Yesterday Greta Thunberg came to Bristol to join the Fridays for Future school strike. My children aged 11 & 14 both wanted to attend even though my husband and I were not free to go. Despite official advice strongly discouraging it they went along. My 14 year old went independently with his friends and my daughter joined another family. All was well and they showed up with the other 29,998 (approx) to add their support for action to tackle the climate emergency. Being part of such a mass of people protesting was a powerful experience.
It's empowering to hear young people speak so passionately about the need for change but isn't it a bit scary? Isn't hearing we only have 12 years left to sort it out frightening? The call to do something is a rallying cry we can get behind but what can we actually do? What difference does it make when our news is filled with stories of the people in charge refusing to do what's needed? As adults what can we do to support our children in this time of climate crisis?
We are living in uncertain times but there is much we can do as parents and educators to prepare our children for the future. Strengthening their good relationships and their connection to people and nature is key. All this builds resilience - the capacity to develop and thrive in the face of challenge and adversity.
Our self regulation skills are vitally important for adapting to many kinds of threat to human experience. Much of resilience, especially in children, but also throughout the lifespan, is embedded in close relationships with other people. Those relationships give you a profound sense of emotional security and the feeling that someone has your back, because they do.
Understanding the way the brain works can be very helpful. When things are going well and we feel safe & calm we have an integrated brain, that is one which is flexible and adaptive. When we are under threat the more ancient parts of our brain, the limbic system and the brain stem, take over so we respond according to old memories and experiences. We are no longer present, no longer flexible and reactive rather than adaptive.
Dr Daniel Siegel works in the field of interpersonal neurobiology and has written many books on this area. I recommend his talk on Presence, Parenting and the Planet. (The main talk is the first 40 mins, the rest are questions.)
In order for us to become resilient we need to be seen - we need someone around us who really knows us, who sees into our inner life. We need to be soothed- someone to take action to help us become calmer. We need safety - protection from harm and our caregivers to not be a source of terror. 'Flipping our lid' and shouting at our kids can be terrifying for them. Luckily when we rupture that sense of safety we can repair it. We need to recognise it's happened, be kind to ourselves and then reconnect with our kids.
As long as we consistently get these 3 things then we feel a sense of security. This acts like a vaccination to cope with stress. We develop resilience that takes us into adulthood. Relationships structure the brain. Healthy relationships that provide the 4Ss give children a solid foundation to become well regulated adults.
Children need a warm empathic response, their difficult feelings need to be heard and we need to validate their responses. This is not always easy when as parents we are struggling to regulate ourselves. Alfie Kohn writes great parenting books full of good advice. They don't necessarily fit with mainstream ideas currently in our society but then these ideas and values aren't serving the planet or our children at the moment. Shame is a pernicious value everywhere in mainstream society. Everything from reward charts and stickers to isolating young people in secondary schools or giving time out to younger children. These are things that neurologically speaking are the antidote to building resilience. Children need creativity, stories, words for their feelings and trusted relationships with adults who make them feel safe. Obedience in the face of authority isn't going to serve them well in an uncertain future. Resilience, self regulation and creativity will do better.
Parenting is a tough job especially in a global post industrial consumer society. The wider culture is driving us to think in highly individualistic ways, to acquire more stuff. The system requires it. We don't live in a culture in the West that values children. We don't design our urban spaces for them, we don't respect their rights or needs. We work longer hours. We are all stressed.
We can start by recognising this. As adults we need to look after ourselves so we can look after our children. Parenting is a form of activism too. It's a radical act to slow down and be with our children in the way they need rather than the way mainstream culture is telling us. I am also aware that there is so much inequality in our society at the moment that many adults are doing their best just to provide the basics to survive. We need a calm, integrated brain so we can be a source of strength for our children when they feel anxious about the climate emergency.
Positive Pyschology has some useful research that can help. Dr Martin Seligman has 5 key ingredients to happiness.
1 Positive emotions - good feelings we get from things we enjoy
2 Engagement - being immersed in activities & fully involved in the present as it happens
3 Relationships - we are social animals, companionship & connection with others forms bonds that support us.
4 Meaning- this can be in causes we care about, spirituality and our relationships with others
5 Achievement - we find emotional value in things we achieve like climbing a mountain or raising a family.
( With thanks to https://www.wearelightbox.co.uk/)
Other self regulating tools that can help us and our children are
- being grounded like a tree, imagining strong roots growing down and tall branches reaching for the light.
- sighing, a long relaxed breach out
- hand on heart, hand on belly and noticing our breath
- blowing bubbles
A gratitude practice is a powerful habit we can cultivate for ourselves and our children. Joanna Macy is a scholar, writer and teacher who has been working for years on the foundations of gratitude.
Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act. We belong to this world.
Jon Young, nature connection mentor, naturalist, tracker, author and storyteller, talks a lot about gratitude.
Taking a moment to see the grace in elements in the natural world- frogs, rain, berries, or the sun - deepens our relationships with each one. Thanksgiving reinforces the interdependence of all living things and their ground of being and reminds us of our kinship with nature.
It can be a lovely habit to share some moments of gratitude over family meals or as part of your child's bedtime.
Find in yourself a grateful heart and express gratitude for any and all aspects of nature and life. Begin every episode with thanksgiving and give nods of thanks as you go about your day.
Our community can give us strength too. Playing Out is a parent and resident led movement to restore children's freedom to play out in their neighbourhood. From my own experience it also strengthens those relationships on your doorstep. From playing out formally and informally our family feels knitted into our neighbourhood in ways I hadn't imagined when we started.
If you are also a climate activist then Extinction Rebellion have a very active family group with lots of way to participate with your children.
So what of actually supporting our children directly with the climate emergency?
Nature connection is key. There is much well documented evidence that shows time in nature strengthens resilience. Children are tuned into the natural world, they have affinity for other beings. Get them outside, in the garden, the park, the woods, the beach. Let them be independent as well as sharing time together. They can't have too much time in nature.
Play, creativity and community is essential especially for 3-7 year olds.
7-14 year olds can start to show signs of anxiety. Look out for it. Tell them 'the adults are working on this', 'you are not alone'.
Encourage activism for things that matter to them - feeding the birds, hedgehog homes, gardening for the bees...
Be aware of the media. Maybe save your news fix for when they are out of earshot. Guide them to trusted sources. Newsround is excellent for age appropriate news. Watch with them.
14 + young people have a much greater understanding so encourage them to find their voice and their activism.
Support their critical thinking around the media.
Watch out for existential anxiety.
Most of all maintain close connection. Give them lifts, make them snacks, be there so you are available when they want to talk.
Here are some practical skills you might want to learn or share together.
Food growing, foraging, building & repairing, land care, water conservation, making clothes, tool use, herbal medicine, community skills, leadership, caring, conflict resolution, music, art and storytelling. If you come to forest school you get lots of these too.
Remember - if you come to the village depleted, you deplete the village. We must look after ourselves so we can look after our children. Repair the connection when we make mistakes. Be ready to listen and validate what our children tell us, not what we think they are telling us.
Lastly - spend as much time out in nature as you can, together and alone.