Dear Thelma: My son has eco-anxiety and I don’t know how to help him

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Dear Thelma,

My son is 15 and has lately been feeling a bit overwhelmed about climate change. He is very environment-conscious in the sense that he does not waste electricity nor water in the house, for which I do appreciate.

In fact, he was the one who bugged me to call the plumber when the bathroom sink tap was leaking a little some time ago. He will even unplug most of the power cables from electrical appliances like table fans and bedside lamps when not in use.

I do practise recycling in the home – mostly with paper, cardboard, tin, and whatever plastic is currently accepted for recycling – and reuse relatively clean water for washing or gardening as much as possible.

Being a typical teen, he goes on YouTube a lot as well as reads news and comments about the state of our environment, which, at the moment and to be honest, can be quite depressing, especially since the recent COP26 actions and commitments have been deemed to be inadequate to effectively protect our Earth for future generations.

I have tried to channel his fears into some action by starting to make eco-bricks with him – these are basically empty mineral water bottles which are stuffed tight with soft plastics and packaging, which are then used as building materials.

I have also asked him to encourage his school friends to do the same, since it’s the school holidays, but he said his friends are not keen. There was an environment club at his school, which I suggested that he join, but it has not been active.

He has also asked me if I was OK if he did not have children when he grew up because he does not feel they will be living in a safe world by then due to climate change effects.

I was surprised by that but I told him it was entirely his decision when he grows up. And secretly, I too worry what kind of world the future generations will grow up in.

A few days ago, he told me that he has “lost hope in mankind”, and that world leaders are not doing enough today for tomorrow.

I know that this fear and worry is very real for him, as well as many other young people out there, and it’s such a shame because at their age, they really should be enjoying their youth and not have to worry about such issues.

I really do feel very helpless at this moment, and do not know the best way to deal with his anxiety.

Hope you can help. Thank you.

Concerned Mother

Dear Concerned Mother,

I'm sorry your son is going through a tough time, and I'm very happy you wrote in because this is a common issue.

Having an interest in being sensible about waste and recycling sounds perfectly proper and responsible. Considering our own roles in population control is also very natural.

At 15, your son is developing from a child into a young adult. I think we all remember what a challenge that was! Practically speaking, teenagers at that age typically explore different attitudes.

So while he may indeed grow up deciding to be childless, he may also change his mind – and possibly several times. Just like many people cycle between being vegetarian, minimalist, and other lifestyle choices.

However, I think we should also talk about rumination.

Rumination is where your inner thoughts get stuck on repeat, playing over and over in the mind. It is a mental health issue that is linked to stress, depression and anxiety.

The National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) 2017 revealed that one in five Malaysian teens aged 13 to 17 are suffering from depression (18.3%), two in five from anxiety (39.7%), and one in 10 from stress (9.6%). And this was pre- pandemic. From reports, we think the numbers may be even higher now.

In addition, online services like YouTube are known to force rumination. If you click on a cartoon, they show you more cartoons. If you click on a doom and gloom eco video, you get more of those.

Therefore, online habits are linked to promoting rumination, stress, anxiety, and depression.

So, what can a parent do? First, know this is not a matter for blame. We're all stressed and we have been for a long time. So please don't think it's due to "weakness". Our world is complex, challenging and everyone struggles.

Second, there is a tendency for people to focus on the fear or symptom they see rather than the underlying issue. This has led to articles in online forums talking about "eco-anxiety". Please know that there is no such diagnosis.

What happens is this: stress, anxiety and depression can lead people to become fixated on a particular issue such as immigration, animal cruelty, sexism, the environment, their weight, body shape, or other topic.

They over-focus (ruminate) on the issue. Some will neglect other parts of life, like their health, jobs, family responsibilities, etc.

The hows and whys of this are hotly debated. Thankfully, there are proven treatment methods that work well.

The first step is to have yourself assessed by a mental health professional. This can be a psychiatrist, a medical doctor who specialises in mental health, or a mental health practitioner with at least a Masters degree. A chat with these will help you work out exactly what's going on.

Although therapy approaches vary, a common next step is to learn to recognise how you act when you are triggered. Common triggers are being tired, or being faced with a challenging task.

The final step is figuring how to recognise and manage behaviour. This will include breathing exercises, and learning to reshape thoughts.

If you feel your son is ruminating, or suffering from stress, anxiety or depression, getting professional help should help make effective change.

If you think it's normal teenage stuff, I suggest you help your son tweak his daily life so that he incorporates habits that will provide an outlet for overall stress.

I recommend taking up a sport that takes him outside, into the fresh air, and that helps him connect with others. Tennis, hiking, football or futsal are all excellent choices. Such occupations will help him make more friends, and focus on simple pleasures.

I also recommend that you gently steer him away from activities that may trigger rumination: keep up the recycling at home, and switch lights off and so on, but lead him away from doom and gloom YouTube videos and keep him out of eco-clubs for now. When he's a bit more mature, he can explore those issues again.

In addition, I think you’ll find the tips for behavioural activation or happiness scheduling in this other Thelma column very helpful.

Most of all, be there for him. You sound like a sensible lady and a loving mum, and that in itself will do a lot to comfort your son.

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