Updated: Feb 28
What HBO's Big Little Lies taught us about climate change anxiety
Climate change has been an increasingly prevalent topic of conversation and concern as articles circulate the internet and paint a bleak picture about the future of our planet.
Alongside these news articles are photos of melting ice caps and whales with stomachs full of plastic, to name a few, each evoking a societal cringe at the human impact on our ecosystem. As a result, therapists are seeing a rise in anxiety and depressive symptoms related to climate change.
This increase in symptoms not only reveals an upsurge in environment-related distress, but is now influencing how young people plan for the future. Increasing news sources have reported a growing concern among millennials about having children given the current state of the planet. With all of these concerns creating waves of unease in the community, children are identified to be most vulnerable to environmental stressors, and therefore at risk for anxiety, depression, and PTSD symptoms such as increased fear, disrupted sleep, and hyperarousal.
Even shows like HBO’s Big Little Lies showcase (exaggeratedly) the impact of news of climate change on children as a classroom realizes the large amount of water used in the production of sausage. Unfortunately, this feeling of dread is not a work of fiction, but can be a reason parents initiate therapy for their young children. This inspires the question: what can parents do at home to ease a child’s mind about something as heavy and foreboding as climate change? Below are 5 ways to help decrease climate change-related anxiety in your child.
1. Don’t argue
As parents, we hate seeing our children suffer. As a result, parents might try to minimize, or even deny the existence of harsh realities in order to ease the vulnerable minds of our emotional kiddos. This can often leave a child feeling frustrated, invalidated, and unheard. If your child expresses distress about a recently learned, oftentimes unnerving fact, no counterarguments will cause him or her to unlearn it, but could instead lead to confusion. Instead, try to validate the feeling by saying something like, “I can see you’re very concerned about…”. Follow this up by approaching the conversation with curiosity. What exactly did they hear from their best friend’s mother about straws and sea turtles? And which part brings them the most distress? Many times, providing children the space to talk about and explore their fears can greatly reduce overall anxiety.
2. Limit what they are exposed to
Learning in small amounts about climate change throughout childhood in a developmentally appropriate way is the ideal way to expose a child to this kind of information. Unfortunately, much of the news of the world isn’t presented as intentionally to children, and so they are often bombarded with a scary story, and left to make meaning of it on their own. Find out the source of your child’s information. Limit access to televised news programs and other media outlets which provide you little control about what information is shared.
3. Increase exposure to good news
Unfortunately, much of the daily news we receive tends to focus on the negative. But good things are happening! For example, did you know that scientists have found a fungus that dissolves plastic? Or that the Giant Panda is no longer considered an endangered species? Scrolling with your child through the environmental section of the Good News Network or following Instagram pages like GreenMatters can expose them to the efforts made by scientists, conservationists, and citizens of the planet to sustain our ecosystem. The more positive information your child absorbs about the environment, the more optimistic they might become about the Earth’s potential.
4. Make sustainable changes at home
Combat feelings of powerlessness and helplessness by reducing your family’s environmental footprint. What better opportunity to learn about the power of the individual than discussing and implementing small changes around the house to benefit the environment? Swap paper towels for cloth napkins. Instead of plastic sacks, try reusable shopping bags. The small choices you make can provide an opportunity to talk to your child about the positive impact of your choices on the environment, thus nurturing feelings of empowerment and hope. You can even search online as a family to learn about the many ways to use less, and its big impact to the future of our planet.
5. Help outside of the home
Another way to help your child feel more optimistic about their future is through participation in your local community. While giving back to the community, one can also experience the personal benefits of volunteerism, which range from increased self-esteem, to a decrease in symptoms of depression. Sign your family up to volunteer for a local beautification project, or walk your favorite park and spruce it up by tossing stray garbage in the trash bins. Feeling a closer connection to the Earth through action can provide experiential evidence of the potential for positive change.
When to get help
Signs of environmental anxiety might decrease with these small, yet effective changes. However, if symptoms persist, or if your child’s focus of anxiety expands to other issues, you might want to contact a therapist to rule out potential anxiety or mood disorders.