Kids anxious about climate change threat

Tracey Ferrier |

Australian children are dealing with rising anxiety about climate change but how damaging that is can depend on how adults frame the problem, new research suggests.

Psychologist Tara Crandon is completing a PhD in climate anxiety among adolescents at QIMR Berghofer’s Medical Research Institute and recently analysed international research on global warming and the mental health of young people.

She says it’s clear that Australian kids, and children the world over, are “looking pretty far into the future” and the spectre of climate change is having a very big impact on them.

“There is evidence that’s coming out about young people feeling like they are having to make future choices based on climate change,” she says.

“For example, feeling like they can’t have children because of what that would mean for the planet and for their child’s future.”

There appears to be a relationship between the way parents, teachers and even politicians talk about about climate change and whether children feel empowered to help fight the problem, or hopeless and overwhelmed by it.

“I work with a lot of children and adolescents and before I even started this research, I was recognising and noticing that a lot of young people were coming in and speaking about climate change but in different ways,” Miss Crandon says.

“Some young people feel like that anxiety can drive them, that it empowers them and they feel a sense of hope that they can do something about it. They feel motivated to do that.

“But for other young people, they are overwhelmed and that anxiety is taking over their emotions and their thoughts.”

Miss Crandon later discovered that authors of research papers from around the world have been documenting the same phenomenon.

“They were also finding that climate anxiety can be impairing and overwhelming for some, but for others can motivate some helpful responses.

“So it’s not necessarily an issue to be climate anxious. In fact it’s quite rational and expected. The problem really comes when young people don’t know how to deal with that anxiety.”

In an attempt to work out why some young people ended up feeling motivated and empowered while others felt frozen, Miss Crandon began to look at potential influences.

A few things stood out, including how parental views and educational experiences can influence children and teenagers.

“When the message is impending doom, a catastrophe, an apocalyptic event … and whether that’s from parents, on social media, or government, community or friends that will contribute to anxiety,” Miss Crandon says.

“But on the flip side, if those same messages are rooted in hope, if they are around tangible strategies young people can implement in their daily lives, if they are around climate change as a collective issue, not something we have to deal with alone, those kinds of messages might be more helpful for young people.”

Other influences at play included geography and how closely young people were tied to their homelands through culture and spirituality.

Miss Crandon says one key take home message is that how climate change is communicated to the younger generations really matters, and that adults with influence should be thinking about that.

“We don’t want to give the message that it’ll all be fine, and nothing’s going to happen,” she says.

“But they should be rooted in hope and give young people something they can take away and do.”

In December, Mission Australia released its annual youth survey, which ranks the issues and concerns that are foremost in the minds of Australians aged 15 to 19.

Of more than 20,000 respondents, one quarter said they were extremely concerned or very concerned about climate change.

The QIMR Berghofer paper has been published in the journal Nature Climate Change.