Nurturing Children’s Mental Health In The Face Of Climate Disasters: From Trauma to Resilience


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Over the past two decades, 7348 disasters triggered by natural hazards were recorded. Nearly double the number occurred between 1980 and 1999. Between 2008 and 2017, 84% of all recorded disasters were climate-related, and the number of people affected by floods and storms has significantly increased. We are seeing, feeling, and being affected by natural hazards, such as hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and extreme heatwaves, on an everyday basis and with unusual intensity. What we possibly aren’t completely aware of though is that children, even the ones below the age of 8 years, worry about climate change just like adults. In fact, not only do they worry, but they are anxious and fearful of climate disasters far more than adults. They know it affects their health, education, and safety. 

Why children are more affected

Because a child thinks of the world in black and white till the age of 8 or 10. Their minds are full of questions, but they do not have answers or confidence regarding the ways address these questions. Their feelings express anxiety and fear. They become fearful because they think about nature, animals and the whole ecosystem far more than adults have the time to. In a blog for the British Medical Journal, citing their study (done by Imperial College London’s Ethnicity and Health Unit) on eco-anxiety, authors Mala Rao and Richard Powell said: “The chronic fear of environmental doom” is rising in children. “Neglecting the effects of increasing eco-anxiety risks exacerbating health and social inequalities between those more or less vulnerable to these psychological impacts.” It is evident that this is a critical concern requiring immediate attention from all stakeholders including parents, educators, and policymakers alike.

Nurturing Children's Mental Health In The Face Of Climate Disasters: From Trauma to Resilience

There is no doubt that eco-anxiety has become mainstream. And nowhere is this pressure felt more than in developing countries like India, where people are more susceptible to being severely affected by climate change compared to developed nations. And in no age group is this more prominent than children between 0-8. What’s alarming and needs immediate intervention — from parents to policymakers — is the prolonged impact such experiences can have on the cognitive and emotional development of children. Here are a few examples: 

Psychological Distress: Climate disasters can trigger psychological distress in children, including anxiety, fear, and depression. Witnessing the destruction of their homes and communities or experiencing displacement can leave lasting emotional scars.

Trauma: Children exposed to traumatic events during climate disasters may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms may include intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and avoidance behaviors.

Loss and Grief: Children may experience loss and grief after losing loved ones, pets, or treasured belongings in climate disasters. The grieving process can be complex and challenging for young minds to navigate.

Disruption of Routine and Social Support: Climate disasters often disrupt daily routines and social connections. Loss of stability and support systems can exacerbate feelings of vulnerability and distress in children.

A 2021 survey by WHO with 95 countries found that only 9 countries have included mental health and psychosocial support in their national health and climate change plans.2 Given the scenario, we must address the societal issues and environmental issues at large, as well focusing on alleviating the fears among children across the nation, cutting through socio-economic barriers. We have a mammoth task ahead of us to raise children who instead of being fearful, grow up knowing how to address eco-anxiety instead of being afraid of it. 

A 2020 study by ChildFund India and Council for Social Development found that in a sample size of 1725 children, over 60% children expressed experiencing negative changes in their behavior during the lockdown which was imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. ChildFund has also been experienced in creating child centered spaces (CCSs) as part of humanitarian response for providing safety and security, making supportive environments for children to cope with the changes. 

Furthermore, according to Save the Children, in 2022, floods in Assam impacted over seven lakh people in 31 districts including 141,050 children. As a consequence, it had a negative impact on the psycho-social wellbeing of children, adding on to their anxiety as schools were shut down. Similarly, during the most recent Delhi floods, a circular stated that many families lost their goods which included books and clothes of children. As a result of that, children were hesitant to go to school because they lost their books and uniforms in the floods. Children also had to bear the brunt of school closures, which amounted to psychological scarring. Going forward, as we have minimal control over frequent disasters affecting children, we have to make sure that parents, policymakers and other stakeholders work together to build resilience in children.

Nurturing Children

How to build resilience in children?

The impact of climate disasters make it important for us to focus on resilience-building strategies, with the purpose of ensuring children have the competence to absorb shocks, recover from them, and adapt to new ecosystems. It makes it important for everyone to focus on preparedness and education, fostering resilience in children by providing them with age-appropriate information about climate change, its effects, and additionally guiding them on how to respond effectively. Here are some ways to consider that may help in nurturing children’s mental health: 

Emotional Support and Communication: Providing a safe space for children to express their feelings and fears is crucial. Encourage open communication and active listening to validate their emotions.

Education and Awareness: Raising awareness about climate change and its impact can empower children to understand the events they witness. Teaching them about climate resilience and adaptation fosters a sense of agency.

Community and Social Engagement: Engaging children in community activities and support networks can help restore a sense of belonging and social support.

Psychosocial support: Educating and raising awareness of families to support children in developing social and emotional skills can help them to lead a happy, healthy and fulfilled life thus, countering the repercussions of climate change.

Building Resilience: Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity. Foster resilience in children through positive coping strategies, problem-solving skills, and emotional regulation techniques.

Access to Mental Health Services: Ensure access to mental health professionals who specialize in trauma and child psychology. Early intervention can prevent long-term mental health issues.

A holistic perspective

It is crucial to understand that there is a need for holistic support systems involving parents, teachers, and mental health professionals working in harmony to foster a supportive environment and emphasize on the need for trauma-informed care and mental health interventions tailored specifically for climate disasters. It is therefore, essential to promote climate disaster resilience through disaster preparedness which involves educating children and their families about disaster preparedness, evacuation plans, and safety measures to reduce anxiety and improve response during emergencies. Furthermore, climate change mitigation and advocacy are another step stakeholders must take that can involve children in climate change mitigation efforts, such as reducing carbon footprints, recycling, and advocating for sustainable practices.

With the right support and resilience-building strategies, it is possible to help them cope and grow stronger in the face of adversity. Nurturing children’s mental health requires a collective effort from families, communities, educators, and policymakers. By providing emotional support, education, and promoting resilience, we can empower the next generation to become climate champions, contributing to a more sustainable and mentally healthier future.

About the Author: Isam Ghanim, CEO and President, ChildFund International. All views/opinions expressed in the article are of the author.

Nurturing Children’s Mental Health In The Face Of Climate Disasters: From Trauma to Resilience

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