How to Talk with Your Kids about the Climate Crisis
Updated: Sep 17, 2020
5 General Tips from Experts for Discussing this Tough Issue
Do you have children who are asking questions about climate change? Have you struggled with how best to answer them?
Are you concerned about preparing them for the future they will inherit but hesitate to raise the subject?
You are not alone. An NPR poll in April 2019 showed that 84 percent of parents in the U.S. agreed that children should learn about climate change. But only 45 percent of them said they had talked to their own kids about it.
Now that my own grandchildren, at six and four, are old enough to notice some of what is happening in the world, I want to help them understand, in an age-appropriate way, the current realities of our warming world. I want to prepare them to take action, and support them in developing emotional resilience so they can manage their stress and handle change as it arises.
Talking about climate change is a necessary first step towards helping them cope. Since it is challenging to do well, I turned to the experts. I read up on what they suggest for talking with children about climate without scaring them.
While children of different ages and developmental stages require separate approaches, I found some general tips that we can apply to conversations with kids of any age. I describe these below. In upcoming posts, I will outline what I learned about talking with young children (ages 3-12) and teenagers about climate change in developmentally sensitive ways.
1. Start with Where Your Children Are
Find out what your kids are thinking about the climate crisis. Once you know, you have a starting place for your discussions.
Listen to the questions they ask you and don’t rush to answer them. Listen for what your children are really asking. Ask for clarification. Then, once you understand, reply with the amount of information they can handle in that moment.
Validate your kids’ curiosity and interest in climate change. When they raise questions, let them know you think they are brilliant questions. Tell them you’ve been thinking about similar questions. Acknowledge their interest.
Raise climate change with them. Find out what your kids are learning about climate change in school, from their friends, from overhearing the news or adult conversations around them. Ask them, “What have you heard about climate change at (fill in the setting)?” You may discover they know more than you think.
2. Tend to Their Feelings First
Pay attention to the feelings your children express, either verbally or nonverbally, about climate change. Experts say that our children, like us, experience worry, anxiety, and fear about their future in a world full of climate disasters. There are concrete actions you can take to help them cope with the emotional impact of climate change.
Deal with your own feelings separately now. Then you can be present to your children when their emotions about the climate crisis arise. You don’t want to have your anxiety leak onto your children, nor do you want to alarm your kids with your own fear.
Listen to and validate your children’s feelings. Reflect back to them what you hear them telling you. It is likely that they are wondering if they will be safe or taken care of. Let them know they are not alone.
Help them manage their feelings. Hold them. Ask them what they could do to reduce their anxiety. Suggest doing a comforting activity together, like spending time in nature or doing a breathing exercise. For younger children, engage them in an imaginary exercise like the one suggested by Psychotherapist Caroline Hickman from the Climate Psychology Alliance. She asks them to think about how climate change could affect their favorite animal and then to speak from its point of view.
Reassure them by sharing positive stories about climate solutions, particularly ones about kids who are making a difference. Let them know that we are not powerless. Frame the situation optimistically but avoid the temptation to paint too rosy a picture. Showing them what is being done already to address the crisis will help them develop trust that others are working on this problem. It’s not something they have to solve on their own.
Share your vision of the benefits of a sustainable future, like more social justice, stronger communities, better health. Focus on the wonder of the world and the earth’s resilience.
Encourage them to take time to be carefree and enjoy the wonder of the world. Spend a lot of time exploring the outdoors, from local forests to vegetable gardens, where you can explore the web of relationships in nature rather than dwelling on ecological damage.
3. Give Them Simple Basic Facts
Provide information using language and examples suitable for your children’s ages. Only give them what they can absorb in that moment.
Prepare by reading about climate change so you can start your conversation from a well-informed foundation and be better prepared to field your child’s questions. Check out the Simple Guide to Climate Change from the BBC. You want to give your kids the correct facts in an age appropriate message. You know your kids best, so make sure the level of information you're giving them is appropriate and not too graphic or upsetting.
Share information with them in small pieces at a time. Give them time to process the information you give them and ask questions about it.
Invite your children to explore information on climate change with you. NASA has a wonderful interactive Climate Kids website.
4. Engage Them in Taking Action
Empower your kids to get involved in implementing climate solutions. When kids are scared or worried, it’s important to help them feel empowered to make change: There is no better salve for anxiety than action.
Talk about the things you are already doing in your home to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Invite them to explore what they could do by themselves, like using fewer disposable items or turning off lights, or what the family could do together. Help them make conservation, reusing, reducing, recycling, and composting a part of your daily lives. There are many resources and books, like The Parent’s Guide to Climate Revolution by Mary DeMocker, that offer information on what families can do together, like planting trees.
Join with others to take action. Find a community effort, like a Climate Victory Garden, in which to take part. Take part in a climate rally together (either virtually or in person when it’s safe). Have your kids make the protest signs. If your children are older, suggest they join one of the youth climate movements like Fridays for the Future and the Sunrise Movement.
Research what climate solutions already exist. Project Drawdown has some useful information on their website. Make donations to organizations that are collaborating on climate solutions like deforestation. Help your children write letters to their members of Congress, asking them to support the Green New Deal or other climate friendly legislation.
If your kids are older, encourage them to talk with their friends, in person or on social media. Suggest they make it personal and talk about how climate change is affecting your community, then discuss what they might do to address the situation. Support them in sharing what they are doing to feel more hopeful and invite their friends to join them.
5. Keep the Conversation Going
Climate change is a topic that requires an ongoing conversation. You don’t just sit down once and are done. Loop back again and again with your children on the subject. Remember, kids process information a little at a time and as they grow, their understanding and capabilities change.
Create the space for ongoing dialogue by showing your children they have your attention and that you affirm their interest in this important subject.
Look for climate-related opportunities in your day-to-day routine, whether it’s showing the power of the sun’s rays through a magnifying glass to a younger child or discussing a youth-led climate march with an older one.
Share climate related resource with your kids. Read books on the topic to your younger children, watch a short video by Bill Nye or climate documentary together as a family, take a climate change webinar with your older children, or read a report, like Climate Crisis 101 published by the Climate Reality Project.
I wish you well as you engage with your kids on this urgent subject that will affect their future. I am positive you will find lasting value in having purposeful conversations about climate change with them.
I’d love to know what’s grabbing your attention or what questions are running through your mind. Let me know in the comments section. I’ll respond in one of my blog posts.
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All the best,
Krista / Eco-Omi