The current situation regarding climate issues highlighted by COP26 Insulate Britain is worrying for many people and children are especially vulnerable to the fear and anxiety experienced by the adults around them. Children are very much plugged into climate anxieties. Greta Thunberg is one example of a young person leading on these issues.
It’s perfectly predictable that now our kids are experiencing strong feelings about these issues and it’s important to acknowledge this and explore how they are feeling, but without adding to their alarm. The debate among adults on these issues is often carried out in quite angry terms. Insulate Britain’s tactics have created divisive opinions and it can be a challenge for kids to express their concerns in this emotional environment. My advice would be to ask them what they have heard and respond in a way that validates their feelings and gives them information about what is happening.
Little ones might try to protect you from their distress and say they are fine, but it will show up in other ways:
- In their play, which can become preoccupied with the worries; mummies and daddies getting sick and going to hospital, people getting hungry, people fighting and getting angry with each other.
- Kids might become avoidant when they are upset, not talking and withdrawing.
- Behaviour may deteriorate and arguments and fights start.
- Kids may ‘regress’ and start to act in a younger manner, depending on age you may see thumb sucking, incontinence, clinging behaviour.
If you see these types of things you can gently explore with your kid why they think these behaviours are happening; allowing them to communicate their feelings verbally rather than behaviourally. It’s crucial to turn off all punishment signals and that you understand they are upset not bad.
When talking to your kids it’s important to remember that you are not trying to resolve any of the debates about climate change, vaccination, mask wearing etc.;you are trying to parent them emotionally and help them process difficult feelings and find their voice. Truth is not at stake here but teaching and supporting your kids how to deal with what they perceive as frightening and challenging.
How to help your children deal with existential anxieties
There are no right or wrong ways to talk to your kids and support them but here are helpful ways to think about it:
- Create an emotionally open and supportive environment.
- Be honest and be accurate, use your government and UN sources of information.
- Validate your kid’s feeling whilst providing reassurance.
- Talk at the level your child can understand.
- Children learn from what you do not what you say, being stressed out or angry about something and simultaneously trying to reassure your child things are OK is confusing.
Depending on age, if your kids want to take social action in support of their beliefs about climate change issues, as a parent it is appropriate to support and encourage them. Whatever your own beliefs supporting your children in finding and communicating their beliefs and contributing to civil society and democratic debate is an important parenting task. In many ways it is ideal if your beliefs differ to your children that you show overt support to them in holding their own views. Teaching our kids about difference, debate and how to communicate their own views effectively is crucial in their development.
Psychologically speaking, taking action to face one’s fears is a very positive thing to do. Avoidance simply increases our anxiety as does such psychological defences as minimisation, denial, and so on. Fear is best managed by facing the thing we are afraid of and taking what action we can to care for ourselves.
Noel McDermott is a psychotherapist with over 25 years’ experience in health, social care, and education.