Climate change activists show hands in support of climate action during a climate strike rally, as part of a global youth-led day of global action.

Study finds widespread climate anxiety among youth

A recent global survey illustrates the depth of anxiety many young people are feeling about climate change. Lise Van Susteren, a forensic psychologist, encourages adults to speak with children and youth about their doom to educate and alleviate anxiety.

Living on Earth

Climate change activists show hands in support of climate action during a climate strike rally, as part of a global youth-led day of global action, Friday, Sept. 20, 2019, in New York.

Bebeto Matthews/AP

A recent study led by the University of Bath found that 75% of young people surveyed believe the future is frightening because of climate change and 65% agreed with the statement that governments are failing young people.

The survey looked at 10,000 youth between the ages of 16 to 25 years, from 10 countries: the United Kingdom, Finland, France, the United States, Australia, Portugal, Brazil, India, the Philippines and Nigeria.

For Lise Van Susteren, a practicing general and forensic psychiatrist in Washington, DC, who is an expert on the physical and mental health effects of climate change and a co-author of the study, none of this comes as a surprise.

“I have been talking with kids now for many years about their anxiety and I was the expert witness on the psychological damages to kids in the United States…[in] the Juliana case,” Van Susteren says. “We sued the United States government for inaction on climate.”

"All of the things that we found in the survey, if we really use our common sense, we probably could come up with them, but people don't always connect the dots."

Lise Van Susteren, forensic psychologist

“All of the things that we found in the survey, if we really use our common sense, we probably could come up with them, but people don't always connect the dots,” she continues. “So the fact that we have it now on paper and can wave it in the air is really important.”

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In addition to two-thirds of the surveyed kids saying they were sad, afraid and anxious, over half reported feeling a sense of powerlessness, helplessness, even guilt and shame, Van Susteren says. Feelings of guilt and shame may seem surprising, but Van Susteren believes they are an important aspect of what kids experience.

Some children, she explains, look at what's happening in the world and think they should be doing more or wonder if they are really valued, knowing that adults have known what is coming and are not taking action.

“There can even be a sense of shame that they're not valued to the extent that, of course, they would ask to be, want to be and deserve to be,” Van Susteren says.

The best analogy is a family, Van Susteren says. “A community, a region, and nation, a planet, is like a family writ large. So think about what would happen in your family if your parents didn't take care of you, if they knew that you were hungry or that you were walking home in a snowstorm or you didn't have the proper clothing and things like that. We know what that would do for your self-esteem.”

Government inaction on taking care of the planet sends the same message: You’re not important enough; we don’t care enough about you to to protect you.

Even more startling, over half of the youth surveyed in the study reported a sense of doom, a feeling that the future is literally doomed. Four in 10 said they are hesitant to have children of their own, as a result.

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Van Susteren sees a “generational injustice” on the part of older people who have power and refuse to act to protect the future for younger people. She has called this “generational aggression.”

“When you know that you're hurting someone and you're doing it anyway, whether you like it or not...it's still aggression."

Lise Van Susteren, forensic psychologist

“When you know that you're hurting someone and you're doing it anyway, whether you like it or not, whether you accept it or not, whether you say so or not, and whether you're conscious of it or not, it's still aggression,” Van Susteren maintains. “And I see this aggression in the attitude of some people — not all — toward the younger generation that's going to have to deal with this.”

It’s the reverse of the cliché in which parents go out of town and the teenagers trash the house, she says. Young people are expecting to live on a planet that's in good shape, or at least as good as their parents had, and the parents have trashed it.

“Kids are very savvy. They know full well that the government is the one that can unleash the power."

Lise Van Susteren, forensic psychologist

Kids understand, Van Susteren says, that while corporations and individual adults bear responsibility, rapid social change comes about primarily through political and social policies that protect them for the future. “Kids are very savvy,” she says. “They know full well that the government is the one that can unleash the power.”

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Having an awareness of the deep anxiety afflicting young people across the world is a good first step. How, then, do parents speak to kids about the situation without instilling them with existential fear?

Van Susteren says she use her “three L’s”: Listen, learn and leverage.

What are your kids saying? We know many kids have heard a lot about climate change, so parents might say to them something like, “There’s been a lot of talk lately about the weather,” and ask them what they have heard.

Van Susteren says she had a patient whose child heard about extinction and thought the family dog, Charlie, was going to die. The child hadn't said anything to the mom but was harboring this terrible fear. This is why it's so important to hear what your kids are thinking, she says.

Learn about what you need to know so that you can talk to them. Learning leads to leveraging, Van Susteren says. Tell kids you understand their fears. Then you can talk with them about what your family can do to protect nature or, if they're old enough to understand, the climate: That's why we turn out the lights, that's why we eat the kind of food we do, that's why we have a garden, etc.

“If you haven't been doing those things, this is the perfect opportunity to make your child feel important and say, ‘You know what? Based on what you've just said to me, and what I've heard about what you're thinking, our family is going to do more to make sure that the planet is safe for you,’” Van Susteren says. “So you can use these conversations not only to steer them in the right direction, but to build their self-esteem and resilience. These are empowering words to a child who feels vulnerable.”

This article is by Adam Wernick, based on an interview that aired on Living on Earth from PRX.