Climate Change, Young Children, and the Importance of Nurturing Relationships

By David Willis, MD, and Joan Lombardi, PhD

The evidence is mounting that climate change and other environmental conditions are having an impact on the developing child and the well-being of families — making climate change a major issue in the promotion of Early Relational Health (ERH). Two important reports released in October bring critical attention to this reality. Both underscore the importance that nurturing relationships play as both a protective factor and a way to build mental strength in navigating life’s challenges.

It has long been understood that young children are impacted by their families and that families are impacted by the communities they live in. While children in many communities have suffered decades of environmental risks due to racism and poverty, climate change is exacerbating those conditions. As Joan Lombardi, PhD, longtime champion of children, pointed out in her remarks to the Early Years Climate Task Force, “Equity and justice are part of the early childhood mission. We don’t have to be experts on climate, but we do have to help build awareness of what is at stake for children.” 

Helping others understand the value of positive early childhood experiences and family support is more important than ever. Dr. David Willis, the core driver of Nurture Connection’s engaged movement for ERH, notes: “Climate change is now the context for human development, and thus it is critical that the promotion of supportive relationships is recognized as central to human flourishing.”

As conveyed in both reports, climate change is already impacting families and their communities and is expected to intensify. Early childhood service providers (e.g., child health providers and early care and education providers) have a critical role in helping families cope with changes and responding and preparing for emergencies. Young families, especially those with the least resources, often live in regions with visible climate and weather-related risks. These families face intensifying climate-related weather events that impact their employment, income, and access to housing, food, and safe drinking water, which disrupts their safety and stability.

For instance, warmer temperatures increase flood risks, which many cities are clearly not equipped to handle. According to the “Flourishing Children, Healthy Communities, and a Stronger Nation” report, currently, 14.6 million U.S. homes face a substantial flood risk and the stress and turmoil of such a natural disaster has immediate impacts on families, their children, and the community of supports and services that maintain family health and well-being. Other studies outlined in the report show that air pollution is linked to diminished child cognitive development and increases in mental illness in teens and adults.  Both reports offer immediate action steps across all sectors within their detailed recommendations.

But hope lives in action. Guided by ERH principles and the foundation of Nurture Connection, we encourage all people and communities who interact with young families to adopt the following guidance:

1) Open the conversation about climate change with all families and listen to and respect the perspectives of parents. 

2) Raise awareness of environmental impacts of climate change, particularly on pregnant women and young children.  

3) Promote environmental education for young children to raise a generation mindful of the environment. 

4) Prepare for climate change–related emergencies and weather events.

5) Foster a spirit of hope, discovery, and strength.

6) Focus on building connected communities for the future.

With these actions, the wisdom from both of these reports, the Nurture Connection network, and the power of our day-to-day human connections, each of us can shift to a mindset that focuses on making sure our next generation thrives and flourishes.

David Willis, MD, FAAP, is a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Policy and founder of Nurture Connection. He was the Executive Director of the Perigee Fund, promoting Early Relational Health, and prior to that, Dr. Willis served as director of the Division of Home Visiting and Early Childhood Services at the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) Maternal and Child Health Bureau.

Joan Lombardi, PhD, is Director of the Early Opportunities Initiative and a visiting scholar at the Stanford Center on Early Childhood, Graduate School of Education, Stanford University. Dr. Lombardi served as the first Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood Development in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2009–11).