Creating Eco-resiliency in Children

eggshell 2.jpg

I consider myself to be mathematically challenged. I still count on my fingers, I use my phone to figure out the percentage for a tip, and I run away shrieking from fractions. However, when it comes to trying to predict the future for my child in a world of climate instability, I can achieve genius. Some people gain superhuman strength in a crisis. Me, I can crunch numbers like Hercules. Give me a date, such as 2025 (when water shortages may be felt by us all) and without a calculator I can tell you that my daughter will be 15 years old. In 2057, when 37% of all species may have gone extinct, she will be my own age of 42. That is (says my worried self) if she is lucky enough to live that long. Scientists can't say for sure how it will all shake out, instead leaving us with a general prediction of "ifs"....If climate change is allowed to continue on a runaway trajectory, my daughter's future could take place in a world where food, water supply and livable habitat are in short supply and high demand.

As an ecopsychologist, and a mother, one of the most frequently asked questions I receive is "How can I prepare my child for a future of environmental uncertainty?". It's a question that almost immediately spirals out into panic..."Should I teach them self-defense? Primitive skills? Should we hightail it to the backcountry and start homesteading now? How high should I build my fence? What kind of gun should I buy?". I write that in jest, but it's not too far from the truth. In scanning the horizon for danger, as parents we assume the worst, both of events and also each other. In our current polarized political climate, tensions run high and trust is at an all time low. It's easy to create an equation that begins with a shortage of resources and adds up to a sum of Lord of the Flies. 

Rather than true predictions, these are reactive thoughts, based on a primal desire to protect our children. One of the first things we may need to do as parents, is find support in navigating our own eco-anxiety. Instead of quick fixes or survival techniques, we want to create ecoresiliency in our kids. Ecoresiliency is the ability to navigate...emotionally, mentally and physically...the potential upheavals in our lives due to climate change. It requires an approach that involves the whole family, since we will build in that resiliency by learning it, and then modeling it, ourselves. While the whole prospect might seem overwhelming, in actuality it is quite simple. I'm talking about primarily instilling general resilience, and it ties right in with what we are already trying to do as parents...raise children who have good self esteem, are able to emotionally resource in tough times, can communicate fairly and honestly with others and feel empowered to make a difference in their world. It might sound like hard work, and it also may lead you into questioning your priorities as a parent, but overall it's much easier than going full on Mad Max.  By the end of this article, my hope is that a dystopian future will seem less likely than one that feels full of positive possibility...and within your grasp.

Cross the Threshold of Your Comfort Zone

While we may not know the specifics of how we will individually and collectively be impacted by climate change, one thing is for sure...moving into our edges is what will be required of all of us. What happens within us when we are uncomfortable and inconvenienced? How do we learn our own ability of perseverance when the going gets tough? If we have been fortunate enough to avoid hard times or trauma, we may have no sense of our ability to respond and endure. Lucky for us, there are some very enjoyable ways to discover how to rough it.

1. Get off the couch and into nature with the whole family. Sedentary indoor living breeds an unnatural fear of discomfort. Spending a day at the beach, going for hike, even just walking to your destination rather than driving brings you back into the truth of yourself as a human animal...you are meant to be outside. Get reacquainted with your senses and natural abilities. Take the kids camping with minimal gear and let them discover how much can be done with sticks and pinecones. Local park and recs often host family camp outs. If you are already an adept camper, take it a step further and try backpacking. It's a great way to remember how little you really need to survive, or dare I say...to be happy.

2. Learn new skills and sports where there may not be natural talent, preferably outdoors. While challenging yourself and your kids in this way may include experiencing frustration, doubt, fatigue or other discomfort, you will also be creating new neural pathways in your brain. Believe it or not, your malleable brain is designed to learn and change.

3. Unplug. I'm not encouraging you to go luddite, but I am suggesting cutting down on screen time. Research has proven that the use of screens, especially in children, shortens attention span and increases addictive tendencies. But I don't need to tell you that. We have all experienced the "quick visit" to Facebook, Instagram and other sites turning into a black hole of wasted time. Quit clicking and try out having a "no tech" day once a week, or establishing time limits for online time, for your kids AND you. Take it a step farther and enjoy a "lights out" evening. Let your kids light the candles and enjoy dinner with a soft glow. Afterwards, bundle up and go outside with some hot cocoa and look at the stars. If you live in an urban area, the few visible stars are still worth it and there is magic to be found. 

