Five Strategies to Build Children’s Agency and Resilience in Responding to Climate Change

BlogTrauma & ResilienceMay 14 2024

Climate change is happening in real time: Our children will inherit a very different planet than the one where their parents and ancestors lived. A growing body of research indicates that children are at risk both from acute climate-related events—such as wildfires, flooding, and extreme weather events—and from more slow-moving climate changes, such as rising oceans and warmer weather. Families with low incomes and families of color are disproportionately impacted by climate change; for example, families with less housing stability face greater health risks from environmental exposure.

Adaptation strategies will become critical as climate change threatens essential elements of life—including our air, food supply, and clean drinking water—and as vector-borne diseases increase, among many other societal impacts. As leaders and communities enact adaptation strategies, they must prioritize children and youth to prepare them to steward a world with a rapidly changing environment that threatens the habitats of all forms of life.

While there is little research about strategies to help today’s children become more resilient to the impacts of climate change, an interdisciplinary team of science experts and Latino community organizations—in partnership with Child Trends—is developing a roadmap for climate-resilient parenting to prepare children to cope and thrive as climate change advances. Aligned with that work, Child Trends proposes that public officials, youth-serving institutions, and youth leadership groups use five strategies to identify initial action steps to prepare young people for a changing world:

1Provide children with accurate knowledge of how their environment is changing and what can be done to reduce the impacts of climate change.

While scientifically accurate knowledge about climate change tends to increase with age, children and adolescents’ perceptions are generally vague, and frequent misconceptions tend to prevail. Addressing common climate misconceptions early in a child’s life (before age 9) may disrupt the persistence of such misconceptions into adulthood, and addressing climate stress and trauma allows youth to positively engage with their communities to secure a better and safer future. More work is needed to ensure that children and youth obtain accurate information to build their understanding of and agency around climate change and empower them to mitigate its impacts. These practices can help them build hope and constructively adapt how they live their lives.

2Guide adults on having developmentally appropriate discussions about climate change with children of different ages.

Much more work is needed to develop specific guidance for adults who engage with children and youth on managing the impacts of climate change—including firefighters, emergency medical technicians, teachers, pediatricians, policymakers, and parents. Child development and communication scientists can play a critical role in developing approaches to communicate with different ages of children and youth in ways that build resilience, rather than frighten them. These approaches must also encourage children to adopt constructive behaviors that provide them a sense of agency, such as reducing misuse of essential resources like water and energy and increasing the use of renewable energy sources and public transportation.

3Help young people manage emotional distress related to climate change and focus their concerns into constructive action.

Research already documents rising levels of emotional and mental health problems among young people and suggests that concern about climate change might be a factor in this negative trend. Youth’s understanding of climate change is reflected in how they feel and perceive their lives. One study found that 82 percent of urban U.S. youth ages 10–12 expressed feelings of fear, sadness, helplessness, and anger; and 39 percent of youth ages 16–25 across Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States reported hesitancy about having children of their own due to concerns about the climate crisis. Health officials and leaders must consider climate change implications for pediatric care and behavioral health supports—and to engender hope as children and youth learn to regulate their emotions, speak about their feelings, engage in conflict resolution, and work collectively.

4Build youth skills in mitigation efforts and improve their communities’ prospects.

Schools, after-school organizations, and community organizations should collaborate with public officials and researchers to build children’s skills to thrive in increasingly challenging environments. This includes learning to protect nature (plants, animals, and the environment) by engaging in community actions. Consider projects such as community gardens and composting, growing plants that support bees and butterflies and prevent their extinction, or building community green roofs. Young people should learn to distinguish between plants that are useful and those that could harm us—like poison ivy, which has become stronger and resistant to common treatments as atmospheric carbon increases.

5Prepare young people to enter the careers communities will need as the planet changes.

Initiatives to develop and advance training to meet society’s changing needs have already begun. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has announced interest in programs “placing people across the country into good jobs that advance climate resilience and assisting employers in developing a 21st-century workforce that is climate literate, informed by climate resilience, and skilled at addressing consequent challenges.” NOAA intends to train climate-resilient experts to work with businesses to understand historical precedents creating exposure to climate-related hazards, engage diverse voices in identifying climate resilience priorities, and develop climate resilience methods and metrics for addressing the impacts of climate-related events. Initiatives like these will likely increase as climate change impacts diverse communities and becomes increasingly acute.

These five strategies will align the work of public officials and community organizations with a recently launched three-year collaborative public education campaign—led by Child Trends and funded by the National Science Foundation—to develop and promote the aforementioned roadmap for science-based resilient parenting (see more about the campaign below). Time is of the essence. Public officials and community leaders (particularly those from underserved communities of color) should join child development, climate, and communication scientists—and youth organizations—to prepare our children for environmental changes that no other generation has had to face.

The Climate Resilient Parenting campaign will engage parents through social media and local TV news, together with a grassroots community education initiative in partnership with Latino community organizations. Child Trends is proud to partner and co-create science-based content with Latino community-based programs (Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors and Hispanic Access Foundation); media partners (Televisa Foundation; Ivanhoe Broadcast News; and Inner Space Center, a national facility engaged in ocean and climate science research and education); and interdisciplinary organizations and experts from the fields of child development, climate science, communication science, Latino studies, and learning science.

Suggested citation

Torres, A., & Moore, K.A. (2024). Five strategies to build children’s agency and resilience in responding to climate change. Child Trends. DOI: 10.56417/5364j8842a