Exposure to childhood trauma may lead an individual to volunteer, donate money, or contact elected officials about environmental issues later in life, according to recent research published in Scientific reports.
The CU Boulder and Loyola University study is one of the first in the United States to link childhood trauma to public and environmental civic engagement in adulthood. It also found that in addition to people who had childhood trauma, those who had traveled and had experiences in nature as children were more likely to report engaging in special “green behaviour” as adults, such as recycling, driving or flying less, and taking shorter showers.
“We set out to explore what causes or motivates someone to be environmentally engaged versus disengaged, and the experience of childhood trauma emerged as a really strong trigger,” said lead author Arooj Raja, who earned a PhD in environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2021.
As part of Raja’s doctoral work, researchers conducted a survey in 2020 using a nationally representative sample of about 450 American adults to examine two types of environmental involvement. Public civic engagement was measured in hours per month devoted to an environmental cause, such as writing letters to elected officials or donating time and resources to an organization. Own green behavior was defined as self-reported actions that individuals or households adopt to reduce their environmental impact.
Previous research has shown that people who experience natural disasters in childhood are more likely to become involved in environmental causes, but these new findings show that childhood trauma of any kind is associated with increased interest in private and public environmental involvement as an adult. This suggests that there may be something about a negative formative experience that leads individuals to engage at a public or policy level with environmental issues, rather than just practicing green behaviour.
“It suggests there could be another way of looking at trauma,” said Raja, now an assistant professor in the Loyola University Chicago School of Communication.
While the researchers can’t say why public engagement with environmental issues is more likely, they note that previous research has linked trauma to a heightened sense of empathy and empathy with green behavior.
It can also partly be a coping mechanism, Raja said, to try to prevent bad things from happening to other people or organisms.
Motives for environmental participation
Research in this area has often examined disengagement—the reasons why people don’t act on pressing environmental issues. Raja’s team wanted to know: what drives those who an act engaged?
First, Raja interviewed 33 people who are highly involved in environmental issues. I discovered that many had experienced some kind of childhood trauma.
“It came out as a very powerful piece about why people want and get involved in environmental action,” said Raja.
Second, they collected survey data from nearly 450 American adults who self-reported having spent five or more hours in the past month working on environmental issues. They answered a series of questions about themselves, including their current civic engagement and green behaviour, formative childhood experiences (gardening, swimming in a lake or going for a walk in the woods for the first time), traumatic childhood experiences (living in poverty or suffering from hunger, or not having a safe home environment, losing a parent or sibling, dealing with health issues, or enduring sexual harassment, assault, or bullying).
The data revealed that childhood experiences of nature, travel, and trauma were all predictive of private and green behavior later in life. However, only childhood trauma was significantly associated with public and civic engagement. Trauma also had the greatest effect on prediction of green behavior, compared to other formative life experiences.
Studies in the past decades—including the work of Louise Chawla, Professor Emeritus in the Environmental Design Program—have found a strong link between childhood travel, experiences in nature, and pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors later in life. The new survey confirms that these types of childhood experiences still predict green behavior for adults today.
said Amanda Carico, co-author of the new study and associate professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at CU Boulder.
More resources and support needed
Carico, who is trained as an environmental psychologist and teaches courses on climate change, notes that many students and professionals in the field struggle not only with the weight of their work, but also with the experiences that may have led them to it.
“It’s an emotionally stressful and stressful process,” said Carico, noting that those working to mitigate the effects of climate change are often also part of the communities directly affected by its growing effects. “You’re talking about a community of people who seem to have other kinds of emotionally complex burdens.”
The authors say the findings only further emphasize the need for people engaged in public confrontation or civic environmental work to access resources and support.
“People said, as they put it, we need better resources,” Raja said. “Connecting negative childhood experiences with the need for more resources for people who do this kind of work is an important first step to making this happen.”
This work was funded by the Graduate Research Fellowship Program of the National Science Foundation, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Center for Research and Training Development in the Social Sciences, and the Department of Environmental Studies. Publication of this article was funded by the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries Open Access Fund.