Halfway through, I realized that I had been a teacher long enough to witness three big waves of anxiety disorders in young people. The first was that of a naive young teacher in the 1980s, when teenagers lived in the shadow of some sort of existential mushroom cloud. They feared the world would be destroyed by a nuclear holocaust. The macabre term “mutually assured destruction” has kept Irish teenagers awake at night.
The second wave took place around September 11, 2001, when fear of terrorism reigned. Children who saw bodies collapse from the Twin Towers were traumatized. The third wave is the era of eco-anxiety. Younger adolescents in particular are terrified of climate change and very desperate for the future.
It is difficult for parents and other adults to navigate. Many adults have no idea how to deal with their own anxiety about the problem except by escaping or burying it. Young people often do not have the same capacity for compartmentalization.
Climate change is everywhere they turn. The musicians they love sing about it, the celebrities they admire talk about it and the schools they attend make it their priority.
Significant minority believe the end of the world is imminent
Despite the bombings, only a minority of young people are really well informed. Like adults, young people often get the headlines but not the details. The implications of climate change are terrifying enough, but some young people, especially those in late childhood and early adolescence, actually think things are worse than they are.
They have not fully understood that it is the poorest countries that suffer and will suffer the most. A significant minority believe the end of the world is imminent, in that the collapse of civilization is only a decade away.
To the younger adolescent mind, it may sound like climate denial to suggest that things aren’t so bad, even if they are really, really, really bad.
And of course, there’s that endearing adolescent characteristic of inconsistency, too – the same teenage boy awake at night worrying about the planet may be outraged at the thought of not taking a vacation abroad that hinges on people. flights.
But even with all that taken into account, the oceans suffocated by plastic, the loss of biodiversity, the impact on the poorest nations: everything is real disasters.
For very young children, protecting them from trauma is a legitimate choice. Adults are expected to carry these burdens. But from about nine years old, it is impossible to protect them.
However, it is important to convey hope. This is different from optimism, which can be a Pollyanna belief that all will be well despite the lack of evidence that such a thing will happen.
Despair paralyzes. Hope motivates. As adults, we need to model all of the behaviors that we want everyone to adopt.
The immediate objection is that this crisis cannot be resolved by individual actions. Unless China and the United States take serious action, this is all pointless.
But change doesn’t just happen through the actions of big players. In fact, change rarely happens like this.
Change results from the actions of committed individuals and families, who persist in hopeful action even when it seems unnecessary.
I often think of William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery activist, who has seen no tangible results for eighteen years. People have made the same arguments about slavery: Ending it will destroy the economy and further damage the poor.
You could argue, rightly, that we don’t have eighteen years to lose. But no one knows when the real change will come.
Anxiety in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. It can motivate people to try harder or take action.
Few would have believed that the Berlin Wall, once a seemingly permanent reality, would eventually collapse quickly enough. Yes, there was a happy confluence in the personalities of the leaders of Russia, the United States, and the Catholic Church at the time. Even more important were the people on the ground, who persisted and took action even in the face of seemingly overwhelming obstacles.
Anxiety in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. It can motivate people to try harder or take action. An anxiety disorder is different. This means that normal anxiety levels have become debilitating.
My World Survey 2, the largest study ever on the mental health of young Irish people, conducted by the UCD School of Psychology and the Jigsaw charity, suggests that the number of people aged 12 to 19 reporting severe anxiety has doubled from 11% to 22% since 2012. Anxiety disorders probably need professional help.
More moderate anxiety is relieved by regaining some measure of control. Our adolescents are often imprisoned behind screens. Helping them take the time in green spaces, less the phone, can be a first step. Learning to love your corner of the planet both heals and motivates
It is important to encourage them to channel their anxiety into effective action with others. Instead of obsessing over the threats to the planet, the much maligned Greta Thunberg has taken action.
As adults who care about our children, we could stop rolling our eyes on Greta and instead try to model a fraction of her determination and courage.