Children who become aware of the effects of climate change vicariously can have both maladaptive and adaptive emotional responses

Leger-Goodes, T. ., Malboeuf-Hurtubise, C. ., Mastine, T. ., Généreux, M. ., Paradis, P.-O. ., & Camden, C. . (2022). Eco-anxiety in children: A scoping review of the mental health impacts of the awareness of climate change. Frontiers in Psychology.

The term “eco-anxiety” is sometimes used in reference to negative emotions brought on by climate change awareness. While there is no mental health diagnosis of eco-anxiety, it is recognized by the American Psychological Association as an area of concern. Studies about eco-anxiety have focused more on adults than children. This scoping review of the literature addressed this concern by focusing on the available evidence of eco-anxiety in children and youth who experience the impacts of climate change vicariously, by witnessing climate change through the media and other sources of information but who don't have firsthand experiences with climate change impacts.

Keywords used in conducting a literature search of five databases included “eco-anxiety,” “climate change,” and “children.” Eighteen relevant articles – all published in English or French – were identified and analyzed. The included articles reflected qualitative and quantitative research methods. The most common research method used was a descriptive design, and the most common fields of research were education and psychology. Two articles were published in gray literature (newspapers); the others in academic journals. While the literature search included articles published between January 1, 2000 and March 23, 2021, all eighteen of the selected articles were published after 2002; eleven of them (60%), after 2016. Half of the articles were from the United States; others were from Sweden, England, Finland, Australia, Taiwan, and a mixture of these countries.

The term “eco-anxiety” was used in only three articles, with the authors suggesting that worry constitutes “a key component of eco-anxiety in children.” Other articles used such terms as “ecophobia,” “environmental grief,” and “eco-despair” to describe children's emotional responses to an awareness of climate change. Many of the authors noted that, while these emotional responses were concerning, they should not be considered pathological, as they are realistic responses to the current situation. Worry was the most common word found in 14 of the articles. Hope was the second most frequently mentioned emotional response to children's awareness of climate change. Vulnerability factors found to be associated with increased worry include using problem-focused coping mechanisms, being a girl, not having the possibility to take action, and believing that the governmental responses are unsatisfactory. Potential protective factors that could foster hope in children included trusting technological advances, being involved in activism, having positive images of the future, feeling empowered, feeling a sense of purpose, and using meaning-focused coping mechanisms ("evoking positive emotions through beliefs and values while acknowledging the problem of climate change and finding meaning in a difficult situation when the problem cannot be solved at once").

Evidence from this review confirms that children who become aware of the effects of climate change through indirect means (such as the media) and without experiencing it firsthand can have maladaptive (e.g., denial) and adaptive (constructive hope) responses. Though the evidence is not yet established well enough to offer firm recommendations, the authors note that the studies in this area have implications for parents, teachers, mental health professionals, school systems, and other adults of power, including “adding age-appropriate climate education to the school curriculum, considering youth's emotions, and promoting healthy coping through empowerment.” Findings from this review also indicate that there are important gaps in the literature in how eco-anxiety is defined in children and youth.

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