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Kids Worry More when Parents Push Climate Fears Aside, Therapist Warns

The first step for parents who aren’t sure how to help their children with their fears about climate change is to open up to the conversation—because it only makes kids worry more “when a parent is avoidant or uncomfortable,” art and talk therapist Ariella Cook-Shonkoff advises in a recent guest post for Grist.

“Children and young people tell me that their anxiety is severe,” wrote climate psychology researcher Carol Hickman, in a recent paper cited by Cook-Shonkoff. That anxiety deepens if parents “fail to understand why and how their worries about the climate and biodiversity crisis can affect them daily, constantly.”

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That means adults’ responses to the climate crisis matter a great deal to youth, Cook-Shonkoff says. “Our job isn’t to overprotect, scare, stigmatize, or sugarcoat, but to listen to kids’ real and valid concerns and then talk about them together,” she says. “Only then can kids and adults work together toward finding a solution.” And “when kids believe adults are trusted allies, they can carry less of the emotional burden of climate change.”

So far, that sense of connection is a far-off hope in the U.S., Cook-Shonkoff warns: Last year, the respected Yale Program on Climate Change Communications found that while two-thirds of Americans are at least “somewhat worried” about global warming, “roughly the same percent said they ‘rarely’ or ‘never; discuss it with friends or family,” she writes. “The climate crisis is already here, but many of us still find it too daunting to think about.”

Except that pushing the problem into the background doesn’t make it go away. In her Grist post (which you should really read in full), Cook-Shonkoff recalls her own intense reaction to #FridaysforFuture founder Greta Thunberg’s “How dare you?” speech to the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit, how it brought her back to her own past as co-leader of her high school environmental club.

“For parents, our choice is simple: wake up to climate change or risk dying in our sleep,” she writes. “The former choice requires us to acknowledge our ambivalence about reducing our carbon footprint.”

But “there are many ways for parents to step up. We can offset disturbing news with inspiring stories, affirmations, and creative acts to bolster our families for the climate long-haul.” And “if you feel lost or overwhelmed, try connecting with others.” She lists a host of resources, from parent-centric climate organizations to U.S. Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, to help parents get started.