Eco-anxiety is on the rise in young children - so what should we tell them?

Greta Thunberg
Greta Thunberg Photo: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez

Anna* is just seven-years-old. She sits before me in tears, convinced that as the earth warms, the permafrost will melt and bacteria that has been trapped alive for a million years, will be released, causing a re-occurrence of the Black Death, resulting in the death of 200 million people, as it did in 3147.  She tells me that Greta Thunberg is right and that many of us will die in just 12 years time.

Whether you see Greta Thunberg as a 16-year-old puppet of Extinction Rebellion, caught up in a doomsday scenario, or as a real-life Katniss Everdeen, rightly berating world leaders for what she perceives as their shameful dereliction of duty on climate change, there is no doubt that she has certainly grabbed Anna's attention.

And Anna is not alone. Anecdotal reports, suggest that more and more children around the world, are being treated by mental health care professionals for "eco-anxiety" a growing sense of impending doom, over climate change and an impending environmental disaster.

Some psychologists worry that fears around the projected impacts of climate change may lead to a learned helplessness or an attitude of "what's the point if it's all so dire, we are all going to die anyway", resulting in a population-wide psychological inertia.

So how should parents best respond to such existential anxiety?

Generally speaking as adults, I believe that we have a responsibility to be hope-givers. This means setting a clear vision for a positive future (regardless of politics), developing pathways to achieve that future, and believing in our society's capacity to solve the problems we face.

If your child is under five years of age, I believe that exposing them to the belief that we all face imminent extinction is unhelpful and may undermine their belief that the world is a safe and secure place. 

If they bring up the topic and begin to ask questions, parents should answer honestly, in simple terms, knowing that younger children are likely to be responsive to any answer that they are given. So responding with something like - 'the earth does face some challenges but many people, schools and our leaders are working to solve them." Most young children will usually be satisfied with our reassurance and will let it go.

As far as primary school students are concerned, I suggest that parents be guided by their children's curiosity and to help them cope with what they're hearing in school, seeing in popular media, and  speak to them at a level that they can understand. 

I encourage you to answer the questions honestly in accordance with your family's attitudes, values and beliefs, but to avoid discussions that focus only on problems - instead emphasising what countries and individuals are doing to help curb the effects of climate change, talking about renewables, emission reduction and that human beings have a history of being able to solve what were often seen in the past as intractable problems.

There is also value in engaging children in social activities, like community gardens or school recycling programs which can give them agency over their future.

Whatever the age of your children, always be sure to: 

• Point out that many people are working to stop the climate changing too much. 

• Explain that there are things that everyone can do to help, like recycling, writing letters, put solar panels on our houses. 

• Remind them that big problems have been solved in the past through many people working together. 

• Discuss what you and your child can do together to make a difference. 

The most important thing I can do with Anna to allay her anxiety, while still encouraging realism is to tell her that solutions do exist and that, if we implement changes now, then in the future more people will be living in cleaner cities, eating healthy diets and working in resilient, buoyant economies.

I also need to get her parents on board, as when she sees a parent acting to make things better, it shines an entirely different light on the problem. Young children see their parents as super heroes, and our actions speak far louder than our words. We can work to find solutions to serious problems without giving way to despair or impotence.

Dr Michael Carr-Gregg is one of Australia's highest profile psychologists, author of 14 books, broadcaster and a specialist in families, parenting, children, adolescents and the use of technology for mental health.