Niels Peter Rygaard, Child Psychologist, CEO at , Denmark

See details of Niel’s  APA award here for his work in this area.

Climate Change, Our Survival and the Human Rights of The Next Generation: How Can We Enable the Children of Today to Cope with the Challenge of Tomorrow?

After 40 years of international cooperation to help children growing up without parents – in alternative care, in orphanages and adoption – my conclusion is simple. Only a childhood providing secure attachments, built in unbroken relations with caring adults, will make the upcoming generation strong enough to cooperate and resolve the effects of climate change, overpopulation and pollution. Children’s right to quality care – building resilience and strong mental health – is not only their most basic right. According to Bowlby’s attachment theory and subsequent decades of research, having a secure base in childhood is a prerequisite for success in education and adulthood. Sadly, our ability to care for the next generation is also the most important, underfinanced and overlooked condition for our future as a species). This personal conclusion builds on experiences from educating staff in global partnerships with NGOs and government agencies. International child research care recommendations are disseminated by online classrooms, where partner staff learn to train local groups of foster parents, group-home and refugee staff in quality care practices.

Walk with me for a minute

You may consider the above statements to be one-eyed and overly gloomy. Perhaps they are, but hold my hand for a moment in a walk through the dire straits of working in 26 countries. Let’s start in 2018 Mexico, overflooded by refugees from Venezuela and Honduras. Step with me into a room in one orphanage: 28 newborn abandoned babies are cared for by two exhausted staff around the clock and week. Some babies still call out, but most are apathic. Next, let’s go to train caregivers in Indonesia, where half a million children are in orphanages due to the poverty of their parents. Or, meet my colleagues in the Psychology Coalition Migrant Group accredited to the UN, worrying about 40 % of New York migrants without access to digital media. Then, let’s take a walk with the SOS Children’s Village staff we train in the East African urban slums, where unemployment and lockdowns recently tripled the numbers of street children and youth, due to the desperation of their parents. Or, listen to my NGO friend Bhupi Ghimire in Nepal, telling us about poor street vendor mothers who make the ultimate sacrifice by killing their children and then commit suicide, after starvation during lockdowns.

Perhaps these examples provide a less abstract idea than the sheer number of 153 million de facto orphans counted by UNICEF? If these children hold each other’s hands, they can reach four times around the globe – and then some.

Family bonds and children’s attachments under siege

However, abandoned children are only one expression of increased stress levels, severing the vital bonds between all parents and children – the mental health and wellbeing of families is under siege from many angles. Mind you, attachment was formed in evolution through eons of living in small hunter-gatherer, or in extended family rural village groups. Here, separation from parents happened late in life, or not at all. But from 5 % living in a city in 1840, we now look at 75 % living in megacities by 2050.

In urban settings and depleted rural areas, the main cause of poor parental, child and youth mental health is elevated parental stress. Birth rates drop, divorce rates soar, and the numbers of single parents increase. With both parents working outside home, infants are separated at an early age. In my home country Denmark, a third of all parents live alone, and nine out of ten infants are in daycare and kindergartens. Rich or poor, frequent early separations and broken bonds are the order of the day as never before. Add poverty and the increased ratio of urban mental health problems to the equation, and the main global risk for child development is clear: too many shifts in caregivers, too early in life, and too many deteriorating social networks for care. So many children are losing their sense of belonging and suffer from mental ailments losing their urge to play, explore, and learn. Climate change and viruses rapidly spreading in megacities have only accelerated the levels of urban social disintegration, causing a political stalemate between national and global agendas – such as the recent veto against the European Union Child Rights Strategy

Our joint goal as professional associations

If not cared for in small stable groups that can offer secure attachment opportunities throughout childhood, a major share of the next generations of children will become uninformed, ignorant and insecure adults. They will be easy prey for dictators aiming to topple democracies, feeding on the political tensions created by climate change and migration(as is already happening).

This calls for our concerted action across borders and professions. What gives me hope is the engagement and generous sharing of studies from colleagues, associations and dedicated caregivers. Their contributions have enabled our foundation to unite international child researchers, NGOs and government agencies, as we educated staff to train the caregivers of 40.000 children in care. More important is what I learned from this experience:  the progress of online education offer an opportunity to apply our knowledge on a global scale, even with scarce resources.

Our joint goal must be to strengthen local parent and caregiver groups for care, particularly in urban settings. If we merge our recommendations with respect for local care culture and listen to the needs of those we serve, we can help children enjoy their basic human right to belong and grow to be resilient adults, and thus empower them to save the future world.

Rygaard, N.P. (2020):  Improving the Mental Health of Abandoned Children – Experiences from a Global Online Intervention. American Psychologist, 75(9), 1376–1388.

Rygaard, N.P. (2021): Climate Change, Migration, Urbanization, and the Mental Health of Children at Risk in the European Union – A Discussion of the Need for Large Scale Interventions. Published Online, July 15, 2021,

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