How can we support children who are worried about climate change? Richard Smith, David Pencheon, and Frances Mortimer look at how we might find hope through action
Richard Smith: I have a friend whose 7 year old son is terrified by climate change. The terror interferes with his sleeping. She and her husband have not spoken much about climate change, but he is a sensitive boy who loves animals and reads a great deal. It is the destruction of the natural environment that seems to have led to his terror. My friend doesn’t know what to say to him. She can’t just say “It’ll be fine” because she knows that that is not the case and because she knows her son would not be reassured.
What could she say? I asked people who are deeply concerned about the climate crisis and working to counter it.
David Pencheon (former director of the NHS Sustainable Development Unit): This is an important challenge: if we can’t respond sensibly, we really have doomed ourselves and future generations
Your friend’s son may well be a sensitive boy, but is it not us who are insensitive, selfish deniers and disavowers? Maybe if we were all more terrified and young, we might be spurred into more courageous action.
I suspect there is a close (temporal) relationship between a) being concerned/terrified and b) the rescue of “but there is hope” by doing…x, y, z. A) without b) probably leads to that dangerous coping mechanism that has been described as stronger than love or lust.
I think this is all about hope, and in particular positive, active hope—what Greta Thunberg describes as “hope through action.” As he is interested in animals, would he like to take part in some sort of (animal) conservation project close to home? Although many would say this is trivial, I suspect it does much to help you feel you are playing a part (more part of the solution and less part of the problem), and it possibly helps with anxiety/sleeping.
One can then go further and engage others—all with the rationale that if everyone were doing this at best there would be a good chance of leaving a legacy we can be proud of (or less ashamed of); and at worst feel as though we died trying.
I would certainly introduce him to some of the huge number of positive stories around the world, for example, Paul Hawken’s book Drawdown. These stories about “the future happening now” do inspire and offer hope. But however much they inspire, they are merely bright stars in a dark sky—and we are a long way from dawn.
One sort of story that can sustain us is about when things historically looked very dire, but where perseverance and action generated hope and progress. (Sadly, too many of these stories come from times and zones of conflict.)
When I was 4 years old, I was very worried about nuclear war, animal extinction, habitat loss, and acid rain; and despite well meaning parental reassurances at the time (what an annoying little tike I must have been), my anxieties have never really gone away. I guess it’s how you channel your anxiety (and how you let others help you do that) that ultimately matters.
Frances Mortimer (medical director of the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare):
I’ve been thinking about this too, in relation to my own children. I went to a helpful workshop last year on “supporting children in the face of climate change”: it was filled with concerned parents dealing with these issues and was run by Jo McAndrews from Stroud. She has recorded a similar presentation on YouTube.
One of the messages that I took away was that when children are young they do need shielding even though that does not mean denying that there is a problem. A parent should acknowledge that the climate crisis is a big problem but say, truthfully, that many grown-ups are working hard to fix it. And big changes really can happen if enough people believe in them—things like setting up the welfare state after the second world war and creating the United Nations and the World Health Organization.
I agree with David about hope through action and taking part in some practical conservation near home. I think this is important for all of us. I have been listening on audiobook to Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and she is eloquent on the need to mend our relationship with nature and learn how to give back and take care of the plants, animals, and ecosystems that take care of us. This relationship then nurtures us as we take on the challenges to build a more sustainable world.
Richard Smith: Robin Scott (one of the founders of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change), David, and I discussed the best responses on a walk in the New Forest. We agreed that action is a good response, and Robin quoted work from the 1960s that showed the children of parents who were active in campaigning against nuclear weapons were less anxious about nuclear war than those whose parents were not active. Crucially, it didn’t matter that what the parents did might be mostly ineffective.
There seems to be a virtuous circle that being active makes you less anxious (spilling over to your children), which in turns makes you stronger and more able to contribute to change.
We agreed that there is benefit in getting closer to nature—and possibly a pilgrimage (which might be largely internal)—and Rachel Carson’s book The Sense of wonder: A Celebration of Nature for Parents and Children, which she wrote for her 15 year old nephew, is a beautiful aid.
We discussed as well some turning inwards—a more Eastern than Western approach—captured for me in Emily Bronte’s poem Imagination, which includes the lines:
“So hopeless is the world without;
The world within I doubly prize.”
“What matters it, that, all around,
Danger, and guilt, and darkness lie,
If but within out bosom’s bound
We hold a bright, untroubled sky,
Warm with thousand mingled rays
Of suns that know no winter days?”
Finally, it might seem too simple a “remedy,” but getting a pet has helped many.
The boy’s parents did buy him a kitten, and his relationship with the kitten has helped, including with his sleeping. His parents also showed him Rachel Carson’s book, which inspired him and his younger sister to go into their garden and marvel at what they saw.
Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004.
David Pencheon is the former director of the NHS Sustainable Development Unit.
Frances Mortimer is the medical director of the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare.
Competing interests: None declared.