How to support a teenager who experiences climate anxiety

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. Source: ReachOut

Concern about climate change has been increasing in recent years, and young people in particular are experiencing high rates of climate anxiety.

A recent study found that 75 per cent of young people (ages 16–25) admitted to being frightened about the future because of climate change.

Nearly half of those surveyed said climate anxiety and distress was affecting their daily life and functioning, and three in four feel their opinions and fears about the climate crisis are being ignored.

Signs of climate anxiety

People with climate anxiety may have any of the following symptoms:

  • sadness, disappointment or feeling low in mood

  • feeling anxious or agitated

  • irritability

  • high stress levels

  • grief

  • rage or frustration

  • fear about the future

  • guilt or shame

  • a sense of powerlessness

  • a feeling of hopelessness

  • pessimism

  • scepticism toward making life decisions and planning for the future

  • guilt or confusion over whether it’s irresponsible to have kids

  • constantly thinking about natural disasters, such as the major bushfires and floods Australia has recently experienced

  • anger that people in power aren’t doing enough

  • distress that you can’t fix the problem or difficulty accepting things are out of your control

Climate anxiety isn’t a formal mental health diagnosis, but some people who experience it can also have mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety disorders.

Why is climate anxiety so common now?

There is no single reason why climate anxiety is becoming more common. It is most likely a mix of several things, such as:

  • The ever-growing threat of climate change. Even if you haven’t experienced single-event trauma from an extreme weather event such as a bushfire, flood or heatwave yourself, it’s understandable that the unrelenting threat of danger associated with climate change could have an effect on mental health.

  • Increased awareness of climate change. Although increased awareness can have positive aspects, it can also result in stress, fear, anxiety or depression.

  • Increased coverage of climate change–related issues in the media. Seeing regular images of the devastation caused by climate change–related weather events can also result in your feeling anxious, depressed or stressed.

  • Lack of action on climate change. Seeing the lack of action by the people in charge who do have the power to make real change can exacerbate feelings of despair and frustration.

  • Likelihood of being affected. Young people are the ones who, in the future, are most likely to be affected by the long-term effects of climate change.

  • Likelihood of making inequality even worse. Current estimates show that the effects of climate change will worsen current inequalities for marginalised groups (including First Nations people, people with disability, women, migrants, and rural and remote communities).

girl holding sign that says temperature is rising so are we

Students at the School Strike 4 Climate in Sydney. Source: ReachOut

How do you support a teen with climate anxiety?

If your teen is worried about the threat of climate change, there are many ways you can help them.

Acknowledge your teenager’s feelings

It’s important to reassure teens that it’s okay to feel the way they do. The Australian Psychological Society (APS) has found that dismissing young people’s climate anxiety by denying or ignoring the crisis can actually further affect their mental wellbeing.

Acknowledging that your teenager may be feeling anxious or frustrated lets them know that their concerns are valid and reassures them that you will support them with managing it.

Remember to avoid making judgements; instead, practise active listening and ask open-ended questions to help your teen open up to you, and share their thoughts and feelings. You can find more tips for having this conversation here.

Take action to ease their anxiety

The APS also found that taking the opportunity to share with them and act on their climate change concerns can boost young people’s sense of hope for the future, resilience and self-confidence. It’s important to remind teens that even small actions can make a big difference.

Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams, a clinical psychologist from Oxford University and author of Turn the Tide on Climate Anxiety: Sustainable Action for Your Mental Health and the Planet, says the best way to help with climate anxiety is to regain a sense of control by taking action.

Here are some ideas:

  • Recycle. You and your teen can establish a recycling system at home, and teens can also 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 stores nationally), and reverse vending machines for returning certain drink containers in most Australian states.

  • Make your home environmentally friendly. Your teen could take the lead in establishing sustainable habits at home, such as switching off lights and power outlets when they’re not being used, or occasionally making meatless meals for the family.

  • Reduce car usage. You can set an example for your teen by using your car less often, and walking, cycling or using public transport instead. You could also help to organise regular carpooling with your teen’s friends and their parents.

Here are 101 more tips for addressing climate change that can make a difference and, in turn, can help your teen to feel a sense of control and reduce their climate anxiety.

Encourage regular breaks from the news and social media

Sometimes we need a rest from how negative the world can seem.

In order to conserve our energy to take action, we need to make space for other activities in our life. It’s vital to remind our teens (and ourselves!) that it’s okay to take breaks and to switch off from thinking about climate change in order to rest, have fun or do things we love.

This might include turning off screens and social media. If your teen doesn’t want to take a break from their phone, encourage them to seek out positive news stories, and remind them of the good things that have been achieved in the fight against climate change.

Taking a look at photos from the impressive student strikes and protests in recent years can be very uplifting, or you could show them the Climate Optimist newsletter or these 6 positive news stories about climate change.

Demand change and use your voice where your teen can’t

American activist and actor Jane Fonda writes in her book What Can I Do? The Truth about Climate Change and How to Fix It:

‘As important as our individual lifestyle decisions are [...] it’s structural change, new policies, that we need to focus on, while at the same time continuing our individual commitments to the planet.’

Joining in your teenager’s activism is an excellent way to show your support. This could mean attending protests or rallies with them, or encouraging them to write to politicians and councils to ask what they are doing to tackle climate change. Contacting your local Member of Parliament is a good place to start. If you need tips on how to do this, you can find advice and a letter template here.

You can also help bring about change by voting for politicians and parties whose policies prioritise tackling climate change. If your teenager isn’t yet of voting age, have a conversation with them to let them know that you’ll be voting for policies to ensure a better future for them. This can help to reassure them that you are actively supporting them on this issue.

Remember to take care of yourself, too

Climate anxiety is common in adults, too, so you may experience some of its symptoms yourself. Or you may start to experience some difficult emotions or climate-related anxiety after listening to your child open up about their fears about climate change. This isn’t uncommon, and it’s important to make sure you are taking care of yourself as well.

Tips for doing this include those listed above, as well as:

You can find more advice on how to care for yourself as a parent experiencing climate anxiety in this guide from the Australian Psychological Society.