Parents are encouraged to teach anxious children that not all thoughts are real, since the human body sometimes responds to imaginary threats. However, climate change is not imaginary, it is real — and for some children, it is terrifying.

“Mom, do you think it will all be sorted by next year?” Iman asked sleepily.

I stroked my 10-year-old daughter’s head “What will be sorted, honey?”

“Climate change.”

I sighed. “I wish I could say yes, but unfortunately I think it will take longer than that.”

“Maybe by 2025,” she mumbled, then nuzzled into me and fell fast asleep.

What is eco-anxiety?

Iman first started exhibiting anxious tendencies at the age of seven. Like many young people, she has watched nervously, as the window to fix the climate crisis has begun to close. Eco-anxiety is defined as a chronic fear or worry for what could happen if the world doesn’t avert environmental disaster in a timely manner. It can affect people of any age, but particularly those with most to lose. 

It is caused not only by stories in the news cycle and social media, but also the physical effects of climate change increasingly witnessed in many parts of the world. It's a normal and understandable response to the escalating civilizational threat we are faced with. Eco-anxiety is not a disorder — it's a sign that someone cares and is attached to what’s happening in the world. It can become a problem, however, if it affects a child’s general wellbeing.

Mental health experts have recognised that the changing climate can cause a psychological response. The-long term effects of this are unknown, but they add to the list of ways that the climate crisis impacts human health. Children and young people are particularly vulnerable to eco-anxiety, given that climate change has important implications for their future. Yet they often feel they have no ability to stop it. 

A study published two years ago in The Lancet looked at the issue of climate change and mental health based on a survey of 10,000 young people aged 16 to 25 living in 10 different countries. It found that almost 60 percent of young people felt “very” or “extremely” worried about climate change. More than 45 percent of respondents said their feelings about climate change affected their daily lives and the ability to sleep, eat, and study. Negative emotions expressed included feeling afraid, sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty.

Young people were also asked as part of the study about their beliefs of the future. Almost 56 percent of participants noted that humanity is doomed and more than 75 percent felt that the future is frightening. Meanwhile, 61 percent of participants indicated they thought their government was not doing enough to protect them, the planet, or future generations.

With so much at stake, how can you support your child to ease their eco-anxiety?

Steps to serenity

  1. Offer validation

A key way to support a young person is by validating their emotions and concerns and by helping to direct their efforts into constructive projects. To help to avoid feelings of isolation, give youngsters a safe space to express their feelings, or set up a circle of like-minded friends and family to discuss and listen to the issues.

  1. Take action together

Given that eco-anxiety is characterised by uncertainty and loss of control, taking action to mitigate climate change is one of the ways to deal with it. Joining this action helps to show allyship.

A study published by Cambridge University notes: “Engaging in action to address climate change itself is crucial…Youth are well placed to engage in advocacy on this front and have done so in many forums. However, they should not be expected to act alone or be forced to do so in ways that may be harmful for their development, because of inaction. Everyone has a role to play in building collective resilience and confronting the crisis.” 

  1. Engage in advocacy

In recent years, opportunities for youth to get involved in climate advocacy have grown. Many governments have established youth advisory committees, which are platforms for young people to influence government policy. The United Nations Climate Superheroes aims to educate children on climate change and how to care for the environment. The initiative involves a series of “missions” that include activities parents can do with their children. 

Remind those around you that the situation is serious, but it's not too late to make a positive change to protect the lives and livelihoods of future generations.

Thankfully, Iman has benefited after enrolling on a programme called My Anxiety Plan for Children and Teens (MAP) from Anxiety Canada. The programme is rooted in cognitive behavioural therapy and helps parents to coach their children using practical tools and strategies to manage mild or moderate anxiety. The MAP discusses “thinking traps” that anxious children fall into, such as overestimating the likelihood of bad things or catastrophes happening. 

Because Iman is exposed to the conversations I take part in as an environmental professional, her understanding of climate change is more advanced than most children’s. She has become engaged in sharing her knowledge of climate change in school. She also helps me with PowerPoint presentations and articles (including this one), and together we are doing what we can to advocate for change in our community. 

Zakiah Kassam is President of AirVironment Canada, and a Senior Associate of the Boxfish Infrastructure Group. She is also the Chair of the ISO technical committee on Environmental management. Zakiah holds degrees in Chemical Engineering and Environmental Engineering, as well as an MBA and LLM.