Six Ways You Can Help Teens and Young Adults Worried About the Climate

By Janis Whitlock, PhD, MPH, JED Senior Advisor

I talk with young people frequently who are incredibly worried about the future of our planet—and the future of us. A recent study found that more than half of 16- to 25-year-olds across the world are “extremely worried” about climate change. They described the emotions they feel as sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty. Nearly half of those surveyed said their worries about climate change negatively impact how they function every day. 

You are an important support for the young people in your lives who are worried about the climate, especially when it is negatively impacting their mental health or they are experiencing and anticipating significant interruption to milestones that require functional social, economic, political, and environmental infrastructure, such as stable employment, family-supportive environments, and a future they can plan for. 

Here are six ways you can help. 

Validate Their Concerns

It can be tempting to jump right to solutions or actions aimed at changing the way they feel—nobody likes seeing the people they love in pain—but that skips what is likely the most impactful thing you can do: listening to their experience and worries, and letting them know you want to support them however you can. 

You may be worried about increasing their anxiety by acknowledging the problem, but the problem is real and they know it. The best thing you can do is invite them to share honestly and work with any uncomfortable feelings—such as a sense of powerlessness—that may arise as part of this. 

Even if there are no clear actions to take in the wake of these conversations, creating space for them to feel heard and supported can make a huge difference for both of you.

Help Them See the Value in Their Concerns

Once their feelings are out in the open, you can help them channel their worries into an action-oriented positive attribute such as eco-compassion, eco-empathy, or eco-awareness. You are helping them reframe a feeling that often gets a negative rap—anxiety—into a positive attribute. They are worried because they care, and that’s a good thing. 

Help Them Manage Repetitive Negative Thoughts

When we’re anxious, it’s common to become stuck in a loop of negative thoughts and feelings that repeatedly circle around the many unanswerable what-ifs that reflect our worst fears. These are called ruminative or intrusive thoughts, and they can interfere with life in a number of ways. 

The other common response to these negative feedback loops is suppression, in which a person pushes the negative thoughts and feelings away. It may feel good—or like taking action—in the moment, but both strategies only increase anxiety and feelings of helplessness, frustration, and even anger or rage.

You can help the young people in your life learn to work with negative thought patterns so they can express and release their anxiety in healthy ways. Since the first step in this learning process is becoming aware of the negative loops and learning to recognize the phases, caregivers might start there. 

The cycle’s pattern is not hard to recognize:

  • Anxiety arises.
  • A cascade of thoughts and feelings (and maybe behaviors) follows.
  • Your mind does something intended to make the thoughts and feelings stop, such as reviewing and planning for the many what-ifs or forcefully banishing the thoughts and feelings. 

Helping teens and young adults recognize and slow down the process opens space for more thoughtful, positive intervention.

Learn more ways to manage anxiety

Support Connection

The existential issues that accompany the current climate crisis are best matched by opportunities for experiencing personal growth, gratitude, joy, and enhanced spiritual connection to a sense of something greater than yourself. These are all well-established protective factors for mental health challenges. 

You can help the young people in your life cultivate or deepen connection in a number of ways. For example, you can ask them questions that provoke reflection, such as:

  • What helps you feel calm, even when things feel chaotic or uncertain?
  • When and where have you felt connected to something bigger than you and your life? What did it feel like?
  • Do you ever have a sense of purpose in your life? If so, how would you describe it? (Most youth will not be able to answer this in a detailed way, but the goal is to invite them to capture whatever elements they may be aware of or to plant the seed for them to think about.)

You can: 

  • Introduce them to practices that support a sense of expansion and connection, such as journaling, mindfulness, meditation, prayer, or other forms of contemplation. 
  • Help them connect to other individuals or groups actively channeling anxiety into action.
  • Do climate-supporting activities as a family or with a larger group.

All of this helps them create meaning in a situation that otherwise seems inexplicable or actively harmful. 

Pay Attention to When They May Need Additional Support

As climate challenges increase, there will be an increasing number of young people feeling the effects and acting on them. It may come in the form of increased anxiety, depression, and self-harm, or more seemingly random acting out, frustration, and irritation or anger. 

If you notice increased signs of agitation in the young people in your life, reach out, let them know you have noticed, and invite them to share what they are experiencing. 

Check out these 10 tips for talking to teens about their mental health for more ideas on how to start a productive conversation and get them help if they need it. 

Assist Them in Taking Meaningful Action

One of the most powerful ways to help people experiencing climate-related distress is to help them take action. The actions don’t need to be grand or immediately impactful. What matters is feeling productively engaged. It helps to disrupt the rumination cycle and provides meaningful outlets for feelings. Many recent climate strikes around the globe, such as those led by the young climate activist Greta Thunberg, provide a much-needed outlet for engaged learning in action and have resulted in important advances in both public awareness and political action. 

Researchers have found that climate-change education opportunities that allow young people to exercise agency through interactive and experiential learning are not only good for them academically, but can also provide powerful outlets for anxious energy.  

That can look like:

  • Locally impactful projects such as planting trees, pest control, and other local sustainability needs.
  • Political engagement at the local, state, federal, or international level, such as letter campaigns, protests, and raising local awareness of climate impacts.
  • Education- and support-related activities for anticipated impact challenges, including improved mental health support for affected individuals and communities; assessment of upcoming challenges; and possibly remedial actions, such as those related to food and water supply infrastructure.

The challenges confronting us as climate change alters life as we know it are significant. This is particularly true for young people, whose futures are anchored to a time none can foresee or fully prepare for. Helping young people identify, give voice to, healthfully cope with, and transform their anxiety into action is powerful and important.

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