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There is a playbook for how to talk to children following a major tragedy like a mass shooting so that they can start to cope without being traumatized: be honest, no matter how young; don’t be too graphic; and emphasize their support networks.
These same rules apply to how we talk to children about the climate crisis. Young activists including 16-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden dominated news coverage during the U.N. summit and strikes across the world last week, but discussing global warming can be complicated because of the immediate and long-term anxieties surrounding the climate crisis. And kids can be affected even when they aren’t direct victims of a weather incident.
“I look at it through two lenses,” said pediatrician Samantha Ahdoot, a lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on Global Climate Change and Children’s Health. “Through the mental health consequences of extreme weather events, and through the effects of living in a world that is changing and the fear that it invokes in children.”
Thanks to decades of research, it is clear now that environmental disasters, like hurricanes and wildfires, contribute to mental health conditions among victims.
“Rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse things tend to increase after you’ve experienced an event like that,” said Susan Clayton, a conservation psychologist at The College of Wooster in Ohio, who co-authored a 2017 from the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica 2017 entitled “Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance.”
But mainstream media coverage can also mentally stress those who witness these tragedies from afar, in what’s known as vicarious psychological trauma.
Here are a few “what to do’s” for parents of climate crisis generations, according to a psychologist, a pediatrician and a school counselor, interviewed by the PBS NewsHour.
A student activist takes part in a demonstration as part of the Global Climate Strike in Manhattan in New York, U.S., September 20, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Since 2014, weather-related disasters have displaced around 100 million people worldwide, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. In the U.S. alone last year, two climate-fueled hurricanes (Hurricane Michael, Hurricane Florence) and two wildfires (Woolsey and Camp fires in California), created more than 1 million extreme weather migrants — those who had to move either temporarily or permanently after the disasters.
Ahdoot said she’s seen a number of children who were impacted by the recent hurricanes in Florida and Puerto Rico in her pediatric clinics in Alexandria, Virginia. They are struggling to verbalize the feelings associated with escaping the disasters, she said.
That’s likely because extreme weather events can devastate the social foundations of children’s mental health and well-being. Children lose family members, their homes or schools, or even access to resources like their doctors. Surviving the fallout of a weather disaster — such as living in a shelter or needing to relocate, even temporarily — can cause significant mental health consequences.
After their home in Paradise was destroyed by the Camp Fire, Landyn Butts, 3, and his family shop for new household items in Chico, California, on Nov. 18, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Terray Sylvester
Rising temperatures themselves have also been tied to mental health issues outside of storms and fires, Clayton said. While it’s harder to trace, increases in heat have been tied to upticks in aggression and crime, increased suicide and more hospitalizations for mental, behavioral and cognitive disorders. In one study in Australia, researchers found drought — which can be more frequent and more extreme thanks to global warming — was associated with suicide rises among rural farmers.
Clayton and Ahdoot recommended that parents tailor their responses to these kinds of events to fit the age of the child. For infants, they recommend that parents try to save so-called comfort objects — any toy, blanket or other item to which a young child has a special attachment — if it can be done safely.
“If they lost that, maybe get a get them a substitute,” Clayton said, because doing so can reinforce social support. Reminding children of these support networks is one of the most crucial steps after a disaster, she added. “Whatever they can be provided with in terms of family or social support will help them.”
Climate change environmental teen activist Greta Thunberg takes part in a climate strike march in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on Sept. 27, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Andrej Ivanov
The stakes are higher the younger a child is, because experiencing early trauma can permanently change the way a person responds to trauma later in life. Early exposure to trauma can make it more difficult to regulate emotional responses and increase a child’s chances of depression and PTSD.
If a toddler or elementary-age child asks about what is happening, Clayton recommended speaking frankly because even young children can demonstrate a profound amount of resilience. But don’t offer too much detail.
“I would not lie to them, of course, but emphasize that things are gonna be O.K.,” Clayton said. “Just say ‘Well, sometimes big storms happen and we thought we were ready, but this was worse than we thought. We’re going to make sure that we’re safe from weather in the future.”
