Climate change is one of many frightening threats parents face.
That message was clear as four leading climate experts, who are also mothers, recently took part in an educational webinar to share how parents can help their children navigate the emotional and physical impacts of the climate crisis.
The talk, called Parenting in the Climate Crisis: Self Care, Connections, and Support, included Anya Kamenetz, Climate Mental Health Network; Elizabeth Bechard, Moms Clean Air Force; Liz Hurtado, Moms Clean Air Force and EcoMadres and Jenni Silverstein, Climate Psychology Alliance.
Climate anxiety is real
The concern young people have about climate change is well-documented.
According to the 2021 Lancet Planetary Health study, where 10,000 children and young people (aged 16–25 years) in 10 countries (Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, the UK, and the USA; 1,000 participants per country were polled about feelings regarding climate change, and government responses to climate change.
“Respondents across all countries were worried about climate change (59% were very or extremely worried and 84% were at least moderately worried). More than 50% reported each of the following emotions: sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty,” the report said.
The four experts on the recent panel touched on numerous issues on the minds of parents when it comes to climate change and their children.
“For some parents, embracing the challenges of climate change can be a catalyst for personal growth, meaning and hope,” Bechard said.
She also noted concern for young people and moral injury.
“Climate change and government inaction are chronic stressors that could be considerable, long lasting with incremental negative implications for mental health in children,” Berchard said.
She added that parents experience climate distress that can be described as moral injury because climate change threatens core parenting principles of supporting their children.
Hurtado cited a Yale study that showed Hispanic and African Americans are more likely to be concerned about climate because they are more exposed to air pollution due to where they live. She added that they are more likely to experience extreme weather.
“Communities of color are disproportionately affected by pollution,” Hurtado said. “They are more likely to live near highways and areas with more pollution. They are hit the hardest by residential segregation. Communities of color are three times likely to live somewhere nature-deprived and that leads to poor health and mental health and greater vulnerabilities.”
Motivating change and lessening anxiety
“Parents are left walking the tightrope of being honest with their children and being comforting as well as empowering and weighing them down with the responsibility of saving the world,” Bechard said. “Parents worry about getting it right. There’s no guidebook for it. That’s a lot to carry in these times.”
Silverstein spoke of cognitive dissonance and her personal experience of always keeping bags packed while living in an area near dangerous wildfires.
“Supporting children requires supporting parents,” Silverstein said. “We can’t do this in a vacuum with current social structures its stressful and hard to parent without support. Adding a threat like climate change, we need to access support to help our children.”
Hurtado said she joined the Mom’s Clean Air Force Team two years ago and that powerful women keep motivating her.
“It’s collective action,” Hurtado said. “We are coming up with ways to contribute. We can teach our kids how to recycle and about composting. Acting together is so powerful and for me it’s been life changing. Nature is something I’m inclined to seek out.”
Silverstein spoke of a ‘window of tolerance.’
“Where is the place in ourselves where we can take all of this information and still cope and function,” she said. “For me one of the baselines when I’m feeling distressed is to get back into rhythm…Walking, running or listening to your favorite music soothes your body and can help.”
Silverstein also said to find a community and people with the same passions.
What CT could learn from other states’ climate change policies
“We encourage folks to clean up rivers, march in protest, plant trees and if you do that you will find people that will care as much as you do,” Silverstein said.
“Taking action with others is important and profoundly healing,” Bechard said. “You can feel isolated when you talk about climate change and people give you a blank stare and change the subject. Find someone who will help you take action.”
Bechard said no one should be surprised by the number of women participating in the climate change conversation.
“Research finds that again and again that women worry about climate change more than men,” Bechard said.
She said parents should confirm their children’s emotions about climate change.
“We just don’t want to tell them they are going to be fine,” Bechard said. “Young people are feeling betrayed by the older generations. A way to support young people is to engage in climate action ourselves…I want them to know I’m taking this seriously and I’m not abandoning their future. That’s something they deserve.”
As far as talking with younger children, Silverstein said to help them fall in love with the world.
“Get them connected with other living beings and reinforce that connection,” Silverstein said. “Kids love stories about animals. They want that connection with more than just the human world. Show how to care for and take care of the planet like turning off water when we aren’t using it and turning off the lights.”