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Four Profiles Defining Teen Response to Climate Distress

Understanding adolescent coping is key to supporting well-being and resilience.

Key points

  • Climate change is here to stay, along with climate distress and related potential pitfalls and opportunities.
  • Teens are at risk for mental health problems related to climate change but crucial for a sustainable future.
  • Preliminary research finds four basic profiles of how teens meet the challenge of climate change.
  • Research suggests ways to foster resilience and adaptive growth during this critical developmental epoch.

Climate change is a (if not the) signature threat of our time, along with AI, overpopulation, and several others1—both materially and existentially. Hardly a day goes by during which we do not read about an unprecedented weather crisis. It’s not unusual to notice oddities in the weather, compared to what we remember (for those of us old enough to recall "normal winters").

Moreover, so many of us have been directly affected1, by power outages, flooding, unprecedented heat, and an array of other “extreme weather events”. Our vocabulary has likewise expanded to include terms like “atmospheric river”, conjuring vague images of dangerous aqueous reservoirs winding their way through the skies like celestial dragons.

Climate change, including extreme heat, pollution, and other factors, is also associated with increased mental and physical health problems, and increased mortality, not to mention human displacement, mass extinction, and the inadvertent resculpting of geography itself, as ice melts, waters rise, and shorelines recede.

How Teenagers Meet Climate Distress

Researchers Veijonaho, Ojala, Hietajärvi and Salmela-Aro (2024), building upon prior work, conducted an analysis of climate attitudes and well-being across the span of a year. They focused on adolescents aged 11 to 15, with data collected from a total group of over 3,000 teens in 2020 and a year later, in 2021.

Veijonaho and colleagues had previously identified several core factors including climate distress—”eco-anxiety”, or “climate anxiety”—with cognitive/emotional and behavioral components, noting that a subset of people, when faced with climate crisis, may experience emotional exhaustion and feelings of inadequacy, for example they may feel burned out or experience helplessness and hopelessness, or feel they need to do something to save the world but don’t see a way to contribute.

Pro-environmental behavior (PEB) is another important variable: Under what conditions do people do what they can meaningfully do? Climate distress is a rational response to real threats, and the way that people respond can be more or less useful and adaptive and associated with greater or lesser well-being.

Study participants therefore completed measures of climate-change distress and measure of climate-change-connected emotional exhaustion and inadequacy; climate denialism; a measure of general well-being; a measure of symptoms of clinical depression; and a scale looking at several different PEBs such as taking shorter showers, recycling, and turning off lights to save electricity.

Four Climate-Distress Profiles

The final set of data was analyzed to look for specific categories ("latent classes") of how teen participants respond to climate change as a function of the measures. Four different profiles were found, with a very high degree of accuracy.

1. Normative-carefree (50 percent). This group reported lower distress and lower levels of denialism. Younger members of this group were more likely to engage in PEBs. Along with the denialists, they had the highest life satisfaction scores. Teens in this group tended to remain in this group for the duration of the year studied, suggesting stability.

2. Denialist (20 percent). Adolescents in this group had low levels of distress and high levels of climate denial. They were least likely to engage in pro-environmental activities. As with the normative-carefree group, life satisfaction scores were high. Over half moved into the normative-carefree group by the second time point, and about a third remained in the denialist group, with only a few percent moving to the other groups.

3. Emotionally involved (20 percent). People in this group scored higher on climate distress on items related to cognitive/emotional difficulty but were the most likely to engage in PEBs overall. The older adolescents had more depressive symptoms but only at the first time point, suggesting a shift over time to less depression. About 40 percent stayed in this group and about 50 percent moved to the normative-carefree group.

4. Overburdened (10 percent). In this group, climate distress was higher, well-being was lower, and there was greater difficulty with behavior. They were more likely to report significant depressive symptoms. Twenty-two percent stayed in this group, and more than 60 percent moved to the normative-carefree group.

Developing Resilience to Climate Change for Adolescents

There's an intuitive appeal to the four climate-change profiles. They make sense in the way they break out into normative-carefree, denialist, emotionally-involved, and overburdened, reflecting a stratification from coping most effectively, and possibly experiencing growth and development in the face of distress (“post traumatic growth”), to having difficulty with indications of burnout and depression in the most severely affected group. The good news is between normative-carefree and emotionally-involved, about 70 percent of the sample was doing pretty well, and those in the emotionally involved group tended to move into the less-depressed-yet-still-involved normative-carefree group.

Over time, participants may learn to cope more effectively, given significant transition to less strained, more effective groups. At the same time, for those in the groups having the most difficulty, there were also a substantial minority who remained. It would be very useful for future research to look at what factors are associated with more adaptive coping, greater resilience, reduced denial, increased well-being, and more effective pro-environmental behaviors.

Authors make an important point, coming from the “think globally and act locally” perspective. Role models such as Greta Thunberg3 notwithstanding, it is unlikely for any one person to make a large difference. Trying to do so, believing that one has a responsibility to save the world all on one’s lonesome, likely predisposes to feelings of inadequacy and burnout. Rather, they note, getting involved in community action is more likely to be both effective and good for one’s health and sense of self-efficacy.

How can groups approach climate distress to promote effective action? One study of sustainable behavior (Hurst, Sintov and Donnelly 2022) found that fostering discussions of sustainable behaviors coupled with specific commitments was more likely than either alone to lead to behavioral change. Having the hard discussions and then talking about next steps toward larger goals moves the needle.

Beyond resilience4, the concept of “transilience” may be informative. In prior research (Nasi, Jans, and Steg, 2023), four dimensions were associated with effective action and attitude in the face of climate distress:

  1. "Coping with the stress caused by climate change risks can strengthen me."
  2. "There can be advantages for me in dealing with climate change risks."
  3. "Dealing with climate change risks can make me grow as a person."
  4. "I can learn something good from dealing with climate change risks."

Given the potentially overwhelming scope of the problem of climate change, it’s important to approach the challenge with realistic optimism, while also understanding that the great uncertainty and dire possible futures are appropriately anxiety-provoking.


1. How Embracing Complexity Could Foster Enduring Peace

2. My own direct experience, outside of disaster mental health response after Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, and the Fukushima nuclear accident following another earthquake and tsunami, has thankfully been minor. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, we were living in a part of NYC which had lost power. We stayed for a few days, with our gas stove intact, and water stored away–until people started price-gouging, and one day I saw police, guns drawn, chasing someone down our block. For a few days, we moved into temporary housing, first with friends where we finally could bath and have a real meal, and then into a hotel. We were fortunate, compared to many others who lost loved ones, or had their homes destroyed, but being forced to move even for a few days, seeing law, order and decency break down so fast, was an eye-opening experience.

3. How Do Grown-Ups Deny Climate Change and Bully Kids?

4. 24 Evidence-Based Ways to Train and Track Resilience


Kristin F. Hurst, Nicole D. Sintov, Grant E. Donnelly, Increasing sustainable behavior through conversation, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 2022, 101948, ISSN 0272-4944,

Lozano Nasi, V., Jans, L., Steg, L., Can we do more than “bounce back”? Transilience in the face of climate change risks, Journal of Environmental Psychology (2023), doi:

Veijonaho, S., Ojala, M., Hietajärvi, L., & Salmela-Aro, K. (2023). Profiles of climate change distress and climate denialism during adolescence: A two-cohort longitudinal study. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 0(0).

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