There’s no question that today’s youth struggles with unprecedented challenges that most people have never had to grapple with. Political instability, inflation, school shootings, and social media all contribute to our nation’s youth mental health crisis.
Bubbling underneath the surface for decades has been the pervasive worry of climate change. From a young age, we teach our children to understand the impact that they have on our planet, and how they fit into the complicated and delicate ecological system of plants, animals, and natural wonders that surround us.
Now, that our planet has begun to truly feel the effects of climate change, our youth have been forced to bare the weight of the world on their shoulders in the form of climate anxiety.
What Is Climate Anxiety?
The American Psychology Association has defined the term as “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change.”
How Extreme Weather Events Impact Teenagers
Aside from generalized anxiety about climate change, climate grief can also stem from extreme weather events like wildlife, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other climate crises. Witnessing these natural disasters, even indirectly through social media and television can cause immediate yet permanent mental health problems like PTSD and depression. 17% of Hurricane Katrina survivors considered suicide, and 49% developed mental and physical health impacts.
Natural disasters frequently displace people due to damage or threat of damage. Extreme weather events can even cause families to lose their entire homes due to weather damage.
How Climate Change Impacts Teenagers
Beyond the concerns of immediate safety and disruption of daily life due to natural disasters, the ongoing discussion of climate change and government inaction is enough to dishearten anyone.
When teenagers begin to learn about how our world leaders are often beholden to corporations that put profits before sustainability, climate anxiety is a very natural response and a very real response. In fact, 40% of children globally are hesitant to plan for future children due to climate anxiety. As many as 50% of American children feel climate catastrophe is inevitable and it is “hopeless” to try to change it.
What’s more heartbreaking is that what many teenagers are learning is that climate catastrophe is now likely inevitable.
Why the Climate Crisis Concerns Impact Young People
Climate change and global warming are impacting young people especially. Many schools have begun to incorporate climate education into the regular curriculum. When students feel the unusually warm temperatures, face the rising threat of natural disasters, and witness the lack of significant progress, their mental health is going to be negatively affected. Climate change concerns all of us, but it especially concerns young people.
Extreme Weather Events
Every teenager now lives in a place where some kind of disaster is possible or likely to happen. Take, for example, the children of Fort Myers, Florida. They grew up knowing about hurricane seasons and the risks associated with them. They also had clear safety plans. When Hurricane Ian came through in the fall of 2022, they saw yet another “historic” storm with “unprecedented” storm surges. Extreme weather events are getting progressively and systematically worse, and our children are noticing.
Impacts On Underserved Communities
A storm impacts marginalized communities more than any other group. Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the neighborhoods with lower socioeconomic status affirms in many minds that climate crises displacing people will only become more common. The truth is that not everyone can afford to evacuate from a hurricane and not all neighborhoods have the power to assert their concerns to local leaders.
Losing Trust In Adults
Whether it’s legitimate or not, there’s a sense of blame on older generations for not doing enough to prevent climate change. Many students see constant discussion of climate change but little legislation. Many government leaders say that they support climate change action, but in reality, show little climate urgency and little climate activism.
How Young People Can Handle Eco Anxiety
Climate anxiety can create a lot of nervous energy that can turn into climate anxiety for young people. Their feelings about climate change and the mental health effects of climate change are valid. The best way they can help address climate change is to speak up relentlessly, repetitively, and progressively.
Be A Leader
Young people can run for office or start local organizations. With the help of social media to help spread their message far and wide, they’ve never had a more powerful and influential voice than now.
Educate your family and the people around you. Organize protests or contact local officials. Attend a city council meeting and use the public comment section to express your concerns. Ensure significant progress in your area by taking action.
Use your voice to share information about forward momentum. Realize that large corporations win when young people give up hope.
How To Support Young People
Validate Their Feelings
Let the teenager talk about their concerns without judgment or interruption. Be proud that a young person wants to change the world for the better.
Support Their Efforts
Celebrate the young climate advocate in your family. For teenagers who can’t drive, give them rides or coordinate eco-friendly transportation to get them to and from environmental fairs or community clean-ups. Take part in as much as you can to support your child, as much as you might attend their soccer game.
Have an Emergency Plan
Anxiety is rooted in the future – in “what can happen.” You can reduce the stress of a possible disaster by having an emergency kit, practicing runs to evacuate or seek shelter, and discussing what to do if family members get separated during an emergency.
SAFETY TIP: Each city and/or county has an Emergency Operations Management department that provides planning sheets, emergency kits, and evacuation routes for all possible disasters in your region.
How to Seek Help to Deal With Negative Emotions
Parents and trusted adults need to be attuned to the struggles children deal with each day, including eco-anxiety. You can facilitate meaningful discussions with them, but there might come a point where you need professional support.
- Limit Stimuli: If your teenager gets especially anxious when seeing disaster stories or government responses that don’t support climate change, suggest that they limit their exposure to news stories.
- Find Climate Advocates In Your Community: See if your teenager can do an internship or help with special projects. This will give them a sense of being part of a solution and not a problem.
- Primary Care Doctor: Talk to your provider about other treatments, like medication, to help a young person cope with feelings of anxiety.
- Professional Help: Adults might want to consider going to therapy to talk with a mental health professional about eco-anxiety in their family. This can improve the discussions adults have with teenagers in a beneficial way.
If you believe your child’s emotions surrounding climate change are affecting their mental health and success, reach out to a mental health professional.
Climate Education Starts With You
Addressing climate change can be as easy as influencing one person to help join the cause. The more examples you see of how you can change the literal rising tide, the less climate anxiety will control your thoughts.