The following is an extract from an article by psychotherapist Rosemary Randall first published on her website in 2011. It was written about the time when Greta Thunberg first heard about climate change. It is instructive to consider whether Greta was “damaged” by hearing this news.
Rosemary published a novel “Transgression” in February 2020 set in 2009, a period of intense climate activity, and deals with the twin themes of climate protest and psychotherapy. It is available from Amazon.
Climate change community groups often want to work with children. ‘We must get into the schools,’ says someone and there is a nod of agreement. It’s worth thinking about the psychology behind this. Why is this idea so appealing? And why is it so damaging?
The appeal is clear. It’s fun working with children: they’re responsive, creative and willing. And it’s certainly easier than working with white-van-man, frequent fliers or the oil industry.
The reasons given for working with children are usually two-fold:
- We need to influence them while they are young. If they understand the issue and the effect of their actions, they will grow up finding it natural to care for the environment.
- It’s a good way of getting to their parents. Who can resist their child pleading with them to change the lightbulbs because it will save a polar bear?
Both reasons are suspect. The first reason assumes that instruction – at best participatory, at worst didactic – is the route either to action or to the inculcation of positive values towards the environment. There is little evidence for this. We know that information based campaigns have a limited impact with adults, so why should we expect children to be different? As for values – these tend to be formed through experience, relationship, identification and social systems, not through information. If the school has an influence on values it will be through its culture, ethos and the relationships and experiences it offers not through the information it provides.
Both reasons also raise direct ethical questions. It is easy to engage the sympathies of children with stories of damage to the natural world and images of suffering animals they will identify with. But children have very little power. Of all the sections of society who might make an impact on climate change, they have the least influence, the least agency, the least leverage. There is a real risk of raising levels of anxiety amongst children that will not only cause distress in the immediate term but will in the long term lead to those children turning against the environmental causes we hoped they might espouse.
When I was 10 a speaker came to my school and told us about food shortages and starvation in the third world. I rushed home and explained to my parents that we needed to grow more food. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t accede to my idea of banding together with the neighbours and turning all our back gardens into a corn field. I was left haunted by images of dying children, guilt at my good fortune and the anxiety that feeds on powerlessness. In adolescence I became determinedly indifferent to the appeals from 3rd world charities. As an adult I have continued to find them difficult to relate to.
We need to ask – what happens to the child whose parents are indifferent to their attempts to get them to act? What happens to the child who is overwhelmed by stories of disasters he or she cannot influence?
For more of Rosemary’s article, which address issues of why adults are so keen to focus on children and what should be done, visit her website at