Parenthood Can Amplify Climate Anxiety — Here's How to Cope

For Lauren Simmons, it was Christmas songs that triggered her climate anxiety as a parent this past winter. "Every time I heard 'It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas' or 'Winter Wonderland,' these songs that were so critical to my core childhood memories, I felt a deep sense of grief knowing that snow may or may not be a part of my children's future Christmases," she says. Though a climate and education advisor, Simmons at one point kept a filter on her news feed to avoid stories about climate change; they were too much for her to handle.

Simmons is not alone: as floods and fires become more widespread, climate anxiety has become so pervasive that there's an entire industry of therapists dedicated to helping people deal with it. And as a parent, concerns for the future of our planet are amplified by how climate change could affect those you love most for decades after you're gone. Moms and dads are asking each other for coping strategies on Reddit. For some people, it makes them rethink having kids altogether.

If you are a parent, learning how to grapple with climate change distress is not only essential for your own well-being, but for your children's, too. "It's harder to show up for your kid and put your best parenting self forward if you're thinking a lot about what their future might look like and worrying," says therapist Jennifer Silverstein, LCSW, who volunteers with Climate Psychology Alliance and consults on community resilience. Figuring out how to manage climate anxiety as a parent comes down to feeling less alone, and more in control.

Find ways to be proactive.

For many parents, productive coping centers around taking action. "Any time we feel anxiety, it often stems from feeling a lack of control," says Pamela Templer, PhD, professor and chair of the biology department at Boston University, where her lab focuses on the effects of environmental change. "And so if you feel like you're making a difference, it feels more constructive."

In addition to teaching young people about climate change in her professional life, Dr. Templer says that small actions at home help her (and her family of four) feel like they're doing what they can to make a difference: walking rather than driving when possible, composting, eating less meat, not using heavy pesticides in the yard, letting the house get a little warmer in the summer and cooler in the winter. "Any climate anxiety I have, I feel like as long as I put energy into doing something to fix it, then I feel better about it," Dr. Templer says.

It can also help to get active in your community and beyond. Dr. Templer is part of a local tree-planting committee. Simmons suggests taking actions like advocating for a no-idle zone at your kids' school. You can go to town meetings to push for climate-friendly policies, or become part of a parent-led environmental organization like Moms Clean Air Force or Mothers Out Front.

Silverstein recommends getting your kids involved in these activities, too, so you can experience it together. "You want to be able to model for your kids what collective action looks like," Simmons says.

If nothing else, look up what other people are doing for the environment. "Even that might give them some alleviation of their anxiety to know that people are out there really working hard on this," Dr. Templer says.

Simmons points to the idea of "constructive hope," or the belief that actions are being taken to avoid climate disaster — something that she relates to personally. "I see how bad it is. But at the same time, I see that there are very real ways in which people are trying to transform systems to address the underlying causes of climate change and environmental injustice," she says.

Let go of the guilt of not being "perfect."

Even if you're trying to be as environmentally friendly as possible in your life, there are times when we need to be flexible.

"Doing what you need to do to keep your kid safe and functioning in this culture sometimes feels like a very different set of things than what you would do to make the world a better place for them," Silverstein says. "If I buy my kid a bicycle helmet, that's what I have to do to keep them safe when they're riding their bike. But the helmet's made of plastic and it was shipped here from China."

Although certain compromises might feel like they go against your environmental values, Silverstein suggests recognizing that we're part of a bigger system — one that's difficult to escape. Feeling guilty about it will only cause additional distress.

Teach your kids about climate change.

As a parent, you have an opportunity to help shape the next generation, so take advantage: instead of avoiding the topic, help your children feel empowered. Talk about climate change with your kids and show them how to be environmental stewards, too.

Silverstein says that you can support their connection to nature from infancy, taking them outdoors and having them feel the bark on trees, for instance. "We know that children who have formative connections with nature are more likely to have enduring pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors," Simmons says.

By the time they're in preschool, start to talk about things like shutting off the lights because it's better for the planet. As they get older, find out what kind of curriculum the school teaches, and keep tabs on what they're hearing about climate change in the media so that you can talk to them first, or at least follow up with helpful conversations.

If you're not sure how to bring up the topic in an age-appropriate way, look for TV shows and books about climate change, like "Octonauts Above and Beyond," that can help. "There's no shame in getting help from outside sources," Simmons says.

Talk to other parents about your concerns.

It can be helpful to remember you're not the only one feeling anxious about our environment. "Talking to other parents and other caregivers, and validating this sense of angst can be productive," Simmons says.

If you don't have anyone in your network that you can talk to, join a climate café, a community space (virtual or IRL) where you can safely discuss climate fears, Silverstein suggests. "Finding people that you can share in the conversation with and not feel isolated by it is a super important way to take care of ourselves," she says.

Stay present.

Unfortunately, no matter how many trees we plant, it's nearly impossible to completely erase our climate anxiety since the future of our environment is largely out of any one individual's hands. Silverstein reminds clients that they still need to take care of themselves, and find ways to come back to the present moment when climate anxiety starts to get the better of them.

"It could be really any kind of self-soothing," she says. "For me, it's nature. Whatever they prefer, whether it's music or going for a walk, I particularly encourage parents to do that, and share it with their kids."

If you're struggling to figure out how to manage climate anxiety as a parent, or finding that it's often keeping you from being fully in the moment with your kids, seek out resources from places like the Climate Mental Health Network or find a climate-focused therapist through the Climate Psychology Alliance. "Support is out there," Silverstein says.

Jennifer Heimlich is a writer and editor with more than 15 years of experience in fitness and wellness journalism. She previously worked as the senior fitness editor for Well+Good and the editor in chief of Dance Magazine. A UESCA-certified running coach, she's written about running and fitness for publications like Shape, GQ, Runner's World, and The Atlantic.