Research Summary

How do children cope with global climate change? Coping strategies, engagement, and well-being

Children’s Strategies for Coping with Climate Change Affects Engagement and Emotions

Journal of Environmental Psychology

Research has shown that late childhood and early adolescence are critical periods for sparking an interest in global environmental issues. However, learning about global problems can also trigger feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and hopelessness. This may be especially true for children, who have fewer strategies for dealing with negative emotions than adults. The aim of this study was to investigate how 12-year-olds cope with climate change and to examine how different coping strategies relate to environmental engagement, emotional well-being, optimism concerning climate change, and a sense of purpose in life.

The author defined coping as a conscious effort that one makes to handle different kinds of psychological stress and threats, as opposed to automatic or unconscious behavior. Based on past research, three main coping strategies for dealing with environmental problems were examined: problem-focused coping, meaning-focused coping, and emotion-focused coping. In problem-focused coping, a person concentrates on ways to solve the problem, such as searching for information about what one can do. Meaning-focused coping requires one to evoke positive feelings that can work as a buffer from negative emotions. An example of meaning-focused coping is trusting in different societal actors—such as scientists, teachers, and politicians—to help solve environmental problems. Emotion-focused coping involves eliminating negative emotions through avoidance, distancing, and denial.

For this study, the author surveyed 12-year-old children in Sweden (n = 293, 48% female). The survey was designed to measure: the child’s sense of their environmental efficacy (exemplified in the statement “I can make a difference,” for example); pro-environmental behavior in everyday life (for example, “helping one’s parents to recycle”); life satisfaction; general negative affect (anxious and depressive feelings felt during the last week); optimism concerning climate change; sense of purpose in life; and worry about climate change.

Analysis of the results supported that using three different coping strategies (meaning-, problem-, and emotion-focused) was an effective way to describe and organize the data, accounting for more than 50% of the variance in the responses. Having established this, the author investigated how each of these coping strategies correlated with levels of environmental engagement, emotional well-being, optimism concerning climate change, and sense of purpose in life.

The results showed those who were engaged in problem-focused and/or meaning-focused coping were more likely to report high levels of environmental efficacy, pro-environmental behavior, optimism concerning climate change, and a sense of purpose. However, problem-focused coping was positively correlated with negative affect; in other words, the more a child was engaged in problem-focused coping the more they reported feelings of depression and anxiety. By contrast, children who tended to use a high degree of meaning-focused coping were less likely to experience negative affect and more likely to experience life satisfaction and general positive affect.

Children who used emotion-focused coping by deemphasizing or denying climate change were less likely to report a sense of environmental efficacy, and reported less pro-environmental behavior. However, these children also reported a low degree of depressive and anxious feelings, which indicates that this coping strategy may function as a way to regulate emotions.

Overall, the results point out the benefits of meaning-focused coping strategies for increasing environmental engagement without increasing feelings of anxiety and depression. One example of this strategy is positive reappraisal, where a person describes her or his worries about the environment and then is able to think about those worries in a different way so as to activate hope. One way to do this is to think about the problems in a historical context, noting that awareness of the problem has increased in recent years.

The Bottom Line

Learning about severe environmental problems such as climate change can be uncomfortable and fear inducing, and each person finds different ways to cope with this discomfort. These coping strategies can be understood with three categories: problem-focused strategies (for example, “How can I solve this problem?”); meaning-focused strategies (“I trust that we have the capacity to make a difference in solving this problem”); and emotion-focused strategies (“climate change is a lie”). In this study, the author examined coping strategies among 12-year-old Swedish children. She found that children who engage in problem-focused or meaning-focused strategies are more likely to be environmentally engaged, whereas those who used emotion-focused strategies, such as denial, were less likely to be engaged. However, children who were primarily problem-focused tended to have increased levels of anxiety and depression compared with children using other strategies. The study highlights the importance of focusing on meaning-focused strategies, such as generating feelings of hope and trust, so that we can make a difference in addressing the problem of climate change.