FFFClimate Change and Climate Distress in Youth

No. 137; March 2024

What is climate change?

Climate change is the overall change in weather patterns caused by an increase in the earth’s temperature. Climate change is mostly caused by humans burning fossil fuels for energy, which releases carbon dioxide and other gasses into the atmosphere. These gasses wrap around the planet like a blanket, trapping heat and causing the earth's temperature to go up. These changes are sometimes called “global warming,” but include far more than just increased temperatures. Climate change has also led to melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and an increase in frequency and severity of extreme weather events like hurricanes, floods, and wildfires.

Climate change affects people differently in different parts of the world. For example, extreme heat and poor air quality are bigger problems in cities closer to the equator. Low-lying countries are at higher risk from rising sea levels. Wherever in the world they occur, these disasters have the worst impacts on families and children with limited resources.

How does climate change affect youth?

Climate change affects health, including children’s health, in many ways. Climate change harms physical health through heat-related illness, asthma and allergies, heart and lung disease, spreading infectious diseases, food shortages, and dirty air or unsafe water. Climate change also affects youth well-being by impacting the communities in which they live. For example, weather disasters can cause disruptions to housing or school and financial stress. Changes in ecosystems may include drought or loss of land that lead to famine, forced migration, or community conflict.

What are the effects of climate change on youth mental health?

Physical illness and community disruption are not good for the mental well-being of young people or their families. In addition, there are other specific ways that climate change harms youth mental health. Experiencing a climate change related disaster like a wildfire or major storm can result in psychological trauma. This type of trauma has been linked to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Slower moving climate disasters, like droughts or famines, may also cause trauma through chronic stressors, such as by forcing people to move or sparking community conflict

In addition to the direct health impacts of climate change and climate-related trauma, many young people all over the world are experiencing “climate distress” (sometimes called “eco-anxiety” or “climate anxiety”). Climate distress includes feelings of anger, anxiety, helplessness and guilt. It may also include anger directed at older generations for their choices and at governments for short-sighted decisions.

It is important to note that climate distress is not a form of mental illness. Fear and anxiety can be normal and appropriate responses to the threat of climate change. Climate distress may also be a positive and powerful motivator for youth to take action on climate change; in fact, youth have been central to progress made by climate activists over the past several years. While climate distress itself is not a form of mental illness, families and young people should seek out help if their distress due to climate change disrupts their daily functioning or quality of life. For instance, some youth experience panic attacks, trouble sleeping, extreme separation anxiety, or obsessive thinking related to climate change.

What can parents and caregivers do to help climate-distressed youth?

  • Listen and validate children’s thoughts and feelings about climate change Avoid minimizing and encourage action; engaging in collective or group action with peers is especially helpful for young people with climate distress
  • Be informed about climate change and discuss it in an age-appropriate way that the child or teen will understand.
  • Encourage children to be curious, ask questions to inform themselves, speak up, and get involved in their schools and communities to protect the environment e.g., composting projects, advocating for renewable energy sources at school, starting a climate action club
  • Be aware of the sources of information or news the child or youth is accessing to ensure accuracy and to tackle misinformation: “doomscrolling” is not a form of climate action! Model hope by taking your own action, for example decreasing household energy consumption, engaging with community environmental initiatives, and voting
  • Support young people’s desire to make low-carbon lifestyle changes e.g., reducing meat intake, or walking, biking or using public transport instead of driving
  • Prepare for possible severe weather events including the development of a family safety plan (https://www.ready.gov)
  • Following extreme weather events, check in with your child or youth about their emotional well-being, and offer additional support if needed.
  • Monitor for any warning signs such as increased anxiety levels, fatigue, trouble sleeping, negative thoughts about the future, or obsessive thinking that interferes with their daily lives and seek help promptly if these signs.


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