Trauma in children linked to social commitment to the environment and green behavior

Overview: People who experienced trauma and abuse during childhood are more likely to engage in environmental community activities and green behavior later in life, a new study reports.

Source: University of Colorado

Experiencing childhood trauma may prompt someone to volunteer, donate money or contact their elected officials about environmental issues later in life, according to recent research published in Scientific Reports.

The study from CU Boulder and Loyola University is one of the first in the US to link childhood trauma and public, civic, environmental involvement in adulthood. It also found that, in addition to people who experienced childhood trauma, those who traveled and had experiences in nature as children were also more likely to report engaging in private “green behaviors” as adults, such as recycling less, driving or flying less, and taking shorter showers.

“We started looking for reasons or motivations why someone would or wouldn’t get involved in the environment, and experiencing childhood trauma emerged as a very powerful motivator,” said lead author Urooj Raja, who will receive a PhD in environmental studies from CU Boulder in 2021.

As part of Raja’s doctoral work, the researchers conducted a 2020 survey using a nationally representative sample of about 450 American adults to examine two types of environmental involvement.

Public, community involvement was measured in hours per month spent on environmental protection, such as writing letters to elected officials or donating time and resources to an organization. Private, green behavior was defined as self-reported actions by individuals or households to reduce their impact on the environment.

Previous research has shown that people who experience natural disasters as children are more likely to become involved in environmental causes, but these new findings show that childhood trauma of any kind is associated with a greater interest in involvement from both the private and public environment as an adult.

This indicates that there may be something about a formative, negative experience that pushes individuals to engage with environmental issues at a public or policy level, rather than just engaging in green behavior.

“It suggests there could be another way of looking at trauma,” says Raja, now an assistant professor in the School of Communication at Loyola University Chicago.

While the researchers can’t say exactly why experiencing traumatic events earlier in life increases the likelihood of becoming publicly involved in environmental issues, they note that previous research has linked trauma with a strong sense of empathy and empathy with green behavior. .

It may also be partly a coping mechanism, to try to prevent bad things from happening to other people or living beings, Raja said.

Drivers of commitment to the environment

Research in this area has often explored detachment – the reasons why people don’t take action on pressing environmental issues. Raja’s team wanted to know: what drives those who doing Involving?

First, Raja interviewed 33 people who are deeply involved in environmental issues. She found that many had experienced some kind of childhood trauma.

“It emerged as a very powerful part of why people wanted to get involved in environmental work,” Raja said.

Second, they collected survey data from about 450 U.S. adults who self-reported spending five hours or more working on environmental issues in the past month.

They answered a range of questions about themselves, including their current community involvement and green behavior, formative childhood experiences (gardening, swimming in a lake, or taking a walk in the woods for the first time), and traumatic childhood experiences (living in poverty or experiencing hunger, not having a safe home environment, lose a parent or sibling, experience health problems, or experience sexual harassment, assault, or bullying).

The data showed that childhood experiences in nature, travel and trauma were all predictors of personal, green behavior later in life. However, only childhood trauma was also significantly associated with public, civic engagement. Trauma also had the greatest impact on predicting green behavior, compared to other formative life experiences.

Studies in recent decades, including work by Louise Chawla, professor emerita in the environmental design program, have found a strong link between childhood travel and experiences in nature and environmentally friendly attitudes and behaviors later in life. The new research confirms that these kinds of childhood experiences still predict green behavior for adults.

This shows a hand holding a green earth
This indicates that there may be something about a formative, negative experience that pushes individuals to engage with environmental issues at a public or policy level, rather than just engaging in green behavior. The image is in the public domain

“This is another data point that supports the value of creating opportunities for people to connect with nature, and the importance of those experiences for cultivating a society that protects the natural resources we all depend on,” says Amanda Carrico, co-author of the new study and an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at CU Boulder.

A need for more resources and support

Carrico, who trained as an environmental psychologist and teaches courses on climate change, finds that many students and professionals in the field struggle not only with the rigors of their jobs, but with the experiences that may have led them to it.

“It’s emotionally intense and exhausting,” Carrico said, noting that those working to mitigate climate change are often also part of communities directly affected by its mounting impacts. “You’re talking about a community of people who seem to carry other types of emotionally complex burdens.”

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This shows a woman holding her hand in front of her face to defend herself

The authors say the findings only emphasize the need for people engaged in public or social environmental work to have access to resources and support.

“People have said by their own admission that we need better resources,” Raja said. “Making the connection between adverse childhood experiences and the need for increased resources for people doing this type of work is an important first step in making that happen.”

financing: This work was funded by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, the Graduate School of Arts and Science, the Center to Advance Research and Training in the Social Sciences, and the Department of Environmental Studies. The publication of this article was funded by the Open Access Fund of the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries.

About this news about trauma and environmental neuroscience research

Writer: Kelsey Simpkins
Source: University of Colorado
Contact: Kelsey Simpkins – University of Colorado
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original research: Open access.
“Childhood Trauma and Other Formative Life Experiences Predict Environmental Engagement” by Urooj Raja et al. Scientific Reports


Childhood trauma and other formative life experiences predict environmental involvement

Environmental problems continue to increase. But despite scientific consensus on threats like climate change, large-scale public engagement on the issue is elusive. In this article, we focus on formative childhood experiences and the extent to which they are associated with environmental involvement.

We consider two forms of environmental involvement: citizen involvement, measured in hours per month spent on an environmental protection cause, and green behavior in the private sphere.

Previous studies on major life experiences have shown that formative experiences, especially in childhood, correlate with environmentally sensitive attitudes and vocations in later life.

However, we know less about the formative life events experienced by today’s environmentally conscious individuals. Looking at a nationally representative sample of US adults (n = 449), we see that childhood trauma predicts civic engagement as well as green behavior.

We also find that childhood experiences in nature and childhood travel experiences predict green behavior, but not community engagement.

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