What’s going to happen? Is everyone going to die? Questions that come up a bit in our house, from a concerned eight-year-old. In the past weeks, the focus of the anxiety might have been on you-know-what-19, but before then it was all about the future of the planet.
It is no massive surprise then that a survey for BBC Newsround has found that one in five kids have nightmares about the climate crisis. Or that two-fifths of the 2,000 children polled (aged eight to 16) don’t trust adults to sort it out.
David Spellman, a clinical psychologist who works with children, thinks there might be a bit more out there in the ether of digital media to trigger kids’ fear; that the coverage can be a bit hysterical (a common question put to experts is: how worried should we be?); and in Greta Thunberg there is someone kids can relate and listen to. Even so, children have always had catastrophic fears. “In my day – I’m 56 – it was about nuclear war,” Spellman says. “That was something that was bewildering, but felt real.”
He thinks adults can have the romantic notion that childhood is worry-free, but notes that we have become more aware of what children worry about, take it more seriously and are more open in understanding it. It need not be crippling.
Listening is key. “The danger is we dive in to lecture and advise rather than listen. It’s important to find ways to communicate, make sure they can talk about stuff,” says Spellman. And help them to become active consumers of information, to raise questions, ask what – and who – can be trusted. “I quite like the current trend for fact-checking people,” he adds.
“When you’re talking about huge things, like the climate and disease, the overwhelming scale of these things is apparent to everyone,” says Spellman. “The small things they can do to make a difference is often helpful.” So, if the worry leads not to being unable to get out of bed, but to taking some kind of effective action, then that is maybe not so bad.