Foster Connection to Place

If you implement any of the previous suggestions, you will be well on your way to fostering connection to place. Place is the bioregion and watershed where you live. On a smaller scale it is also your neighborhood, farm, or mountain top sanctuary. Place can include the people you know and the culture of your community and it most certainly includes all the non-human others you share air with...the plants, trees and animals. Fostering connection to these elements brings with it an orientation that can be your most valuable resource in hard times. It makes "home" larger than the house and can inform your identity and sense of security...and children need both. In older times it was simply referred to as "putting down roots". By entering into relationship with Place, a sense of belonging naturally arises, and it can feel surprisingly reciprocal. As if the landscape, and all that it contains, was loving you back.

Connecting to Place might seem at first inconsequential in the face of climate change and it is easy to fall prey to a sense of futility, fed by a negative stream of news that injects us with anxiety and fear. We are so inundated with reports of environmental degradation that we forget that outside our doors Life continues on. The seasons happen, flowers bloom, baby animals are born, the sun rises and sets, filling the sky with beauty. So much is available to us on a daily basis to lift our mood and broaden our perspective. Nature is not the news...and it's still here. It is by connecting to place and its elements that we will support ourselves in facing whatever comes. When it comes to extinction or the destruction of ecosystems, it hurts to lose someone or something that you love. The antidote is to love more, and to let that love deepen your commitment to being the change you want to see in the world. Here are some ideas for losing the worry and gaining joy, dedication and resilience:

1. Beach cleanups and environmental restoration. One of the best antidotes for eco-anxiety is to put that energy towards making a difference. No matter where you live, there is an organization that offers opportunity for dedication to place. Check in with your local chapter of the Forest Service, Sierra Club, Parks and Recreation, Surfrider Foundation or SPCA. If they don't have a current event, they know who does. These events are usually family oriented, and are a great way to meet your community. Plus, it will teach your kids about earth stewardship and give them a sense of empowerment. For older children and teens, who are becoming aware of the scope of environmental problems, getting out there and doing something is an important way to channel the frustration and anxiety they may feel.

2. Who are the people in your neighborhood? I'm not just talking about the humans who live next door. What species do you share space with? Few of us were brought up with a parent who was a botanist, zoologist, or amateur naturalist, and unless we have gone into these professions ourselves, we may have very little knowledge about our bioregion. So what do we do when our children point out a flower, bird or animal and ask "What is that?". We feel helpless to reply, and for us and our kids, nature remains a bunch of green stuff blending into itself. Once you learn a few species however, a subtle magic begins to happen. Suddenly nature becomes discernible, filled with individual friends.The beings you recognize become a point of connection and a source of pride. After your kids learn to identify a tree or flower, watch how they shout it out every time they see one when you are driving around. 

Where to begin when you don't know how to identify other species? Pack a bag with a digital camera (or your phone, but no calls please) and a small notebook and pen. Go for a walk with your kids. When you spot something that interests you, take a photo. If it's a plant, make sure you get the shape of the leaves and the stem. If it has a flower, get that too. Get out your notebook and write down some notes...where is it growing? In the sun or shade? Does it have a smell? Be descriptive. Write it down. Give your kids the camera and let them follow the same process. When you get home, use an identification key to learn the names of your new friends. Check out the Calphotos website, find a bird with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology or discover what the fox says using the Macauley Library. Identifying is empowering (but I warn you that it is also fun and addicting).

The Audubon Society has chapters in every county, and hold frequent bird watching walks, with experienced guides. Don't be afraid to be a newbie...enthusiasts love to share their knowledge. Wild food foraging is also all the rage, and there's a good chance someone is leading a walk in your area. The same goes for wildflower tours in the spring, or acorn festivals in the fall. 

Teach your kids how to communicate with others...even if they don't agree with them.

This starts young and like all the other examples is a whole family affair. Children will learn how to handle conflict by the way you handle it with them. I know of nothing more difficult as a parent, since few of us received perfect modeling, but when it comes to self esteem and creating good social connections, learning how to ask for what we need, set boundaries and navigate conflict is key. 

As communities move into times of stress and crisis, tempers will be running hot and patience will be short. Good communication will not only help the individual maintain supporting relationships, it can also be a glue that holds a community together. People who know how to communicate well with others are great leaders, because they know how to listen, mediate and make decisions from a non-reactive place. 

1. Learn Non-Violent Communication as a family. NVC is a non-blaming, compassionate method for expressing feelings, needs and opinions that fosters connection rather than conflict. From The Center for Non-Violent Communication:

NVC begins by assuming that we are all compassionate by nature and that violent strategies—whether verbal or physical—are learned behaviors taught and supported by the prevailing culture. NVC also assumes that we all share the same, basic human needs, and that each of our actions are a strategy to meet one or more of these needs.

NVC can be learned in a weekend workshop, by watching videos or reading a book, such as Non-Violent Communication: A language of life by Marshall Rosenberg. What I appreciate about NVC is that not only does it increase effective communication and improve relationships with others, but with self-empathy as one of the key components, it also improves our relationship with ourself.

