My entire family is emotionally inflamed. We are not unique. “Everybody is,” says Lise Van Susteren, M.D., author of Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times.
I called Van Susteren, an expert in the psychological effects of climate change and a member of the national initiative Climate for Health, to ask why my 7-year-old’s reaction to the pandemic and everything that has come with it (online schooling, her grandmother moving in for six turbulent weeks, being with but sometimes ignored by her working parents and her newly depressed teenaged sister) had resulted in a pronounced fear of the climate crisis.
According to Van Susteren, my kid’s climate anxiety has been there all along. “It’s just being voiced now because the circumstances of the pandemic have removed comfort.”
My children know about the climate crisis from me. I have made a point of speaking with them about climate change. Usually I’m being educational, but sometimes I make flip comments about them never being able to have grandkids. I should not do this. But they’d know about the climate crisis anyway. “They overhear about climate everywhere. It’s on the news. Other kids talk about it. It’s inescapable. In many kids, there is a whole reservoir of unexpressed anxiety about climate,” Van Susteren said. Sometimes they protect their parents and say nothing, other times, like now, they assault their parents.
My youngest assaults now at bedtime, when we finally have a minute from our juggling-everything-under-one-roof overstuffed days to sit quietly with her. She wants to stay awake to be with us and knows climate complaining will always get my attention. But her fear is real when asking if she will be too hot in the future. Van Susteren explained to me why children redirect fear: “The pandemic is on kids’ minds as a constant immediate stress that keeps them in the house. The other is less terrifying, less acute. So they talk about something less terrifying than the actual anxiety, one they can accept more readily.”
A few weeks ago, along with this pandemic/climate anxiety, came Black Lives Matter. Cleaning my daughter’s room, I found a BLM poster she made. My kids have been to many protests — climate rallies, anti-hate vigils, women’s marches. Her reaction to us sharing the news with her was to privately get ready to go protest. She also drew a picture of a cop aiming a gun at a black man. Our whole family was in it. We are white. She was yelling at the cop, her father was protecting the man with a shield, her sister was jumping into the fray like a ninja, and I, much larger than the cop, had a big gun. I was shooting back.
There’s a lot of anger in our household right now. No modern family is accustomed to living and working and schooling all together 24/7 endlessly. My 7-year-old is sensitive to this aggression. She’s drawing anger — mine, hers, the worlds. “Just as with dreams, you don’t always take the dressing of the characters as definitive. They are a suggestion of deeper concern,” said Van Susteren. As her mother, the characters feel pretty definitive.
To address this anxiety — whatever it stems from — I’m watching my words. “You don’t want to extinguish hope. You want to teach kids resolve, empathy, grit, and gratitude. These are the qualities you’re looking for,” said Van Susteren. Children need to know any step forward is positive, even as I struggle to believe this. I’m scheduling more time to take nature walks outside when we can pick wildflowers and roam, or just to be together in a safe spot, like our small vegetable garden. According to Van Susteren, these are ideal times to talk lightly about my daughter’s anxiety triggers, her drawings, and her waking up at night, which she hasn’t done in years. I let her know I’m listening. I try to validate her feelings and tell her I’m sorry about them.
Van Susteren suggested reassuring her about irrational fears. I remind her of all we do as a family to fight the climate crisis, and how we’re part of a broader environmental movement. I reassure her of all we are doing to protect ourselves from COVID-19. We talk about being anti-racist. I talk about all the times she has voted with me. I invite her to make suggestions and try to empower her by adopting her ideas as a family. Her lack of control due to her age and being at home with us full time may be feeding into her anxiety.
“The very act of expressing herself is a catharsis,” Van Susteren tells me. “It lances a balloon and the pressure can go down.”