Young children and climate mental health
Climate change’s impact on young children
In children who are zero to five years old, mental health is defined as the growing ability to form close relationships, manage feelings, explore, and learn.
Climate change impacts young children’s mental health in a variety of ways:
- Events such as floods, fires, heat, and air pollution cause acute, immediate stress for children and their parents.
- Events that follow climate disaster, such as conflict, lack of food, and forced migration, cause chronic, long-term stress for children and their parents.
- The care children receive from parents or guardians may be impaired, as these sources of stress make parents less able to meet their children’s emotional needs.
- Because young children’s bodies are so small and immature, they are more likely to suffer physical impacts from climate events such as low birth weight, asthma, and disease.
The experiences of stress in the list above can change the way young children’s brains develop and can lead to long-term mental health impacts. Young children’s brains are growing and changing more than they do at any other time in life. The effects of stressful events on children build upon each other, and young children are the most likely to experience many climate-related sources of stress over their lifetimes.
Unequal impacts on different children
Young children are among the most vulnerable people in every community.
Young children, between the ages of zero and five, are completely dependent upon others for their survival. They need parents and guardians. The younger the child, the more likely it is that even mild traumatic events will have lasting effects, impacting important ways that their bodies and brains develop over time. This is even more likely when young children experience multiple climate-related sources of stress.
Children in the poorer countries of the Global South, and in low-income and indigenous communities within the wealthier countries of the Global North, are at the greatest risk. For many young children growing up in those conditions, the climate crisis is a present-day reality. The overlapping impacts of air pollution, drought, heat, and other climate-related stressors are already affecting young children, as this UNICEF report describes.
Consequences if we don’t reduce carbon emissions drastically
It is difficult to imagine what will happen to young children if we do not reduce carbon emissions drastically. They will grow up into a world vastly different from the one we live in today. A child born in the last five years, if able to live out their natural life span, will potentially be alive into the next century. What they will encounter depends entirely upon our ability to rein in rising global temperatures now.
In a worst-case scenario, young children alive today will witness mass extinction before experiencing a countless number of future climate disasters themselves.
Since the effects of trauma are cumulative, building over time with each new traumatic experience, we risk having a generation of people unable to meet the needs of their families, communities, and the earth during this time of upheaval, as their human potential is set back by repeated traumatic stress.
- There is a growing body of research on the impact of heatwaves on pregnancy. Excessive hot weather can lead to many negative consequences for pregnancy, including preterm birth, in which a baby is born too early. Studies show a correlation, a clear relationship, between preterm birth and later developing mental illnesses, including depression and bipolar disorder.
- Most studies of climate emotions in young people do not include very young children. However, this study of parents’ perceptions of children’s emotions does look specifically at zero to five year olds. Data collected around the time of the Australian bushfires in 2020 found young children to be less significantly stressed than older children, but still showing some levels of stress.
- There is extensive research into how climate-related events impact the health and mental health of children, but most of the research does not single out the impacts on very young children. The research either does not distinguish age ranges at all, or focuses on older children exclusively.
Overall, as of fall 2022, there has been very little research into the mental health impacts of the climate crisis on very young children. This clearly needs to change.
What more might we need to know?
Young children are much more likely to be affected by the immediate impacts of climate crises than they are to feel intense climate anxiety. This is because the long-term threats of climate change are too abstract for them to understand.
The negative impacts of climate-related events in young children may not be easy to recognize.
Mental health in young children is defined as healthy social and emotional development. Children between the ages of zero to five are growing and changing so quickly, it can be hard to distinguish genuine concerns from normal stages in their development. Very young children cannot communicate their needs with words, and caregivers (who are also stressed by the climate-related event) may not recognize that a young child’s challenging behaviors are an expression of their needs.
Very young children will not develop concrete, clear memories of events. As the child ages, it can be hard to separate the impact of climate traumas from their behaviors and personalities. There is a mistaken belief in some cultures that children cannot be harmed by things which they do not remember, so the impact of traumatic events are misunderstood as part of the child’s identity.
While a few mental health conditions, such as PTSD and separation anxiety, can be diagnosed in early childhood, most others cannot. As a result of all these things, the impact on young children’s mental health may be overlooked.
Current research on the impact of the climate crisis on very young children is quite limited. Most studies that address mental health in children do not distinguish by age, and it is very difficult to find research that specifically studies children under six. It would be wonderful if organizations doing research on early childhood mental health could partner with researchers investigating the impact of climate disasters, to specifically study the impact on children aged zero to five.
