It’s ironic to begin with an aeroplane-based analogy, but it works. Before you approach engagement with any child about climate change (and indeed with another human of any age), start by checking in with yourself.
Ask yourself, ‘what is my current mental state?’
Why? The less stressed and anxious a person is (i.e., the more calm and ‘grounded’, and the more within their ‘window of tolerance’[i] they are – see the dropdown below for more on this), the more able they are to communicate effectively. Good communication around a difficult and complex subject like the climate crisis relies on being able to listen, empathise, connect, think quickly and creatively. All of these qualities are more accessible when prepared and in a calm state.
In his 2015 book, The Developing Mind, Second Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (Guilford Publications), clinical psychiatrist Dan Siegel describes humans as having an optimal state of arousal called the ‘window of tolerance’. When we are within our window, we are integrated, meaning we are in touch with our feelings and thoughts, and able to function in a creative, resilient, and adaptive way. For each of us, there is only so much stress we can take before we go out of our personal window, into hyper-arousal (too stressed to calm down, a state of collapse and chaos, often called ‘fight or flight’) or hypo-arousal (shut down, depression, denial, ‘freeze’).
In her TED Talk, How to turn climate anxiety into action, Psychologist Renée Lertzman identifies this as one of the key concepts psychology can offer to climate action. To be able to respond effectively, process information and connect with others, we need to be within our window. However, news reports, documentaries, difficult questions can all be the stress that pushes us outside our window and undermine our capacity to function and communicate properly. It follows that we need to be aware of what stressors we expose ourselves to and be mindful of limits in our capacity to deal with them.
Tolerance of stressors differs from person to person and the limits of an individual’s capacity – or size of window – can vary with external pressures, environment, and access to support. Mindfulness, breathing exercises, physical activity, journaling and talking to others can all help us proactively widen our window, or return to it when we slip out.
It is useful to spend some time considering what helps you widen your window or return to it when you need to.
This website offers a useful more in-depth introduction to the idea of the Window of Tolerance.
Words are only one part of communication. Body language is highly important, and we also now know that an adults’ mental state impacts directly on that of the child or children around them. Bodies and nervous systems tune into each other, and states of ‘both calm and alarm are ‘catching’, so if the adult [is] calm, the child will also be able to stay calm’ (Hickman, 2021).[ii] Psychotherapist Jo McAndrews describes children as the Bluetooth speaker to our internal playlist; even if we say the ‘right’ things, if we are playing a soundtrack of stress and anxiety inside our heads, the child is likely to pick up on that and amplify it.[iii]
It can be really hard to make time for one’s own stress regulation and self-care in everyday life, and more so in an era of high-level world-wide stress and climate emergency. But urgency of action is not a reason to skip this first step of self-preparation. In the words of Matilda Leyser, theatre-maker, writer, mother and artistic director of Mothers Who Make,
“There’s so much to do! There’s so little time! We must slow down.”
Ensuring our own resilience (our ability to recover from difficulties, to thrive in the face of adversity) and developing our capacity to regulate our own stress levels is a priority in times of crisis.
What children need, in order to be able to develop their own stress regulation skills and grow to be resilient adults, is to be around adults who are kind, warm and responsive.[iv] We cannot provide what is needed, most of all the children of this world, if we are burnt out (exhausted through stress and overwork) and incapacitated by unprocessed fear and anxiety.
Beyond the direct impact of our state on the children around us, looking after our own mental state is essential for the work we need to do to minimise catastrophic climate impacts, and ensure the wellbeing of generations to come. This is a long and complex process, and whilst we may already have many of the answers, making the necessary changes (and in a way that is just and fair) requires collaboration, commitment and careful thought. The process asks a lot of us emotionally, especially when considering the impacts on young people and we must endeavour to avoid ‘psychic numbing’, which can undermine our ability to engage.
Preparing to engage: how to get your oxygen
Below are some tips for looking after yourself and doing the work you need to, to prepare to engage. Click on the ‘+’ at the end of the the dropdown boxes to read.
A phrase coined by Jo McAndrews when talking about caring for children in the climate crisis, it is equally useful when thinking about your own self-care.
What does fierce protection mean and what might it look like?
To enact fierce protection is to be consciously aware of what negatively impacts your mental and/or physical wellbeing, and proactively minimise or at least mindfully regulate your exposure to it.
We need to consider what we expose ourselves to information- and experience-wise. It is useful to get into the habit of checking in with yourself regularly regarding your capacity to engage in an activity which is potentially physically and/or emotionally demanding. This might include things like reading the news, or watching a documentary, which many of us do without even thinking about it.
