and everything they do will matter in the fight to save our planet. First though, we must offer them an antidote to fear and helplessness. This comes by giving them hope and direction. Hope to build their sense of safety in the world, and direction so their anxiety can do its job and mobilise them towards meaningful action.

We need to help them see this crisis is not an ending, but an opportunity for humanity to lead a more balanced, more compassionate, more respectful way of existing. But first, let’s bring eco-anxiety back to small enough, so they can feel brave enough and powerful enough to discover the difference they can make.

Eco-anxiety fuels three options – fight, flight or freeze.

Anxiety is a call to action. It’s energy. It is the brain mobilising the body for fight or flight – either away from danger or towards something meaningful. We want to soften their feelings of being in danger, and breathe life into their power to do something meaningful.

As with any anxiety, the energy fuelled by eco-anxiety will drive three potential responses – fight, flight or freeze. The most intrusive way anxiety shows itself is through freeze. This happens when the brain considers that neither fight nor flight is possible. We don’t want this for our children. To be ‘frozen’ with fear is to feel helpless and hopeless. This is when anxiety comes with teeth. Any anxiety that drives despair is painful and crippling. ‘What’s the point of doing anything if it’s too late?’

We can steer them away from this by putting anything fearful they’ve heard into context. This might sound something like, ‘For some people, this is how they feel as though they can make a difference. It is not too late to take care of our environment. I promise.’

As much as you can, limit their exposure to any hysteria or hopeless pessimism around climate change. People are entitled to their opinion, but it is too easy for children to ingest the opinions of others whole, without chewing them up and coming to their own conclusions in a way that feels safe. As children get older they will increasingly be able to add their own wisdom, learning, and experience to the opinions of others, hopefully ending somewhere informed and balanced, but while children are young, there is absolutely no good to come from them being exposed to dire warnings or predictions about our planet. It is less likely to mobilise them to action and more likely to cripple them – freeze them – with fear. 

But flight is not an option.

Flight is also not an option. We can’t deny the problem and we can’t run away from it. We don’t want to gloss over the fact that our environment is in distress and needs our help. This will not ease eco-anxiety. Our children are aware and they and they care. They know the unsettling truth of it all is that the planet is hurting. We can’t run from that truth, and we don’t want our children to freeze in the face of it. What we can do is give our children what they need to fight for the environment, for the planet, and for the lives that can’t fight for themselves. 

So that leaves one option – fight. Let them know that their fight for the planet will make a difference.

The fight for our planet is going to be a big one. We – humanity – have what it takes to fight for the environment, and our children and teens are a vital part of this. Hope and empowerment are the greatest antidotes to helplessness and fear. When we give our children these, we shift the focus away from an overwhelming sense of danger, and towards their capacity for meaningful action. Anxiety gives them the energy, we give them the hope and direction, and they start to realise that they are an important, powerful part of the solution. 

Hope and direction turn eco-anxiety into empowerment. So let’s give them plenty of both. 

Before we do anything brave or meaningful, there will always be anxiety. It’s just how it is. Throughout history, the biggest changes our world has fought for have had anxiety as the catalyst. The fight for peace, civil rights, equal rights for women, the end of Apartheid, gun control, gay marriage – they have all started with anxiety about what might happen if things were to stay the same. The more intolerable the ‘same’ was, the bigger the anxiety, and the bigger the energy and the drive to fight for change. 

When our children speak to us about their anxiety about climate change, they are giving us something important. They are giving us their messy, confusing, overwhelming feelings so we can help them bear the load. But we can give them something even better. We can hand those feelings back to them in a way that makes sense and gives them hope and direction.

Our children are powerful and they have a huge capacity to make a difference. One of our very important roles is to help them realise this and gently guide them towards how. What they need is for us to align ourselves with that part of them that wants to make a difference and that part of them that holds hope. Those parts of them will be there. If eco-anxiety is big, they might not know how they can make a difference or whether it will be worth it. Their hope might feel a little battered and their direction might feel a little foggy, but the great potential for both will be there. 

When we give them hope and direction, we turn anxiety from something that feels overwhelming to something that has a job to do. We shift the focus from something scary (the end of the planet) to something meaningful (their power to heal the planet). Here are some words that might help.

First, acknowledge the feeling:

Validation lets their anxious amygdala (the ‘anxiety’ part of the brain) know that there is somebody who understands things as they do. For a moment, we need to feel what they feel and see what they see, and we need to do this in a way that feels real and reaches them. But this has to happen from a position of strength – ‘I see you, I feel you, and I’ve got you.’ Validation soothes the nervous system by registering in the brain that support is here.

‘I can hear how worried you are about our planet and the environment. Everything you are saying makes so much sense. That feeling you have is called anxiety. I can hear how helpless and frightened it’s making you feel, and I want you to know that we are safe. The planet needs our attention, but it is not too late. I promise you. There is so much we can do, and there are so many people working to put things right again. We’re going to be okay. There is something really amazing about that anxiety you’re feeling – it’s giving you what you need to be able to make a difference too.’

