Published 29 November 2023
What kinds of connections with people, nature or animals made you most contented as a child? When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to live in a house with a garden. I used to spend a lot of time in an overgrown strip along the side of it, in a made-up world involving imaginary forests and horses. How about you? Did you get to spend time outside when you were little?
When I became a parent, it bought the future into sharp relief. There’s nothing like realising your child will (hopefully) live to see 2100, and that their kids might see the middle of the next century, to make you realise that talk of scary ‘future’ events and calamities are almost certainly going to shape their lives in a really significant way, even if they don’t directly shape ours (which by the way they will, if they are not already).
” Climate anxiety, far from being a mental health disorder, is a rational response to a very real and knotty problem.
In a survey of over 10,000 young people aged 16-25 around the world, 84% were worried about climate change and this was partly due to inaction by adults in general and governments in particular. Of 2000 8-16 year olds, 74% say they are worried about the state of the planet according to a 2020 survey for BBC Newsround.
So, as a 21st century parent, how can we respond to our children’s questions, anxieties, even anger, about how the grown-ups have let it get to this?
As with all feelings expressed by our kids (e.g., about friends, exams, schools etc.) it is helpful to feel heard. So, although it is tempting to reassure them that everything is ok, it is super important to listen and to validate their feelings and thoughts.
Containment is the process of deeply listening and allowing the person to express their feelings, naming them and showing the other person they can be thought about and tolerated. It is one of the core theories you meet when you learn with the Solihull Approach, which provides a framework for understanding emotions, behaviours and relationships.
To be able to listen, we need to feel reasonably contained ourselves. Things are now so dire with the climate and ecological systems that some disconnect and denial is inevitable, otherwise how would we function, especially with all the other challenges life throws at us, right?
The challenge is in turning towards and processing our own feelings for long enough to be able to engage. Disconnection, after all, is what has got us into this mess. It can be hard to really listen to our children’s fears. As mums and dads, we are meant to soothe, fix and make it better.
It can be helpful to remind children and young people (and ourselves) that there are lots and lots of adults working really hard on this problem behind the scenes. But this is the most complicated and difficult problem ever faced. Ever.
COP28, which started this week, is one part of a big puzzle. It is not going to be enough to avoid big changes in our lives. But as we head into an uncertain future, engagement from every sector and every profession is needed, as well as from citizens and consumers and politicians. Therefore, we can all do our bit. Not to fix, but to slow, respond, adapt and evolve.
So, what can we do? I’ll get onto the practical stuff in a moment. First, let’s not underestimate the softer skills we teach as parents: listening to our children, teaching them how to negotiate, share with each other, helping them to notice the needs of other humans and non-humans (plants, trees, animals, rivers etc.) and to see themselves as being in a reciprocal relationship with these things, recognising the interconnectivity of everything.
When my kids fell out with each other when they were little, I used to make them say ‘sorry for….’ to encourage them to acknowledge their part. And the other person had to say, ‘that’s ok’. But only when they were ready. Known in psychological and neurological science as ‘rupture and repair’.
These qualities are crucial in resilient communities, who can pull together and work cooperatively to deal with whatever scarcity or disaster comes their way.
What about the practical things parents can do with their children? Just like parenting, it is not a one size fits all approach. Joanna Macy is a campaigner, deep ecologist and systems theorist, now in her nineties. In her body of work, called the Work that Reconnects, Macy describes three strands in the story of the Great Turning. Find what is right for you and your family. All are necessary, so there is something for everyone. Being active is deeply empowering and supports the emotional well-being of ourselves and our children.
Firstly, there are holding actions, which are about holding back the ongoing damage. This may include getting involved in protests about the way things are, raising awareness, writing to MPs, having a voice, campaigning (e.g., for plastic reduction or clean air).
The second is about systems and practices; doing things together in a different, more sustainable way (local gardening schemes, community projects, repair cafes, zero waste shopping, tool sharing, holidaying locally, reducing meat consumption, and so many more).
The third is a shift in consciousness; reprioritising our values, fine tuning how we are together, questioning what constitutes a status symbol, talking about it with friends, and making it normal to talk about and care for the natural world on which we are so dependent and connected.
In a world where values have become skewed around what we consume, how much stuff we have, instant individual gratification, getting ahead, growth for growth’s sake – how about noticing how these crop up in our own lives, noticing what messages we inadvertently pass onto our children about what constitutes ‘success’.
Let’s come back to those times when you felt contented as a child. No matter what your background is, the chances are it involved some kind of connection with another person, a feeling of safety and warmth, or something to do with nature. It probably wasn’t to do with feeling richer, more successful or better than everyone else.
Even if material things were part of that moment, I would guess that behind that warm feeling was either the idea that you had been thought about and valued, or a feeling you were part of something.
Thinking back to a simpler time in our own lives gives us clues as to how to help our children. They love connection with you, no matter their age! Examine the intricacies of the pattern on a leaf, spend a moment watching insects, talk about the balance of everything, help your child make the connection between this and that in nature. Point out the beauty of the autumn leaves or an evening sky on a walk or drive. And above all listen to them, help them to name their feelings and teach them to say a heartfelt sorry.
What the next evolution of humanity really needs is leaders who are connected to what it feels like to live in a world which is ecologically on its knees, i.e. who are emotionally literate. These future leaders are having their childhoods now. As well as being active, connected citizens ourselves, our role is to support their emotional health now and in doing so we will equip them for a world we can scarcely imagine.
Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Solihull Approach Development Manager
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