“[…] with something like climate change, with every new scientific report, documentary, connecting the dots between […] what we’re doing and the impact it’s having, it can collectively be pushing us outside of our window of tolerance. And we lose that capacity [to be integrated, adaptive, resilient], right?”
Renée Lertzman, How to turn climate anxiety into action, TED Talk from 2019
Overexposure to stressors like scary news articles can lead to ‘psychic numbing’ which undermines engagement:
“We can become paralysed by fear, or just tune out. We use various kinds of defence mechanisms to distract, to deflect, to numb out.”
Professor Susan M Koger, specialist in psychology for sustainability at Willamette University in Oregon[v]
So, next time you are scrolling through the news, take a moment to consider whether you need to or have the capacity in that moment (based on window of tolerance, access to support etc) to read the latest article detailing future food shortage predictions. Be mindful about what you’re exposing yourself too and remember that, in the specific case of media articles, the press thrives on over-simplification, blame and doom mongering. Being informed is crucial, but think about how, where and when you get information, and importantly whether you will have the opportunity to process it, by, for example, talking to someone you trust. Perhaps at this moment you would be better served by reading a positive news story that gives you hope – or avoiding the news altogether.
Grounding is using any of a variety of practices to stabilise the nervous system, enabling you to bring the mind’s focus back to what is real here and now in the present moment.[vi] In Western culture, grounding has become an important tool in helping individuals improve their mental health, allowing people to distance themselves from distressing thoughts and feelings, and to combat stress, anxiety, and PTSD.
When you ground yourself physically and mentally, you become present. This being present enables clearer, calmer thinking – which in turn, allows clearer, calmer communication with others. The more an adult can regulate their own stress, the more able they become to help a child from stress to calm.
How do you ground yourself? You may well already have a toolkit of grounding activities at your fingertips. It you don’t, there are lots of ways to do it and it is worth experimenting with tried-and-tested methods to identify what works for you. Given the nature of the climate crisis and our busy lives, it can be particularly useful to think through what you can do in moments when you are short on time.
Research shows that even 12 seconds of this type of activity leads to the building of new neural connections in the brain.[vii] And you probably have 12 seconds.
Some examples of grounding activities…
- Take a walk in natural surroundings
- Do a mindfulness practice like a body scan (link: free guided meditations on the Frantic World website; link: why do a body check in?)
- Try yoga or qigong
- Only got a few moments? Make like a tree. Feel down into the earth and imagine you have roots, placing your hand on your tummy and heart, and taking some deep breaths.
Think about what information you need, and where you can find it. ‘Arm yourself with the facts’ is first on the list for Rainforest Alliance’s Danielle Kramer, in her 2018 article ‘5 Tips for Talking to Kids About Climate Change (Without Freaking Them Out)’:
‘So much misinformation about climate change swirls about us these days, it’s more important than ever to consult evidence-based science as the means to sort fact from fiction.’
Often there will be unexpected questions that you cannot answer on the spot, so it can be useful to have done a bit of thinking about where you can find accurate information to help you formulate an answer, even if in the moment, you need to say, “interesting question, I don’t know. Let me see if I can find out about that” (or, with an older child, “Want to look into that together”). ‘Science Moms’ Dr Katharine Hayhoe and Rosimar Rios-Berrios suggest that you always keep learning:
‘Continuing to learn more about climate change yourself can prepare you to answer your kids’ questions and help them tackle it side-by-side.’
Science Moms is a nonpartisan group of climate scientists who are also mums, who create resources that break down the issue of climate change into simple and digestible pieces, available online.
But remember, in line with point 1: be mindful of what you expose yourself to, ns your window of tolerance. In an email to me, researcher and facilitator Dr Rebecca Nestor, who runs regular climate cafes with the Climate Psychology Alliance, warns that we should set limits to the amount of information we absorb about the climate crisis, as “even if the information you’re looking at is accurate, it can make it a lot worse to spend loads of time doomscrolling.”
Talking helps us process our own emotions about climate change, enabling us to be more present for our children when they talk about their emotions. It can also allow us to move through our own denial and paralysis to engagement and action.
‘Deal with your own feelings separately now. Then you can be present to your children when their emotions about the climate crisis arise. You don’t want to have your anxiety leak onto your children, nor do you want to alarm your kids with your own fear.’
