Eco distress: for parents and carers

This webpage is for parents and carers, as well as teachers and others who support children and young people, to help you understand what eco distress is, how to recognise if your child is experiencing eco distress, and provide some suggestions to help them cope with their feelings.  

Disclaimer

This is information, not advice. Please read our disclaimer.

Eco distress (sometimes called ‘eco-anxiety’) is a way of describing the wide range of thoughts and emotions people may experience when they hear bad news about our planet and the environment1.  Some examples are global warming, events like floods, fires or drought, harm to animals as a result of habitat destruction, and other worldwide problems like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Young people might feel a range of emotions when they hear about these issues, such as feeling anxious, worried, upset, scared, sad, angry, distressed, vulnerable, or unsure about the future2

Feeling distressed or anxious about our world is normal and shows that we care about the planet. But sometimes these feelings can be overwhelming and hard to deal with and your child may need professional help, in addition to support from you and your family. This leaflet covers both the things that you can do to support your child, and when to seek help from a professional.

The number of young people who are concerned about the environment is growing rapidly3.  Eco distress can affect anyone and may be triggered by many things, such as pictures of natural disasters, reading about these issues online or on social media, learning about it at school, or watching a news report on TV. 

Yes it is. Some climate scientists and activists have had these concerns about the environment for many years. 

Eco distress is NOT a diagnosis or mental illness. However, professionals recognise that it can affect people’s mental health over time2,4.  

Fear and worry are normal emotions that help us to prepare ourselves for uncertain or potentially difficult or dangerous situations. These reactions are what have allowed us to survive and thrive over time: to cross the road safely, study for exams, and work together to face a pandemic like COVID-19. 

When children and young people face everyday challenges, like doing something for the first time, they will usually feel less worried after someone has given them a little encouragement or they have achieved the task. They can feel more in control over these kinds of worries.

However, it is difficult to provide reassurance about global problems like climate change which is too big of a problem for one person to deal with on their own5

They may feel: 

  • breathless, sweaty, sick, headachy, tense or fidgety
  • anxious, fearful, panicky, alarmed
  • sad, tearful, irritable, pessimistic
  • angry, frustrated, furious
  • guilty, hopeless, drained
  • on edge, numb, withdrawn
  • fine – these feelings can come and go.

They may think: 

  • things can’t be as bad as the scientists say 
  • a major disaster will happen soon
  • about death and dying of animals and people
  • grown-ups should be doing more
  • about not having children
  • there is no point in going to school or developing a career 
  • they have a huge responsibility to make changes and convince other people to do the same 
  • they don’t want to think about it anymore and switch off whenever the topic comes up. 

You may notice changes in their:

  • sleep pattern 
  • mood and level of motivation
  • level of energy 
  • ability to concentrate on tasks like homework.

1. Share awareness and acceptance of the situation

  • Keep up to date with information you trust, like from a reliable website or environmental organisation. But remember that you don’t have to be an expert. If your child has a question about the environment that you can’t answer, then find time to search for the answer together.
  • Talk to others about the right way to have these conversations with your child - your approach needs to be child-specific and age-appropriate.
  • Simply spending time with your child in contact with nature can help promote a sense of care, empathy and respect for plants and animals.

2. Understand, experience and cope with the feelings that come up 

  • Listen to how children and young people feel and take their feelings seriously. Explain to them that their feelings make sense and are a sign that they are a caring person.
  • It can be hard to see someone we love upset, but it is important to let them express strong emotions such as fear, grief and anger if they have them.
  • Make sure mental health and wellbeing is a priority in your family:
    • Taking care of your own mental health will help your children learn how to look after their own 
    • Keep them healthy: encourage a daily routine, healthy eating, getting enough sleep and exercise, spending time with family and friends, making time for being creative
    • Encourage them to do activities that bring them joy and relaxation.
  • Build a sense of hope and connection:
    • Spend time in nature as a family. This could be playing or reading outside, planting seeds or taking a walk somewhere you love.
    • Talk to people. Find other parents or carers who share your concerns, and support your children and young people to do the same. Joining with other people can be empowering for them and can improve their self-esteem and confidence.  
    • Remind your child that there are lots of people working on solutions that will make the world happier, healthier and safer

3. Support them to take action, however small it feels 

  • Remind your child that this is everyone’s responsibility, not just theirs. Tell them that they are not responsible for the situation, nor for changing it on their own.
  • If it feels appropriate, support them to connect with groups of young people (either in your local area or online) who have the same concerns about the environment. 
  • Remind them that our own actions are important. It shows that we care and want things to change. Taking action can help us feel more in control, more hopeful and more resilient.
  • You can choose what changes feel right for your family, for example:
    • Planting wildlife friendly flowers, a tree or making a bird feeder.
    • Talk with your child about the climate and environmental issues, and how they can talk about this with their friends or classmates.
    • Reduce your use of plastics and the amount of rubbish your family creates. Do things like encourage everyone to use a refillable water bottle, bringing reusable cups to coffee shops, and taking reusable bags when shopping. 
    • Work out your family’s carbon footprint and come up with ways to reduce it. Some ideas include eating less meat, buying less stuff, finding ways to re-use or recycle things or giving to charity instead of throwing things away, and travelling more on foot, bike or public transport. 
    • Make a plan of action as a family and record your successes together.

