Hope for Children in the Face of Climate Change | C&F
Photo: School Strike 4 Climate. Creative Commons.

Help your child move from fears over climate change to constructive hope

By Louise Chawla and , | January 2022 

Children can face an uncertain environmental future with hope when they know that others share their emotions and constructive actions.

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Scientists tell us that we have entered a period of climate chaos as greenhouse gases raise global temperatures and destabilize atmospheric systems that have maintained Earth as a habitable planet. Uncertainty about the future is unsettling for adults — and difficult for children, too. As much as we may want to protect children from alarming news, stories about climate change are in the media, and more and more children experience impacts directly through more frequent and intense floods, droughts, heat waves, storms, and wildfires. A friend told me that when she was tucking her eight-year-old daughter into bed one night, her daughter looked up at her and asked, “Mommy, will the world be all burned up before I grow up?” Older children and teens who took to the streets during climate strikes have expressed anger at adults’ inaction.

It is important to help children manage their fears and worries about climate change — but also help them know they can contribute to addressing climate change challenges. Feeling agency to do something effective is an essential part of managing fear. So is the social trust that comes with knowing that you are not alone, that other people share the same concerns, and other people are also taking action.

Let your child know that fears about climate change are understandable and other people share them.

If your son or daughter has said something that suggests concern about climate change, create a quiet time to listen openly. Young people who say that family members and friends listen sympathetically and suggest solutions are more likely to report that they are acting to protect the planet and to express hope for the future. Let your child know that fears about climate change are understandable and other people share them.

Also, let your child know that other people are taking climate change seriously and finding ways to address it. Some children say they are doing what they can to mitigate climate change, such as walking or biking to school instead of letting their parents drive them; yet they still report high levels of worry. This is not surprising because when people know that a problem is larger than they can solve by themselves, they can feel that their actions are futile. Most young people report taking individual actions, rather than working together with others.

Photo: Keira Burton. Pexels.

Look for ways that action to protect the planet can be a family activity. Many children express alarm about the impacts of climate change on wildlife and other animals, so you might create a wildlife habitat together in your yard or on a city balcony — and see for yourself that when you plant it, birds, butterflies, and other creatures threatened by changing temperatures find refuge there. You might raise money for a local environmental organization addressing climate change, and visit the organization to learn what they are doing. When you see news stories about people taking constructive action — from politicians to schoolchildren — share the stories with your children. Besides the intrinsic value of these activities, they show your child that individual action matters as well as collective action, because everyone can make a difference together.

Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman, psychologists who have studied how people cope with difficult conditions and upsetting information, describe two forms of coping: emotion focused, which seeks to escape painful feelings, and problem focused, which addresses the problems that cause these feelings. Sharing feelings with sympathetic and supportive family and friends is a healthy form of emotion-focused coping. It helps protect children against escapist strategies that avoid reality by tuning out information about climate change or denying that it is real or serious. Problem-focused coping includes both individual and collective action.

Look for ways that action to protect the planet can be a family activity.

Susan Folkman identified a third form of coping, meaning focused, that is especially helpful for big, complex problems that require engagement over a long period of time — like climate change. This type of coping involves finding a silver lining in a problem and meaning in confronting it. For example, some young people believe that because climate change is such a serious problem, more people are becoming aware of it, and as a result, more people are acting to steer the world in a safer direction.

Children who report meaning-focused coping are more likely to express constructive hope — the ability to face risks and uncertainty, believe in the power of their own actions and the actions of others, and find positive value in action. By acknowledging your child’s emotions, supporting individual initiative, and finding ways to take effective action together, you can help buffer your child against fears about climate change by building a foundation for constructive hope.

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