Can Climate Change Affect Children’s Mental Health?

climate change

The threat of global warming and climate change has been nefariously looming over us for many years. Whereas environmental activists and other eco friendly individuals have been trying to do their part to prevent against these catastrophic warnings, others have ignored or seemingly brushed the warnings aside.  Most of the people who show little concern are adults who figure that they will be long gone before any of these warnings come to fruition.  What they do not take into account is that they are handicapping their children, grandchildren, and future generations with their disinterest. 

Although complete climate change is still a ways off, its impact on the mental health of children is happening as we speak.  Whether in their elementary science classes or from broadcasters on the 5:00 news, children are slowly realizing that the effects of climate change could significantly impact them.  Children are becoming fearful of the threat of natural disasters and the food shortage and homelessness that could result.  Children are also becoming more vigilant to the fact that they will have to reside in a much hotter, environmentally volatile world.

Children are starting to wonder what it would be like to live in an environment that is excessively hot all of the time.  They are learning that intense heat can impact their thought patterns, problem-solving capabilities, emotional regulation, and levels of aggression. They are beginning to understand that global warming can impact their developmental and physical growth.  As children are constantly growing and developing, they can be vulnerable to the spread of infectious diseases and exposure to harmful air pollutants.  Exposure to these hazards could potentially lead a child to develop intellectual disabilities, physical illnesses, cognitive deficits, or behavioral issues.

As if that isn’t scary enough, children are slowly gaining awareness on how natural disasters and environmental catastrophes can impact them from an emotional, mental, and behavioral health standpoint.  These children are grappling with the threat of unparalleled trauma and are visualizing things such as displacement from their homes, physical injury, or even death.

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Anxiety about climate change is beginning to worsen in severity.  Children are worrying more often about air and water pollution, water conservation, or the world ending entirely.  This type of anxiety can lead to increased levels of stress and other mental health conditions.  Children may engage in compulsive behaviors in an attempt to save the world.  Children may also develop and experience symptoms of depression or feelings of helplessness.  Some children who believe that the world is ending may lose motivation and interest in school, hobbies, or socialization activities. 

As a society, it is important to be mindful of the impact that climate change is having on the children of today.  In addition to receiving information from their science teachers or afterschool environmental club, they are also receiving information from social media, their friends, the Internet, and other unknown sources.  Adults should be vigilant in helping children to dispel myths by replacing them with facts.  Adults can point out that there are scientists and environmental activists who are working on the problem of climate change to instill a child with hope and reassurance and to lessen their anxiety.

Above all, it is important to help a child to learn how to cope with their feelings regarding climate change.  The fear of the unknown can be a powerful thing, but keeping a child appropriately informed with facts can help them to feel safer.  Teaching a child to problem-solve issues of climate change such as recycling or conserving can also help give them purpose and allow them to feel part of the solution.  If these strategies are not fully effective, counseling can help a child to learn coping strategies and to address any other mental health concerns that are present.        

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.