Childhood trauma related to civic environmental engagement and ecological behavior

Summary: People who experience childhood trauma and abuse are more likely to engage in civic environmental activities and green behaviors later in life, a new study finds.

Source: University of Colorado

According to a recent study published in Scientific reports.

The CU Boulder and Loyola University study is one of the first in the United States to link childhood trauma with public and civic environmental engagement 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 having privately “greened behavior” at home. adulthood, such as recycling, driving or flying less, and taking shorter showers.

“We set out to explore the reasons or motivations why someone would engage with the environment rather than not, and experiencing childhood trauma emerged as a really powerful motivator,” said lead author Urooj. Raja, who earned her doctorate in environmental studies at CU Boulder in 2021.

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

Public and 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. Private green behavior was defined as self-reported actions taken by individuals or households 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 commitment in adulthood.

This indicates that there may be something about a formative and negative experience that drives individuals to engage publicly or politically with environmental issues, rather than just practicing ecological behavior.

“It suggests there might be another way to look at trauma,” said Raja, now an assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Communication.

Although the researchers cannot 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 associated trauma with a strong sense of self-worth. empathy and ecological behavior.

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

Drivers of environmental commitment

Research in this area has often examined disengagement, that is, the reasons why people do not act on pressing environmental issues. Raja’s team wanted to know: What motivates those who make to hire?

First, Raja interviewed 33 people who were very committed to environmental issues. She found that many had experienced some sort of childhood trauma.

“It came across as a really powerful part of why people wanted and engaged in environmental work,” Raja said.

Second, they collected survey data from about 450 American adults who said they had spent five hours or more in the past month working on environmental issues.

They answered a series of questions about themselves, including their current civic engagement and ecological behavior, formative childhood experiences (gardening, swimming in a lake or hiking in the woods for the first time) and traumatic childhood experiences (living in poverty or hunger, not having a safe home environment, losing a parent or sibling, dealing with health issues, or experiencing sexual harassment, assault, or bullying ).

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

Studies over the past decades, including the work of Louise Chawla, Emeritus Professor of the Environmental Design Program, have found a strong link between childhood travel and 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.

This shows a hand holding a green earth
This indicates that there may be something about a formative and negative experience that drives individuals to engage publicly or politically with environmental issues, rather than just practicing ecological behavior. Image is in public domain

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

A need for more resources and support

Carrico, who is trained as an environmental psychologist and teaches courses on climate change, noticed 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 there.

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

See also

This shows a woman with her hand to her face to defend herself

The authors say the findings only further underscore the need for those engaged in public or civic environmental work to have access to resources and support.

“People, in their own words, said we needed better resources,” Raja said. “Making the connection between negative childhood experiences and the need for more resources for people who do this type of work is an important first step in getting there.”

Funding: 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. Publication of this article was supported by the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries Open Access Fund.

About this trauma and environmental neuroscience research news

Author: Kelsey Simkins
Source: University of Colorado
Contact: Kelsey Simpkins – University of Colorado
Picture: Image is in public domain

Original research: Free 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 engagement

Environmental problems continue to worsen. Yet despite scientific consensus on threats such as climate change, large-scale public engagement on the issue is elusive. In this article, we focus on formative childhood experiences and how they correlate with environmental engagement.

We consider two forms of environmental commitment: civic engagement, measured in hours per month devoted to a cause of environmental protection, and green behaviors in the private sphere.

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

However, we know less about the formative life events experienced by contemporary people engaged in the environment. By examining a nationally representative sample of American adults (n=449), we find that childhood trauma predicts both civic engagement and ecological behavior.

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

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