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  • Diahann Hughes Hawkins

Youth Climate Anxiety

Updated: Apr 6, 2022

No more ignoring the ‘stress cracks’ shifting the foundations of children’s wellbeing.

image by Zara 2021

Most parents and grandparents should be able to remember the backdrop of ‘doomsday’ in our childhood — the threat of nuclear annihilation. Some can even remember nuclear war drills at school, anti-nuke demonstrations and WWII history lessons teaching the game theory strategy of MAD (mutual assured destruction) during the Cold War years. Thankfully, we can look back now to those decades in great relief that we’re still here. We can also acknowledge that compartmentalising the potential for instantaneous death at the push of a button was essential to living out an otherwise happy childhood. That was our coping mechanism for a reality that was out of our control.

While the world has changed greatly since then, it’s not been for the better in many ways. There are far more complex issues that are causing even greater stress in our children’s generation. The intensity is amplified by terrifying dialogues they're hearing from every turn about rising sea levels, pandemics, wildfires, floods, deforestation, animal extinction, and even possibly human extinction if we don’t change course off this destructive path by 2050. It’s impossible to escape the ‘bad news’ on television or read a magazine without coming across the planet’s trajectory of peril. It seems so relentless that even our youth feel compelled to sound the alarm with a scolding ‘how dare you’ to those in positions of power. These young voices are sacrificing a carefree childhood in the process, a state that should be the natural right of every child.

The reality

We can’t go back to innocent bliss, so we have to face the emotional storm of climate anxiety and sleepless nights that many of our youth are admitting they feel. And I’m not as worried about those children, who are sharing their concerns about the stark reality their generation faces, as I am about the millions of youth who aren’t talking about their deeply held fears and concerns. To make matters worse, the global pandemic led to nearly two years of isolating young people from their peers and preventing open dialogue outside of unhealthy social media platforms. This is not acceptable, and now it’s back to school and business as usual, as if nothing worth mentioning has happened in the world. There will never be enough classroom time to make up for ‘lost time’ due to lockdown, so even more stress is being thrown in the mix to play academic catchup. (What’s the hurry anyway?) Since adults have had their own distractions with threats of disappearing jobs, more lockdowns, rising costs of living due to inflation, exhaustion from conducting school from home, etc. they don’t always have the time or energy to deal with anything more themselves.

Sadly, these silently stressed out youth that adults often ignore, because they’re ‘the quiet ones’, are expected to bottle up their emotions behind a stiff upper lip and are left without a release valve. Any psychologist will agree this approach is not only impossible to do in the long-term, but dangerous. I have heard too many stories the past few months of some young people living in this spacious countryside resorting to self-harm and even attempting suicide. What then is the fate of urban children who have been bottled up for nearly two years in tiny flats without nature to escape into? More recent studies and articles are coming out about extreme ‘climate anxiety’ that has many teenagers admitting that they don’t want to bring children into today’s world. I just read a sad statistic from a youth charity that one out of six youth in the UK suffer from a diagnosable mental health problem. That’s approximately 1.27m children (aged 10–19 years) with serious conditions, and yet what about the many others that ‘just’ suffer from climate anxiety’? Who is helping them?

Telltale signs of stress

My daughter has always needed to know about what’s going on in the world, so unsurprisingly she asked for a subscription to The Week Jr children’s news digest on her 9th birthday, after reading it at school. She has great empathy towards the natural world and would have become vegetarian from birth if she could have talked. I first noticed signs of creeping anxiety when she stopped reading books, became unusually quiet at school, and only responded with ‘good’ when I asked about her day. Most concerning was that her laughter was gone, the telltale sign of stress. So I felt the natural outlet was for her to take part in the Strike for Climate with her brother and other local youth in 2019, and she jumped at the chance. It was amazing that day to witness so many confident young people who organised the protest event themselves, and gave truly heartfelt speeches that brought tears to the eyes of many proud parents. These youth knew they were able to contribute their voices to help raise awareness of the craziness of climate changes impacting the world, and they rose to the challenge.

Small steps to encourage mental wellbeing

Extreme actions like homeschooling to safeguard youth mental health is not an option for most families, even though numbers are steadily on the rise. So, what can be done? Here are some initial steps many schools could adopt straightaway to help foster wellbeing of the young people in their care:

1-Mindfulness: when introduced into daily classroom schedules for anywhere between 5–15 minutes, mindfulness is a great way to teach young people how to deal with everyday stresses and connect with their own inner voice. Many schools have been trialling programmes like MindUp for years, with great success at developing useful, lifelong coping skills.

2-Support non-violent protest: Allow children to participate in youth-led demonstrations like Strike4Climate, while supporting them with related educational content. This can provide the opportunity for them to understand how citizenship works firsthand, and become directly involved in marketing, communications and leadership roles. A background into historical examples of non-violent revolutions could help provide a framework for how we can channel outrage into a peaceful transition towards a sustainable future.

3- Artivism: Encourage more participation in the Arts and drama to help children express their emotions in a positive way through creative outlets. Crafts like knitting have also been known to reduce stress, which should be considered ‘creative fidgeting’ with a useful end product.

4- Update the climate curriculum in schools: We urgently need to adapt our curriculum to deal with the diverse 21st century problems staring us directly in the face. These could include such topics as: history of economic development from the Industrial Revolution, global citizenship issues and alternative technologies working to fix big problems. Youth need the inspiration from the many exciting positive initiatives by groups and individuals making a difference around the world, and are leading the way in new technologies, systems change and grassroots solutions.

There are many examples that highlight how these seemingly insurmountable problems can be tackled if we start ‘connecting the dots’ from a global perspective. Young people absolutely need to know about the world they will soon enter into as an adult, and want to develop the tools to approach these extreme challenges with confidence and creativity. Despair is the last emotion we want our children to feel about the future!

It’s clear that today’s youth aren’t satisfied to just bury their heads in the sand and ignore these mounting problems, as has been the strategy for many adults who are only just coming to terms with the facts of planetary changes. After decades of denial, our planet is showing us that our collective coping strategy to climate change never really worked in the first place.

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