Older children can handle a broader explanation of the disaster and its consequences because most are exposed to current events and have some awareness of the issues. Teenagers also do not respond well when adults are not transparent with them and they learn the facts on their own, Clayton said.
“Even teenagers need security so they don’t feel like things are completely out of their control,” Clayton said.
A growing number of Ahdoot’s pediatric patients are also expressing general unease over the Earth’s environmental trajectory. She recalled one teenager who visited her clinic last year after a trip to Germany to visit her mother’s family.
“The hotel didn’t have air conditioning so she said she spent most of the trip in the house taking baths because that was the only way that they could get cool,” Ahdoot said.
Another patient had a similar experience after visiting France this summer during record heat waves. In both cases, the children were exposed to the consequences of a warming world in a way they weren’t at home. Those kinds of episodes — especially when contrasted with the knowledge that their parents didn’t face the same kind of challenges growing up — can be frightening for kids, Ahdoot said.
Combine those omens with regular news coverage of the climate disasters, Clayton said, and it is easy to comprehend the views of young climate activists toward older generations.
In an effort to prove the severity of the climate crisis and its effect on her generation, Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic to New York to speak during the United Nations General Assembly last week.
“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean,” Thunberg said during her speech at the U.N. Climate Summit in New York City on Monday. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”
To help minors cope with what they’re seeing in popular media, parents and other adults should speak to them at a level that they can understand.
“A high school student in most cases is going to be able to handle more information,” said Eric Sparks, assistant director for the American School Counselor Association, whereas with younger students, what you say needs to be more general.
A child holds a flag during the climate strike march in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on Sept. 27, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Andrej Ivanov
For example, if a young grade schooler exclaims something like, “The world is on fire, so what’s the point of doing anything anymore” — as my young nephew did two weekends ago — Clayton said one should correct them in terms they can understand.
“You could say that, ‘Our atmosphere is like a blanket and it keeps the Earth warm, which is a good thing. It’s just that the blanket is too thick now because of gases we put in the air,” Clayton said. “Give them some simple metaphor, so they have a better sense of what’s actually happening.”
For all age groups, Ahdoot, Clayton and Sparks said parents should avoid defeatism because the world isn’t doomed. They also said to emphasize that there is still time to waylay the worst outcomes through environmental actions. A young child, for instance, could be taught how to compost their scraps, the value of growing vegetables or the benefits of switching to reusable water bottles.
“An elementary school child can understand why it’s better to walk to their friend’s house instead of being driven, or why they can wear a sweater in the house instead of just cranking up the heat,” Ahdoot said. “Parents can convince their schools to bring clean energy to their energy supply. They can testify to the town or even to the United Nations.”
This week, conservative pundits responded to Thunberg’s speech at the U.N. Climate Summit with a range of criticism and attacks, including one said that the 16-year-old is instilling “fear in millions of kids around the world.”
Such assertions raise the question of whether parents should avoid talking about climate change with their children altogether.
Ahdoot, Clayton and Sparks said that trying to sidestep such discussions is a fruitless task because climate change is an empirical reality — backed by decades of study.
“We don’t need to hide reality from them,” Ahdoot said. But “we need to be cautious about how we presented it to them.”
Graphic media coverage of a disaster — like a mass shooting — can have deleterious mental effects. But trying to conceal the truth can also generate fear, harm a child’s ability to trust and skew their objectivity. Along those lines, Clayton and Ahdoot said it’s important to provide minors with reliable sources of climate information.
“Children get worried when they feel like something’s being kept from them because that means the problem is so bad that people aren’t talking about it,” Clayton said. “If you think one of your parents is sick and nobody’s telling you about it, then you really start to get scared.”
As they can with sexual education, parents can always opt out of pieces of climate curriculum. But there’s no real way to insulate students from the climate conversation.
“A school’s responsibility is to build a place where students can have and share differing viewpoints,” Sparks said. “It’s probably unrealistic to think that a student could be completely shielded from the climate issue.”
Nsikan Akpan is the digital science producer for PBS NewsHour and co-creator of the award-winning, NewsHour digital series ScienceScope.
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