Helping your teen deal with anxiety about climate change

A group of four young people holding signs at the School Strike 4 Climate in Sydney. The signs read: ‘Our future is in your hands’, ‘Why plan? Our future won’t exist’ and ‘CLIMATE: Can’t Live Ignoring, MATE!’
Students at the School Strike 4 Climate in Sydney.

Written by Elana Benjamin 

‘I’ll probably be dead by the time I’m 40,’ my 15-year-old announced recently. When I asked her why, she gave me one of those withering Don’t you understand anything? looks. ‘Because of climate change,’ she replied.

My daughter’s not alone. Recent research shows that 95 percent of young Australians believe that climate change is a serious problem. Four in five young people are anxious about climate change, and three in four feel their opinions and fears about the climate crisis are being ignored.

Eco-anxiety – also known as climate anxiety – is different from what psychologists call ‘anxiety disorder’, but it can make existing mental health issues harder to deal with. Eco-anxiety can include the following feelings:

  • Anger – that people around you and in power aren’t doing much to help.
  • Frustration – that politicians and older generations don’t care, because they’ll die before the full effects of climate change are felt.
  • Worry – about what’s coming next, especially after recent natural disasters like the Australian bushfires.
  • Helplessness – that nothing can be done now to change things, and that everything is out of your control.
  • Hopelessness – that there’s no point in planning for the future.
  • Despair – about the future of our planet.

But it’s not all bad news. If your teen is worried about the threat of climate change, there are many ways you can help them.

Acknowledge your teenager’s feelings

Before we talk about solutions, we need to assure our teens that it’s okay to feel the way they do. Acknowledging that your teenager may be feeling anxious or frustrated lets them know that their concerns are valid and that you’re listening. The Australian Psychological Society (APS) has reported that dismissing young people’s climate anxiety by denying or ignoring the crisis can affect their mental wellbeing.

Take action to ease their anxiety

At the same time, the APS found that taking the opportunity to share with them and act on their climate change concerns can boost young people’s hopefulness, resilience and confidence. It’s important to remind teens that even small actions can make a big difference.

Anxiety is based on feelings of uncertainty and powerlessness. So, the way to feel less anxious is to gain some sense of control. Dr. Patrick Kennedy-Williams, a clinical psychologist from Oxford University, says the best way to help with climate anxiety is also the best way to fight against climate change: by taking action. It’s all about doing something that helps.

  • Make your voice heard. Although most teens aren’t old enough to vote, they can still advocate for change by writing to politicians, signing petitions, and attending rallies and protests – as long as that’s something you approve of.
  • Recycle. Recycling at home is just the start. Teens can work with their school to reduce, reuse and recycle waste in classrooms, the playground and at the canteen. There’s also the Redcycle program for recycling soft plastics (with drop-off bins at Coles and Woolworths nationally), and reverse vending machines for returning certain drink containers in most Australian states.
  • Be more environmentally friendly. Your teen could take the lead in establishing sustainable habits at home, like switching off lights when they’re not using them, occasionally making meatless meals for the family, walking or using public transport instead of driving, or organising carpooling. Here are 101 green action tips to help address climate change.

Parents can support teens in other ways, too. You could suggest they watch Damon Gameau’s uplifting documentary 2040, to ease the climate change blues. The 2040 website has lots of suggestions for taking action now, from switching your search engine to Ecosia (which uses the ad revenue from your searches to plant trees), to joining Carbon 8 (which helps transition Aussie farmers to agricultural practices that improve the health of farm soil by rebuilding carbon levels, which is good for the environment)

And while it’s not an option for everyone, our family responded to our daughter’s eco-anxiety by installing solar panels. It came at a financial cost, but payment plans and government rebates on the purchase of solar panels are available, depending on where you live and the system size you need.

Take regular breaks from the news and social media

Of course, we’re only human. So, it’s vital to remind our teens (and ourselves!) that it’s okay to take breaks and switch off from thinking about climate change in order to rest, have fun, or do things we love. That might mean turning off screens and social media. Sometimes we need a rest from how negative the world can seem, and in order to conserve energy to take action, we need to make space for other activities in our life.

Speak out and demand change

In her book What Can I Do? The Truth about Climate Change and How to Fix It, American activist and actress Jane Fonda writes: ‘As important as our individual lifestyle decisions are, they cannot be brought to scale in time to get us where we need to be by 2030’, which is when experts say we will need to reduce our use of fossil fuels by half. Fonda’s message is: ‘It’s structural change, new policies, that we need to focus on, while at the same time continuing our individual commitments to the planet.’

So, if adults really want to help our teens’ eco-anxiety, it’s not enough just to encourage recycling and regular breaks from social media. Together, we also have to demand action on climate change from those in power. 

If the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it’s our leaders’ ability to adapt and innovate in a crisis. It’s worth reminding our teens of this the next time they seem anxious about the health of our planet. It’s the same message I gave my daughter when she insisted she’d be dead by 40: we are not powerless; when it comes to climate change, each one of us can make a difference.

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