2. Bring empathy into parenting. If I were to name what I think is the key to raising emotionally healthy children (both as a therapist and as a mom), it would be empathy. Empathy helps us to see the world from another's perspective, to put ourself "in their shoes". When it comes to parenting, this can help us when we are worn out or frustrated with behavior, to not take things personally and respond with kindness. Sometimes the protestations of our kids just don't seem to make sense, and we get fed up. Empathy provides us with spaciousness to allow our children their experience (e.g. we think something "shouldn't" be a big deal but we can understand that from our child's perspective, it just is.). Self-empathy, extending that same spaciousness to ourselves, helps us out in those tight spots when we reach our limit of patience. And speaking of limits, we still set them...but with empathy, rather than punitively. While whole books have been written on the topic (such as the excellent Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves by Naomi Aldort) I will sum it up like this...empathy is the building block for emotional and mental health and the primary foundation for resilience. 

There are many ways to practice healthy communication and empathic parenting. The Art of Hosting is a wonderful template for holding not only business meetings, but also family meetings. Working with a parenting coach, such as Dr. Laura Markham, can be the guiding light we need through the rough spots of raising kids. None of these things need be cost prohibitive. There are plenty of books and free videos on both communication and empathic parenting. Speaking with a pastor or rabbi is available to anyone and a free, but valuable, connection. Finally, there is often no better support for a parent than another parent. The simple realization that you are not the only one to experience difficulty in communicating or empathizing with your kids can lift the heaviness from your heart and return you to a loving, and resilient, place. 

3. Being able to communicate with others who are different than us necessitates bridging the gap of racial and socio-economic inequality. When we talk about ecoresiliency in children, there is an inherent difficulty. While the suggestions I have given would seem to be universally available to everyone, the fact is that they may only be available to those with racial or economic privilege. Environmental racism, where toxic waste dumps and poisonous industries are placed in proximity to low-income or minority communities, is a real thing. The Bayview/Hunters Point toxic waste dump in San Francisco and the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, CA, are two examples. The biggest impact in these communities is on the children, who must contend with growing up not only in a nation with deeply imbedded racism, but with their physical health compromised on a daily basis. Ecoresiliency is already a reality. Every day we become more of a global community, because pollution and climate change ignores borders, whether internationally or the next neighborhood over. In developing countries, ecoresiliency has not been a choice, but a matter of survival. 

It is outside the scope of this article to go in depth to such vast and intractable issues. However, if we are going to come together as a global community and survive as a species, we need to be able to talk to each other, and addressing inequality is vital to that conversation. As a parent, you have a simple, but important part to play in creating a world of environmental justice. Using words and explanations that are appropriate to your child's age and development, talk to them. While the issues are complex, when our children are young they need only simple explanations. One of the easiest concepts for young kids to grasp is fairness. Start there, work your way up, and consider it a part of life-long teaching and learning for the whole family.

One last note on communication within the family...our kids will notice when we are upset about something related to climate change, and they will want to know why. We might think it's a good teaching moment to talk about, say, drowning polar bears or super storms. After all, it involves their future...shouldn't they know? Yes and no. Offering information is not always the best answer. Children, especially young ones, don't have the holding capacity for scary information that is out of their control, and at the least it can be frightening and at the worst, traumatizing. Scenarios about future danger can play out boundlessly in their imaginations. Even older children and teens, who are becoming savvy to the realities of the world, still can't properly metabolize the implications. Instead of unloading your anxiety by sharing it with your children, give them only what they can handle. Simple, age appropriate information, explained in a neutral confident tone. If you can't do it on the spot, it's ok to answer questions with It's complicated. Let me think of how to answer that and I will tell you later.

In conclusion...don't jump to conclusions.

Despite the overwhelming prospects that we face when we think about raising children in an unpredictable world, the truth is that this has always been the case. The future is always an unknown. Yes, there are predictions and projections about what may be to come. There are also a lot of variables and possibilities. Will humans only last another 100 years? Maybe. Will the indomitable human spirit rise to the occasion with cascading response that mitigates the worst of climate change? Maybe. Will there be positive surprises and developments that we can't conceive of at the moment? Probably. The truth is, we don't know what tomorrow will hold, and that can be a point of refuge. I don't know can be the place where we stand, a mantra to help us to simply do our best.

Raise kids who know how to love themselves and others, who can connect to their immediate and global community and who are inspired to give back to the world and make a difference. There will be many incredible, influential people who will emerge to offer their guidance in the realm of politics, international affairs, social and environmental justice, technology and ecological rehabilitation. One of them could be your child. 

Hang in there, moms and dads. Seek support if you need it. We're all in this together.