Is too much pressure being put on children to fix the planet?

As the climate crisis worsens, so too does the mental health of our children. ELL talks to education experts about how to ease young people's climate anxiety without denying the scale of the challenge they face

As the news cycle churns out reports of climate disasters, and nature documentaries herald catastrophe, it is our children that will bear the brunt of the climate crisis. Consequently, the younger generations are becoming the ones most worried about the climate crisis, and it’s damaging their mental health.

A study by Save the Children shows 70 per cent of children in the UK are worried about the world they will inherit and 60 per cent of children say they think climate change is affecting their generation’s mental health. With the scale of the problem only likely to increase, it is clear more needs to be done to offer our children help.

Meryl Batchelder, a UN-accredited climate change teacher has seen this need firsthand. She began noticing students from her Northumberland school were “looking and acting stressed (and were) unable to sleep,” she says. “If a young person struggles to see the bright future that there should be for any child, then they will become anxious.” Yet, while some students are actively experiencing anxiety, Batchelder says, others “don’t even really want to talk about it because they’re bored of it already. They can see it’s a problem (but) they don’t think they can fix it. I think they feel somewhat powerless.” It’s a tale of anxiety and apathy.

Child behavioural psychologist and neuroscientist Professor Sam Wass, says climate anxiety is a subset of a much larger shift. “There’s quite a strong trend at the moment towards an increased prevalence of affective disorders – conditions including anxiety and depression,” and Wass says the problem stems from an increased sphere of awareness in our young children.

“When you’re a child, you tend to be focused on your very small world that is around you, and getting your immediate needs met, [such as] making sure that you get the toys you want, and making sure you get fed.

“And then once those needs are met, we go up to these higher order needs, [such as] self actualisation, which is making change that doesn’t immediately benefit us.” This is the point when children usually begin to start thinking about the needs of humanity, such as a healthy climate. But today children go through this stage increasingly early, and it can “supercharge” child developmental anxieties.

That being said, not all children experience climate anxiety in the same way. Research by the University of Oregon has shown that economic conditions also affect people’s opinion on climate policy and it’s likely this has a compounding effect on levels of climate-related stress children experience.

This appears to be true in St. Mary’s Primary School in Lewisham, where Luisa Element runs the Eco Council – a combined effort of students and teachers that leads sustainable projects. She says she is yet to observe climate anxiety in her students, which she believes is because they live “in a really deprived area, with lots of people in temporary accommodation or very high percentages of school meal entitlement. A lot of them have more immediate things to think about than the wider climate emergency.” Her students enter environmental awareness from a different baseline, she explains.

“A lot of our children live in high-rise flats,” she says. “So they don’t have gardens and often their parents aren’t going to take them to parks.” This limits their access to nature, so Element tries to have plants in the classroom and teaches the students: “This plant is thirsty, and you as an eco-councillor need to make sure that it’s watered and this is what keeps it alive and this is good for our air.” These fundamental facts become the focus of environmental discussions instead of wider eco-political trends.

For the children who do experience the climate crises on an acute daily basis, however, other factors may also explain their increasing sense of personal obligation. Batchelder says teaching guidelines prevent teachers from discussing the role of companies and the government with students, and as a result, they aren’t given the entire story on the climate crisis. “I’m not allowed [to say that] the government should have been putting in onshore wind turbines,” she says, “and that instead, they put in loads of money subsidising the fossil fuel industry. It would not be deemed appropriate to say ‘The government has been doing it wrong’.

“From those guidelines,” she says, “it doesn’t paint the whole picture for students and it can drive them to be a bit more individualistic about it, like seeing that (the climate crisis) is up to them to solve.”

For Sam Wass though, a certain sense of personal accountability could also be the key to reducing climate anxiety in children: “I think it’s really important when you’re talking to children about climate change, not to talk about it as something that’s out of our control, but instead to be thinking of it as something that they can do something about. Not because it’s not necessarily true, but just because it helps them to deal with it psychologically. It’s about making them feel that they have some sort of control.”

With this in mind, Wass recommends children should be encouraged to focus on what they can immediately improve and alter. This ethos is something Batchelder tries to apply in all of her lessons and she says the initiative on taking action often comes from the students.

“They want to pick up litter because that’s what they think they can do to help,” she says and, with some encouragement from her, the students often go above and beyond. She says: “They started selling seeds and plants. They won competitions. They raised nearly £2,000, and now they’re giving all that away because they want to be philanthropists. Having a teacher who will support that is hugely important because they feel like they’re making a difference.”

Even in St. Mary’s Primary in Lewisham, the Eco Council is growing and the students are getting more involved. “We’re in the early stages of our sustainability journey,” Element says, “but I’m trying to have regular meetings with them where they can put forward their ideas, which they have a lot of.”

The students also frequently go outside, rain or shine, to look at nature, “looking at bugs and the compost bins and the food cycle and that kind of thing, which are little things, and it’s not going to change the world, but it’s the start of their journey of thinking about [the climate].”

The most important thing in reducing climate anxiety in children, Wass says, is teaching them that while the climate crisis is a problem, it’s a problem that we can all do something about.

Want to learn more about local responses to the climate crisis? See the rest of the Climate Refresh series here.

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