Research Summary

Educating for resilience: parent and teacher perceptions of children’s emotional needs in response to climate change

Assessing climate anxiety in caretakers and children and ways to overcome it

Environmental Education Research
2021

Environmental education has traditionally focused on increasing knowledge and encouraging pro-environmental behavior but has paid little attention to the emotional needs of its audience. Research shows that climate change disasters can cause lasting mental health impacts in children, and merely learning about climate change may harm a child’s mental health. In addition, children are affected by adults’ emotional states when experiencing or learning about climate change. Media articles indicate that parents and teachers seek advice on ways to speak to children about climate change. This study surveyed Australian parents and teachers on climate stressors in children’s lives, parent/teacher emotions and responses to this stress, and the parent and teacher role in supporting children.

The researchers distributed an optional online survey to 39 Australian Facebook groups for parents, teachers, and environmentalists. The survey was distributed in two phases, during and after the catastrophic bushfires in Australia. The first survey in November 2019 garnered 90 responses, and the second in January and February 2020 garnered 51 responses. Of the respondents, 68.1% were parents and 31.9% were teachers. Respondents who were both parents and teachers were classified as teachers. Respondents were responsible for children from ages 1-17 years. The survey included quantitative questions about the climate anxieties of respondents, their children’s climate anxieties, and the frequency of their conversations about climate change. Respondents selected from a list to indicate the challenges (such as resistance to conversation, climate anxiety, lack of time or knowledge) and positive experiences (such as students expressing gratitude for the world or taking personal or political action) associated with these conversations. The survey asked open-ended questions about the respondents’ vision for what role parents and teachers should play in supporting children through climate change. The survey results from the quantitative and open-ended questions were then analyzed.

Across both surveys, respondents reported their own stress higher than their children’s stress, but 66% said their children felt moderate stress or more. Climate anxiety in children increased linearly with age, with 14 to 17-year-olds the most stressed age group. Most children wanted to talk about climate change approximately once a week, and respondents complied. Responses from the second survey showed that respondents spoke to their children about climate change less often after the intensity of the bushfires had passed. Distinct from parents, teachers’ climate anxiety was not significantly related to their frequency of climate conversations with children.

Further, respondents reported more positive experiences from climate conversations than challenges, with the most frequent positive experience being children taking personal action against climate change. The first survey phase reported more positive experiences than the second. Respondents listed their own anxiety as the most common challenge to climate conversations. Parents listed more challenges related to emotions, while teachers listed challenges related to school constraints. Respondents with children ages 1-5 years tended to have less knowledge of climate change and tended to avoid the topic, while children in the ages 6-9 years and 14-17 years did not tend to initiate conversations about climate change. Respondents with children ages 10-13 years were the most likely to indicate they had regular conversations about climate change.

Responses to the open-ended questions from both surveys were coded according to common themes. The most frequently mentioned sources of children’s climate anxiety were extreme weather events, uncertainty about the future, harm to animals, and lack of agency or trust in adults. Parents and teachers both saw their ideal roles as providing education and supporting children in action on sustainability and climate change and wanted schools to do the same. Only 34% reported that their school taught students about sustainability and climate change, although 73.9% indicated that their schools took positive action for climate change, environmental, or social issues. More than half of respondents said that they did not have enough resources to support their children through times of crisis, with most desiring guidance and support for teaching children about environmental issues.

There were limitations in this study. Respondents to the surveys were a self-selected sample among environmentally minded Facebook groups, so responses are likely not representative of the broader population. The researchers intentionally distributed the surveys during a major climate disaster and recognized that responses to the survey would likely vary depending on the salience of climate issues at any given time. The survey asked respondents to report on children’s feelings indirectly, so children’s true feelings may not be reflected.

Most caretakers were willing to discuss climate change with children but did not know how to best approach the subject. The researchers noted that parents and teachers of young children were less likely to talk about climate change, but still reported low-to-moderate climate anxiety among their children. The researchers urged allowing children to express their specific anxieties about climate change before having a realistic, honest discussion. Support groups may also be needed for parents and teachers to work through their own emotions about climate change issues. Meanwhile, teenagers appeared to be the most concerned about climate change and the most likely to ask for support, but their caretakers reported not having enough time for conversations. Due to the potential political power of teenagers, the researchers recommended parents and teachers make time for conversations about political action in the face of climate change, while making sure to avoid burnout. Schools should provide an environmental education curriculum that emphasizes creative climate solutions already underway, and actions that students can take to address climate issues.

The Bottom Line

Research shows that climate change disasters can cause lasting mental health impacts in children, and merely learning about climate change may harm a child’s mental health. This study surveyed Australian parents and teachers on the climate anxieties of children in their lives. The researchers distributed an optional online survey to 39 Australian Facebook groups for parents, teachers, and environmentalists. The survey was distributed in two phases, during (November 2019, 90 responses) and after (January-February 2020, 51 responses) the catastrophic bushfires in Australia. Most caretakers were willing to discuss climate change with children, but did not know how to best approach the subject. Parents and teachers should emphasize creative climate solutions already underway, and actions that students can take to address climate issues.