Then, let them know they aren’t alone:

‘It’s easy to think that one person won’t make a difference, but if you hear nothing else, hear this, my love, – there are so many people who feel exactly the way you do, and who are moving to heal the planet. You aren’t alone – I promise. I feel anxious about what’s happening too, and so do so many other people. This is a great thing because it means there are so many people who are doing things to put this right.

Your anxiety can make you feel scared and helpless, but it’s there to give you the energy and the passion to care enough to make a difference – and I know you can make a difference. You are important and powerful, and this anxiety you’re feeling – it’s like that planet is saying to you, ‘Hey, there’s a problem here and I really need your help. I know you can make a difference.’ You are so strong and so powerful, and we can fix this before it turns into something unfixable – I know we can do that.’

Make sense of their eco-anxiety:

When feelings make sense, they are less unpredictable, less intrusive, and less overpowering. Eco-anxiety might still be there, but in a way that is less frightening and less crippling.

‘Anxiety can make you feel helpless and scared, but it’s actually showing up to give you what you need to do something important and powerful – to help heal the planet, and to make it safer and more liveable for us and for the other lives we share it with. Anxiety is energy – it might feel like worrying thoughts or worrying feelings, but it’s energy. If you stop and notice, you’ll be able to feel this energy inside you. It might feel like a racy heart, butterflies in your tummy, wobbly arms or legs, or your mind getting busy thinking about all the bad things that could happen.

This can feel scary, but it’s actually a really amazing thing your body does when it has something important it might need to do. It’s called fight or flight, and anxiety is your brain getting your body ready to run away or fight. Sometimes running away from trouble will be exactly the right thing to do, and sometimes it will more important to fight for what you want. With climate change, we need to fight for our planet – and we can do that. The things you do will make a difference.’

Now, give them hope:

‘I know with everything in me that we can fix this. We have the solutions and we’re putting them in place – renewable energy (such as solar), reducing carbon pollution, replanting and rehabilitating forests – there is so much happening in the world to heal our planet.

Now that you’re aware of what’s happening with climate change, the next step is to decide where to put your energy. Anxiety about climate change has brought people from all over the world together. You are one of those people, and you are so incredibly powerful. It’s true, we’ve made some mistakes, but we’re learning from those mistakes and we’re putting things right. It is not too late. I promise you. The things that are happening on our planet now have made us realise that we have to be kinder to our planet and to the lives that we share it with. People from all over the world are coming together to put things right, and you are an important part of that.’

And give them direction:

Now, we help them take those feelings and that energy and direct it into something actionable. By helping them mobilise towards action, we’re helping them use their eco-anxiety as it was intended – to give our bodies the energy and means to mobilise for action and fight for what’s important.

‘Everything you do matters so much. Don’t ever think that because you’re ‘just one person’, you won’t make a difference. All big change happens with one person, then another, then another. It doesn’t happen any other way. Let’s talk about some ways that you can make a difference. Here are some ideas:

•  reducing single-use plastics (straws, cups, plastic water bottles, plastic shopping bags, cling wrap, take-away food containers);

• recycling whenever we can;

• reducing waste by using our own bags and containers;

•  reducing our carbon footprint (by turning off lights or power points you aren’t using them, unplugging devices when you’re done; hanging up your towel so you can re-use it to save water and energy, recycling and re-using bags and containers);

•  walk or ride your bike when you can instead of taking the car;

•  planting a tree;

• planting our own fruit and veges, then using scraps to make compost and a happy, healthy home for soil creatures;

•  saving water when you can;

•  be open to trying food that is locally grown and in season – it saves on storage and transport and it’s delicious.’

There are lots of ideas on the internet. Would you like me to help you come up with a plan? Our whole family can get involved. You’re a change-maker. You really are.’

And finally … 

More than ever, our children need us to lead the way with hope for our planet and for their future. It’s the only way to counter increasingly crippling levels of eco-anxiety that are undermining their will or their capacity to make a difference. By ‘hope’, I mean real hope. Hope with substance and direction and the kind that believes in itself. Not something that delivered as hope but which can feel like an overdressed dismissal – ‘Don’t worry – we’ll be fine.’ Our children won’t buy that. What they need is for us to make sense of what’s happening around them, and to steer anxiety to do its job – to help them to realise their power to do important, meaningful things that will make a difference.

Our children and teens have incredible empathy and compassion for the planet and the lives we share it with. They are starkly aware of their vulnerability in the face of our hurting planet, but they are ready for the fight. They are brave and they are powerful.

When they speak to us about their eco-anxiety, they are asking, ‘What can I do to put this right?’ As the adults in our lives, it is for us to align ourselves with their courage, and their will to fight for our planet and the lives we share it with. We can help them by nurturing the mindset that their anxiety is an ally, not something to be frightened of. It is not there to scare them about climate change, but to mobilise them to take the very meaningful, sometimes small steps towards living a more respectful, compassionate, sustainable life so that they may help our planet. This action starts by calling us – the adults in their lives – to make sense of it all and to give them hope and direction. ‘Yes, climate change is real. Yes, the planet needs our help. And yes, my love, you are powerful and you are mighty, and we are with you. We’ve got this.’

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