While activists work to protect young children by demanding environmental justice and meaningful climate policy, we can help to ease the mental health impacts of climate events now and in the future.
In order to support young children, we must first support the adults who care for them.
This can be done with:
- Programs such as climate cafes and parenting circles that help parents and childcare providers to manage their own climate emotions and develop resilience in the face of stressful events.
- Programs such as community gardens and other nature-based programs that teach somatic and nature-based tools for calming our bodies. These can support children and their caregivers in co-regulating their emotions; The caregiver’s calm presence helps the child to understand and soothe their feelings–both before and after an environmental trauma.
- Tools to help parents and childcare providers learn how to speak with young children about climate change, and to support their emotional well-being following climate disasters.
Caregivers cannot be expected to meet young children’s emotional needs alone. Programs that promote caring and trauma responsive communities are vital.
Books for parents
Parenting in a Changing Climate by Elizabeth Bechard, published in 2021 by Citrine Publishing.
How to Talk to Your Kids About Climate Change, Turning Angst into Action by Harriet Shugarman, published in 2020 by New Society Publishers.
The Parents’ Guide to Climate Revolution:100 Ways to Build a Fossil-Free Future, Raise Empowered Kids and Still Get a Good Night’s Sleep by Mary DeMocker, published in 2018 by New World Library.
The Curious Garden by Peter Brown, published in 2010 by Little Brown. Ages three and up.
The Lorax by Dr Seuss, published in 1971 by Penguin Random House. Ages four and up.
This Is Our World: A Story About Taking Care of the Earth by Emily Sollinger published in 2010 by Simon and Schuster. Also check out others in their Little Green Books series. Ages four and up.
Greta and the Giants by Zoë Tuker, published in 2019 by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books. Ages four and up, back-liner notes for older children.
How to talk to young children about the climate crisis – Online resources
How to talk honestly to kids about climate change — and still give them hope, a TED Talk in 2021, with Katharine Hayhoe PhD and Rosimar Rios-Berrios PhD.
How to Talk with Kids About Climate Change, published by Yale Climate Connections in 2020, by Daisey Simmons.
Your Guide to Talking With Kids of All Ages About Climate Change, published by the Natural Resources Defense Council in 2019.
How to support young children following a climate disaster – online resources
After the Hurricane: Helping Young Children Heal, published by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network in 2010 by Chandra Ghosh Ippen, Alicia F. Lieberman, & Patricia Van Horn (also available for tsunamis and tornadoes).
The climate crisis is a child rights crisis: Introducing the Children’s Climate Risk Index, published by UNICEF, August 2021, by the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Selected Research/Scientific Papers
Baker, C., Clayton, S., & Bragg, E. (2021). Educating for resilience: parent and teacher perceptions of children’s emotional needs in response to climate change. Environmental Education Research. 27(5), 687-705. https://doi.org/10.1080/13504622.2020.1828288
Gnanavel, S. (2022). Eco-crisis and mental health of children and young people: Do child mental health professionals have a role? World Journal of Psychiatry. 12(5), 668-672. https://doi.org/10.5498/wjp.v12.i5.668
McLanahan, S., Currie, J.M., Haskins, R., Rouse, C.E., & Sawhill, I. eds. (2016). Children and Climate Change. The Future of Children. 26(1). toruqf2411/files/media/children_and_climate_change_26_1_full_journal.pdf
Olson, D.M., & Metz, G.A.S. (2020). Climate change is a major stressor causing poor pregnancy outcomes and child development. F1000Research, 9(Faculty Rev), 12222. https://doi.org/9-1222/v1
Thiery, W. (2021). Intergenerational inequities in exposure to climate extremes. SCIENCE. 374(6564), 158-160. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.abi7339
Van Nieuwenhuizen, A., Hudson, K., Chen, X., & Hwong A.R. (2021).The Effects of Climate Change on Child and Adolescent Mental Health: Clinical Considerations. Current Psychiatry Reports, 23(88). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-021-01296-y
Vergunst, F. & Berry, H.L. (2022). Climate Change and Children’s Mental Health: A Developmental Perspective. Clinical Psychological Science, 10(4), 767-785. https://doi.org/epub/10.1177/21677026211040787
September 22, 2022
Author: Jenni Silverstein, LCSW
Editor: Rei Takver