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Eco-anxiety: Are natural disasters causing our children to worry?

Here’s how you can help reduce your children’s eco-anxiety about events like the bush fires and give them the confidence to take steps towards a brighter future. 

Natalie Parletta
January 2020

While not officially a mental health disorder, experts are noticing higher levels of distress about environmental changes in adults and children. Labelled as eco-anxiety, a 2018 study reported that almost 87% of Australian tweens said climate change was something to be worried about.

But, while we’re facing an anxiety epidemic in general, affecting about two million Australians a year, research psychologist Professor Ann Sanson, from the University of Melbourne, suspects clinicians are slow to realise that children presenting with anxiety could be responding to the reporting on recent natural events and the climate change discussion.

The good news is that parents and teachers can help.

Acknowledge your children’s concerns

Professor Sanson notes it’s important to give children with eco-anxiety the chance to share their feelings and to validate them, saying for instance, “Yes, it’s reasonable to feel worried. I feel pretty worried about it, too.” Or, “Yes, I understand why you’re angry.”

These conversations can also reveal how much children know and give you the chance to calm them about climate change.

Importantly, follow through by explaining how people have solved world problems before through people uniting and demanding action, and that you can act together to make a difference. The key is instilling realistic hope, not a simplistic “everything will be all right” approach.

What can your kids do to alleviate eco-anxiety?

Action is the best antidote to eco-anxiety, says Professor Sanson. “Taking action on this source of your anxiety is the best way of getting a sense of control over it and feeling like there’s something you can do.”

Depending on the age of your child, experts recommend several different approaches to tackling eco-anxiety:

  • For little kids it can be therapeutic to plant a tree or help revegetate the local creek. They could also plant a vegie patch or native garden at school or home.

  • For older children with more cognitive and emotional capacity to tackle the bigger issue, joining one of the many groups that work towards protecting the environment can be especially helpful if they’re feeling isolated during school holidays. The Kids Teaching Kids program, for instance, seeks to “inspire future environmental leaders”. They can also ease their eco-anxiety by joining environmental action groups or starting up their own and joining conservation groups looking for volunteers.

  • For families, the collective power of working together and brainstorming ways to make a difference can be empowering. For example, taking quicker showers, using public transport more, eating less meat, turning lights off regularly or buying less plastic-wrapped food.

Get out into nature

Spending time in natural surroundings is very important for several reasons, especially for children in urban areas, to help them feel comfortable there and recognise they’re a part of nature.

“This is a relationship that will bring both pro-nature behaviours and improved mental wellbeing,” advises the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the UK’s University of Derby.

To rejuvenate our relationship with the natural world, this group proposes we tune in to it using all our senses to enjoy its beauty, sounds and fragrances.

We can also help children notice how alive nature makes us feel, by swimming in the ocean or climbing trees, and how it instils our lives with meaning and memories. This will help develop a sense of compassion and desire to protect the fragile environment.

Look after yourself, too

Many parents are stressed about climate change and their children’s future. Helping themselves can better equip them to help and comfort their children.

Australian Parents for Climate Action organises events for parents, grandparents and other carers of children; and the Centre for Climate Safety offers inspiration and resources.

Raise future leaders

Through acting, children develop a sense of self- and collective efficacy, a belief that they can make a difference. In this sense, the planet’s big challenges have spurred them to step up and take charge.

“These kids are our future leaders,” says Professor Sanson. “They’re learning a whole swag of really useful skills.”

As well as learning to cooperate and collaborate with a diverse range of different people, children are developing a global perspective on the world and cultivating bigger-than-self values like social justice, equity and environmental protection.

In the process, they’re learning important life skills like persistence and determination in the face of setbacks, and regulating emotions, a critical aspect of healthy adjustment.

For further insights, the Australian Psychological Society has developed a guide for parents and this resource at ReachOut features more practical ideas to alleviate eco-anxiety.

If you require urgent mental health support or emotional assistance, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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