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New Study: Climate Concerns Affect Kids' Mental, Physical Health

Parents may think their kids are too involved with school, friends and activities to pay much attention to climate change. But many kids actually are worried about climate change, according to an article on the Green Living website. The article cited reports of children as young as 7 years old losing sleep over climate concerns.

Now, a new study published in Current Psychiatry Reports says concerns about global warming are putting children “at risk of mental health consequences including PTSD, depression, anxiety, phobias, sleep disorders, attachment disorders and substance abuse.”

Dr. Susie Burke, co-author of “The Psychological Effects of Climate Change on Children,” told us in a recent interview:

“Children feel fear, anxiety, stress, and grief, as do many adults. Some believe that the world may end in their lifetimes. They will be living in a climate-altered world for longer than most adults. They are more dependent and vulnerable, and their views can be dismissed. They are not yet able to make laws that impact their future. That is why we see them stepping up and talking in front of the nation.”

Burke, along with colleagues, Ann V. Sanson and Judith Van Hoorn, reviewed the scientific literature in the U.S., U.K. and Australia. Their research revealed that the most immediate symptoms associated with climate anxiety sometimes produce longer-term effects, such as “problems with emotion regulation, cognition, learning, behavior, language development, and academic performance. Together, these create predispositions to adverse adult mental health outcomes,” the researchers said.

Burke said that her research shows that adults are not very good at protecting children:

“And as they see the ongoing adult failure to address climate change, children have begun to realize that we are not protecting them as what were once defined as future threats come closer and closer.”

Youth activists on the move

In September 2018, teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg traveled to the Davos World Economic Forum to confront the power elite gathered at an annual meeting. Thunberg told the world leaders:

"Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to make unimaginable amounts of money, and I think many of you here today belong to that group of people.”

In the U.S., the Sunrise Movement has taken the lead in expressing the concerns that many young people feel. Young adults, teenagers and even children are demanding climate action and calling for the Green New Deal. Youth are carrying the climate message right into the offices of national leaders, like Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

How kids and parents cope

Many adults are just as concerned about climate change as their kids, though they may bring a different perspective. In the U.S., U.K. and Australia, research has found that only 5 to 7 percent of adults actually deny climate change. But “many more don’t have it in the front of their minds as an urgent issue,” Burke said.

“We do know adults have high levels of stress and awareness of climate change—but there are mechanisms that cause us to turn away. Because adults have enjoyed the lovely world that fossil fuels have created around us, food from anywhere in the world, whenever we should so desire it, adults put up a lot of resistance to change. Resistance to give up luxuries. From a child’s perspective, when they become aware of that, it is completely unacceptable to them.”

Getting to know the more—or less—effective coping strategies can help people respond. Swedish researcher Maria Ojala has identified three basic coping styles that people adopt to manage their own stress and to act as decision-makers and consumers.

• Problem-focused coping:  In this approach, both kids and adults find concrete things to do to try to address the cause of the problem, for example, taking public transport or riding bikes to school.

According to Burke, research shows that problem-focused coping, such as trying to reduce one’s own carbon footprint (or the carbon footprint of their own community) is associated with high environmental engagement but also linked to high levels of anxious and depressive feelings.

That may be because “the scale of the problem is large, and individual actions can’t ever address it at scale. And this can lead to overwhelm and despair,” Burke said. “Some can become fixated on incremental solutions—that are tokenistic— to make themselves feel better that they are doing something.”

• Emotion-focused coping:  People use this strategy, not to solve the problem, but to manage their own distress. Both adults and children might distract themselves, minimize the problem, tell themselves it’s not such a big problem, deny it or not think about it. “People withdraw and believe that they are maintaining their own energy, through not participating,” Burke said. “They do this to manage their emotions.” Some people respond by becoming hedonistic, Burke said, while others become resigned, hopeless and helpless, passive.

• Meaning-focused coping: In this strategy, both children and adults face up to the problem while finding a perspective that can both reassure themselves and galvanize them into action.

Burke offers the examples of taking comfort in the fact that millions around the world are paying attention, and hoping that will prompt the needed change. Or trusting in other agents, organizations and individuals to take action on climate: She told us:

“That’s where having climate heroes is a source of solace and inspiration. So is an outpouring of hundreds of thousands of adults saying ‘We support and believe you and are trying to make these changes as well.’” 

All of this supports meaning-focused coping and help young people generate optimism, even in the face of inaction on the part of leaders. For example, the Green New Deal activates meaning-focused coping because the resolution looks comprehensively at the full scale of the problem. In contrast to problem-focused coping, which can lead to disillusion and overwhelm because individual efforts don’t match the scale of the problem, people stay committed because “they know it’s the right thing to do and nothing else makes as much sense,” Burke said. “They continue to fight whether or not success is guaranteed.” That behavior is anchored by what psychologists call “grounded or authentic hope.” Not surprisingly, Ojala's research found that meaning-focused coping is related to high levels of environmental engagement and efficacy.

Whatever strategy adults or children choose, Burke warns that we have no choice but to persist on efforts to address climate change:

“We are all connected with children and the young whether we have our own children or not. Humans have always been able to face dreadful threats and get to the other side. There’s nothing that makes as much sense as continuing to engage and try to change the course of history.”

Alison Rose Levy writes for the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). To keep up with OCA news and alerts, sign up for our newsletter.