Remember that small changes make a big difference, and one person can’t do everything.


If your child appears to be struggling more and more to cope with their feelings, then you may need to get further help from a health professional.

They may be experiencing very high levels of anxiety, feel low or depressed all the time, be losing weight due to not eating, or may be self-harming or having suicidal thoughts. 

In this case, you need to see your GP or talk to the wellbeing support staff at their school. They will be able to advise you on what to do and may suggest that your child see a mental health professional or be referred to the local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS). See our factsheet on Who’s Who in CAMHS for more information. There are also counselling organisations online who can help (see the section below on Further information).

The type of help offered would depend on what is causing their anxiety or other symptoms. 

The issues discussed in this leaflet can also cause significant emotional distress for the adults involved and affect their relationships. Support is available via your GP, parent groups and the Climate Psychology Alliance (links in the Further information section).  

I remember hearing the news when I was younger, I think I was in year 3. That was when I heard about what state the world was in. I heard about the ice caps melting and all the pollution going up into the atmosphere.

It can make me feel sad and depressed. I sometimes feel let down by adults. I feel upset and angry and don’t know what to do. It’s hard to feel positive when we’re in this mess.

I know more about it now. Humans are damaging the world. Ice caps melt, then animals become extinct then humans will become extinct and we don’t have the space equipment to find another planet to live on, even if there was another planet out there.

So we need to help out. Now or never.

When I get worried too much I make sure I do things I enjoy like playing sports, hanging out with friends, or talking to my Dad.

It helps when he reminds me there are millions of grown-ups around the world who are working hard on fixing the problems.

My Dad helps me think of things I can go out and do to help, like planting seeds and making sure I throw away my rubbish and recycle properly.

Doing stuff about it does help me feel better and makes me feel good about helping the world.

I think I have always been aware of the environmental crisis, from those around me and the occasional mention in school.

Thinking about the future makes me feel very powerless. I try to deal with this by making small changes to feel some control over the situation – like going vegetarian and using public transport or my bike more.

I also feel a lot of sadness at the loss that damage to our environment represents, loss that is already happening.  Spending time talking about it with my friends and paying more attention to nature helps, and in some ways this sadness makes me appreciate the environment even more.

I also feel guilty as someone who is safe from the current effects of damage to the environment. How is it fair that I am part of the problem, but less vulnerable to the consequences?

What has been most helpful is sharing how I feel with other people. After going to my first protest about the environment, I felt different. I still find the environmental crisis terrifying, but seeing and experiencing that we can make things change really helped me to feel supported, more in control and less alone. 

It helps me to remember that there ARE people who feel the same. I also need to remember that although one person making a change DOES have an impact, that doesn’t mean it is all up to one person to carry the burden. Cheesy as it is, we should all be in this together.

1. Share awareness and acceptance of the situation

  • Speak with friends, connect with other parents or carers, or talk to your child’s teacher for support and to understand the right way to communicate with your child about these issues
  • Parents for Parents for Future: An organisation with links to resources on where to find reliable information, how to talk to children, regular things to do with children and how to engage with others, including schools.
  • Climate Climate Psychology Alliance Alliance: Listen to podcasts from climate psychologists
  • NASA ClimateNASA Climate Kids Kids: Provides climate-based information, games and activities for children
  • National National Geographic Kids Kids: Information, resources and games for children

2. Understand, experience and cope with the multiple emotions that emerge

3. Decide what to ‘do’ next

References

  1. Usher K, Durkin J, Bhullar N. Eco‐anxiety: How thinking about climate change‐related environmental decline is affecting our mental health. Int J Mental Health Nursing. 2019;28:1233-1234. 
  2. Burke S, Sanson A, Van Hoorn J. The psychological effects of climate change on children. Curr. Psychiatry Rep. 2018;20:35.
  3. Lee K, Gjersoe N, O'Neill S, Barnett J. Youth perceptions of climate change: A narrative synthesis. WIREs Clim Change. 2020;11:e641. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.641
  4. Berry HL, Waite TD, Dear KBG, Capon AG, Murray V. The case for systems thinking about climate change and mental health. Nature climate change. 2018;8(1): 282-290. 
  5. Reser JP, Morrissey SA, Ellul M. The threat of climate change: Psychological response, adaptation, and impacts. In Climate Change and Human Well-being. New York: Springer; 2011. pp. 19-42.
  6. Hayes K, Blashki G, Wiseman J, Burke S, Reifels L. Climate Change and mental health: risks, impacts and priority actions. Int J Mental Health Syst. 2018;12:28.

Credits

Revised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Child and Family Public Engagement Editorial Board (CAFPEB) and the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health.

Author: Dr Catriona Mellor

Grateful thanks to Dr Alan Kellas, Dr Caroline Hickman, Dr Lynne Jones, Dr Bernadka Dubicke, Dr Steve Pearce, Vicki Harris, NeurOx Young People’s Advisory Group.

About this information

This information reflects the best available evidence at the time of writing. This mental health information for young people was written in 2020.

©  November 2020 Royal College of Psychiatrists