Dr Krista Kurth in ‘How to Talk with Your Kids about the Climate Crisis’, 2020
If you want to build community whilst also exploring and working through your emotions around climate change with the facilitation of experienced practitioners, look for a programme like Living with the Climate Crisis (set up by members of the Climate Psychology Alliance, check out the work of The Work That Reconnects Network or the Good Grief Network’s ‘10 Steps to Personal Resilience & Empowerment in a Chaotic Climate’ programme. Research shows that these kinds of ‘emotional methodologies’ (a term coined by researcher Dr Jo Hamilton to describe the range of methods developed to ‘acknowledge, explore and encourage the processing of the emotions relating to climate change’), enable broader, deeper and more sustained engagements with climate change. It can be great to meet in person (who needs more zoom in their life?!) but many of these programmes also offer meetings online.
For a great introduction to what we do with how we feel about climate change and why it matters, see this article by Dr Jo Hamilton: https://bit.ly/3IF0bxK
“It takes a village to raise a child”
Don’t go it alone. Humans evolved to parent and raise children in groups, and we lack capacity to meet all theirs on our own.[viii] Where possible, children need to be cared for and regulated by carers who are well-supported by others, so identifying and accessing emotional and practical support from like-minded individuals is valuable. Other voices offer ideas for new ways of seeing and communicating things.
How do you build a village?
One quick and easy way to build links with potential allies who are actively considering similar things is to plug in to an existing, ready-made community. For example, if you’re a parent, you might consider joining a group like Parents For Future; for teachers, the UK Student Climate Network has a Teachers’ Network.
“In the darkest hour
I feel a hand reaching for mine. Like an electric pulse
a sense of another, a whole circle of mothers, their voices
like nutrients rushing to my dense wooden heart:
we are working on it. Together we are many. Together we are strong.”
Extract from ‘What to do when the fear spills over’ by Mary Livingstone, read by the author at ‘Holding Against Extremes: Mothering and Making in a Time of Climate Emergency’ exhibition event at the Oxford Playhouse, by Mothers Who Make in 2019 [ix]
If you are a parent with a child at school, there will be other parents who are consciously engaging with the climate crisis. Get a note into the school newsletter and see who turns up.
Thinking about how you support a young person to take action should not be a distraction from thinking about what action you want to take as an individual. Be mindful of projecting your own need to act onto someone else – are they telling you they want to do something, or are you making them do it, which can lead to distress and resentment?
In terms of your own anxiety about the climate crisis, research shows that taking action is an effective way to combat mild to moderate anxiety,[x] so when thinking about how to look after yourself, it is worth considering what you are doing, or would like to be doing yourself, before or alongside helping others to find their own paths to action. Not only can this help you manage your own distress, it is beneficial for children to have role models, demonstrating a willingness to make compromises, take action and discuss how we feel. When they see us take action, it sets a good example, and it also helps them reduce their own distress (what Hickman calls the ‘secondary distress’ of not only dealing with the crisis, but with our inaction on top)[xi] as it provides them with evidence that adults are taking action, and that they are not alone in trying to make things better.
The climate crisis is not just causing eco-anxiety in children; climate-related anxiety, stress and PTSD is on the rise in adults, and many of us are despairing about the state and future of the planet. A 2020 poll from the American Psychiatric Association found that more than half of respondents were somewhat or extremely anxious about the effects of climate change on their own mental health. Parents of very young children also need to be aware that they are particularly vulnerable to mental health impacts due to the hormonal changes that come with having a baby.
Psychologists agree, anxiety is an entirely rational response to the situation we are in. We may be feeling all sorts of emotions, some even contradictory. These emotions are not wrong and should not be pathologized per se, but things like anxiety can become a problem if it gets out of hand.
‘The ability to process information and make decisions without being disabled by extreme emotional responses is threatened by climate change. Some emotional response is normal, and even negative emotions are a necessary part of a fulfilling life. In the extreme case, however, they can interfere with our ability to think rationally, plan our behaviour, and consider alternative actions.’
Clayton et al. (2017)[xii]
In an extreme example, Caroline Hickman reports having counselled parents who fantasise about killing their children, out of fear for the climate-ravaged future.[xiii]
We need to ensure we have sufficient opportunity and support to process how we feel to remain healthy and balanced – within our window of tolerance. And to do this, we might need professional support.
There is a growing awareness in the therapist community of the need for support (link: see e.g., this article in The Guardian from 2021). Routes to support include participating in groups using emotional methodologies; exploring the growing amount of support available from groups online (see, for example, the Climate Psychology Alliance); as well as talking therapies and counselling.
Wondering how to find a therapist? At time of writing, the Climate Psychology Alliance is offering three free sessions of therapeutic support; Mind also has a page on their website about different types of talking therapy, which is a good, basic starting point when exploring your options.
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