Parents discuss how they are talking to their children about climate change when they are anxious about it themselves, with journalist Alexa Phillips.
“How many animals gone extinct?” When Antonia Godber opened her laptop and saw this question typed into Google she knew immediately who had asked it: her 11-year-old son, Will.
As a mum of three and former teacher, Antonia is used to talking with children about issues that concern them – as many parents have had to recently, while explaining why we’re all staying inside and what a virus is.
But whereas most childhood fears might not seem scary to an adult, Antonia shares her son’s anxiety about the planet – an issue that we can’t hope to rid of within a year or 18 months like coronavirus, and is worth remembering ahead of Earth Day on Wednesday.
“When I read the IPCC report in 2018, it hit me like a ton of bricks,” she says. The UN document warned that humans have only 12 years to stop global warming exceeding 1.5C, to avert a significant increase in the risks of droughts, floods and extreme heat. “I became extremely frightened,” says Antonia. “I was crying all the time.”
Warnings about the impact of the climate crisis on younger generations have become increasingly stark – earlier this year, the World Health Organisation and Unicef said “ecological damage unleashed today endangers the future of children’s lives” – so it is unsurprising that some parents are desperately worried.
“It’s a primal instinct to protect your children,” says Antonia. “And the thought you might not be able to is excruciating.”
‘I nearly had a meltdown’
Liz Sampson, an accountant from Henley, Oxfordshire, started educating herself about environmental issues a year ago when she tried to do a plastic-free weekly shop. “I nearly had a meltdown, you can’t do it,” she says. “I felt like fainting and I couldn’t breathe.”
Liz doesn’t want her fears to impact her children, Alexandra, 11, and James, 13. “Children feed off parents; if parents are anxious, children pick up on it,” Liz says.
She saw the effects of this when James called her from rugby practice “in a panic”. One of their few remaining plastic bags, which he used to carry his boots, had blown away. “He thought it had gone into the river, and would harm the fish.”
In the face of this uncertainty, Antonia and Liz have taken steps to reduce their consumption, not only to minimise their impact on the environment but to help prepare their children for a world in which food and clean water might not be so widely available. Antonia saves bath water to flush the toilet; Liz, a keen gardener, shows her children how to grow vegetables.
Both are also trying to bring about wider social change, Liz through campaigning with Extinction Rebellion and Antonia through taking action in her community with Will, along with eight-year-old Toby and Maisie, who is five.
‘I’m sorry, my generation messed up’
It’s difficult for parents who are trying to support their children while dealing with their own complicated mix of emotions – including guilt – says Dr Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist at Bath University and member of the Climate Psychology Alliance.
“We can’t continue to parent as if nothing has changed,” she tells i. “I work with parents whose teenagers are furious with them. They say: ‘What’s the point in doing exams when the world isn’t going to be the one you promised me?’”
Caroline insists that this anger needs to be acknowledged, saying: “The first thing you need to do is apologise: ‘I’m sorry, my generation messed up.’” By being honest with children, in an age-appropriate way, and by taking their feelings seriously, Caroline believes that parents can help contain their anxiety and build trust.
“If you build trust the child will feel more secure. So there may be insecurity in the world, but the child can have security in their relationship with their parents.”
Above all, Caroline says: “Parents have to process their own feelings in order to support their children. And the best people to support them are other parents.”
This is exactly what Antonia realised. After seeking professional help for her anxiety, she started a parents’ support group called Climate Change Conversations in the Netherlands where she now lives. “I wanted something like this when I was feeling terrible, and it didn’t exist. So I popped a post on Facebook, made a cake and hoovered. Then the doorbell rang.”
The group meets regularly, organising practical events like clothes swaps and marches “as that’s where the conversations happen,” says Antonia. In between, they message each other. “It’s such a lovely feeling.”
‘We can’t leave this to our kids’
Connecting with other parents has also made a huge difference to Jenny Gow, a paediatrician from Gloucestershire. She felt alone with her fears until she went on a climate march while pregnant with her third child. There, she started talking to other women, one of whom carried a sign saying: “Worried mum. One of many.”
“We felt like we had to mobilise more parents,” says Jenny. Together they founded the group Mothers Rise Up! and 3,000 people joined their first march in May 2019.
Seeing the youth climate strike movement has galvanised them further. “We can’t leave this to our kids,” says Jenny. “This is not their problem to solve. It’s us, the adults, who should be responsible for turning this ship around.”
This story originally appeared in iNews and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.