Author: Jodie Wassner, ANZ ACBS Member, Developmental Psychologist, Curious Kids Psychology
Growing up in Australia, I barely gave a thought to climate and the environment. I vaguely remember the hype about CFCs in hairspray and deodorant in the late 1980s and dutifully switched to roll-on. But I never worried that my lifestyle had a time limit and I certainly never contemplated that the planet’s very existence would be at risk during my lifetime. Sadly, that luxury of my youth is one that young people today will never know.
Regardless of whether today’s young people grow up among climate activists, climate sceptics, or somewhere in between, all are very aware that something is happening. You don’t have to travel very far to find heated debate about climate change, not to mention the endless media coverage. This became even more apparent during Australia’s recent bushfire season, with many city-dwelling families feeling the immediate reality of Mother Nature for the first time either via urgent holiday changes or the endless smoke haze. Children are invariably confused about the facts and may feel unsure if they are personally threatened. I myself have noticed a significant increase in the word “bushfire” appearing in my daughter’s imaginary play.
We know from research following 9/11 that repeated viewing of trauma in the media can increase distress for both children and adults. This is especially problematic for young people for whom coping capacity is still developing. Factors that can increase risk include pre-existing psychological issues, perceived threat level, poor family functioning, low social support and having a parent with mental health difficulties.
Young people are undoubtedly experiencing a sense of looming environmental threat. As CBS practitioners, we know a great deal about the role of threat. We know that it can direct us towards useful action and for many people (young and old), increasing recycling or connecting with like-minded climate activists has been helpful. But we also understand how threat can narrow our repertoire of available behaviour. When young people are overwhelmed by ongoing threat, helplessness can follow. I have seen many young people at my clinic who experience a deep sense of hopelessness about the environment. e.g. “What’s my tiny bit of recycling going to do compared with all the money being spent on coal?” In these moments, I do struggle to grapple with my own sense of hopelessness (a little more about that later), but am grateful for my training that enables me to orient towards values. The question is, how can we assist young people to connect with their own values when they are not feeling heard by many of the adults they are supposed to look up to, such as government leaders and in some cases, parents and grandparents?
Reminding young people that small actions add up to something big is a nice starting point, but we need more if we want young people to engage in workable positive behaviours on an ongoing basis. It is the role of a good practitioner to help that young person find valued meaning in their actions and then direct them towards their most workable behaviour.
Values activities are familiar territory for ACT practitioners and I don’t intend to teach this audience to suck eggs. I do, however, encourage you to think about ways to adapt your current preferred Values activities in a way that focuses on values around the environment and/or being a global citizen. Personally, I love the ACT matrix, or even a simplified TOWARDS-AWAY line. Whatever your preference, ensure you assist that young person to recommit to a life worth living on a planet that is worth fighting for.
Some useful questions include:
- What kind of planet would you like to see for your younger brother/cousin/the babies that were born this week?
- If you could be an admired world citizen, what would that look like? What qualities would you have?
- If you were a world leader, what environmental laws would you put in place for everyday citizens to abide by?
- If you have children or nieces/nephews of your own one day, what would you like to tell them about what you did in your youth to help the planet?
Once we have the young person reconnecting with their climate values, we take our focus to behaviour. Brainstorm ideas of small actions (or towards moves), that take them in the direction of these identified values.
Workable Action Ideas
- Discovering and loving nature- plant trees, go for bushwalks.
- Take school action- ask your SRC to plan ways reduce waste at your school
- Commit to recycling
- Walk to school if you can.
- Do a presentation for your class to encourage others to think about their carbon footprint
- Help insects in your house to find their way back outside.
- Create a vegie patch or join a community garden
- Start composting
- Join a beach clean up.
- Put water bowls outside for thirsty animals.
We additionally need to help young people to tolerate the idea that their short-term actions won’t yield instant benefits, but that these actions are connected to a greater worldwide purpose that we are all a part of. Some helpful remarks include:
- It is an act of maturity to keep working towards safeguarding a livable future.
- Doing something (anything!) is important.
- We can do small acts to help the world from getting too hot
- We don’t need to do everything right at once, we just need to continue making small moves in the towards direction.
- The renewable solutions are out there; we just need to move on them more quickly. The more we each do our part, the quicker we will get there.
Throughout the process, ensure you provide a sense of safety. Remind young people that there are many people working very hard to keep our communities safe. Acknowledge it’s a big problem and we are working with many others to try and fix it.
Children who are directly impacted by climate disaster run an additional risk of post-traumatic symptoms, particularly if they have a history of mental illness. For adults and children, fear, shock, anxiety and grief are typical initial responses. A young child or adolescent may additionally exhibit signs of wanting to help others. This can be a protective factor, but we need to ensure that it is not being used as an avoidance strategy. Helping behaviours can be encouraged, while remaining mindful that the child is also processing the incident and requires access to ongoing monitoring and support from a reliable adult.
Several weeks after the disaster, anxiety symptoms may become more prevalent as the young person starts to truly process the impact of the event. A sense of security and safety may erode, resulting in behavioural changes such as becoming more clingy, irritable or needy. Other children may experience physical symptoms such as change in appetite, sleep disturbance, nightmares, bed-wetting, or tummy/headaches. Older children may have strong feelings of bitterness when there are delays in restoring structure in their lives. Other children may withdraw socially, or lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. These may be signs of emerging depression and should be monitored.
The third phase is the reconstructive stage. Children and their family members seek to rebuild their lives. This stage may take several months or years and would be an appropriate time to revisit some of the Workable Action Ideas (above).
Finally, there is the issue of therapist self-care. I have been reading many articles lately written specifically for therapists looking to assist others with climate-related anxiety or trauma. The articles suggest that we need to manage our own climate anxiety and process our own distress before we help others. On the surface, this seems consistent with delivering therapy in general. In reality, however, I can think of very few therapists who have “processed” the climate issue. The ACT model, promotes acceptance of difficulty as a normal part of life. It encourages us to sit with distress while simultaneously putting one foot in front of the other. So if climate change matters to us as practitioners, we need to sit in that mud of uncertainty (or grief or anger) about the climate. We ourselves need to remind ourselves of the dangers of avoidance and to use that discomfort as a motivator for behavioural change. Each of us will choose different ways of doing this, whether it be changing our lifestyle to reduce waste, joining protests or writing letters. Regardless of what we do, when young people see adults taking this seriously and taking real action, it will help them feel more secure. More importantly, young people will become better able to manage their own difficult feelings through increased hopefulness and committed action.