How to talk with kids about climate change

Experts say it's important to help your children understand climate change and to support them as they cope with emotions.

Parents reading to child

It’s natural for parents to want to protect their children from hard truths like climate change. Like many of life’s challenges, however, ignoring this problem won’t make it go away, and it’s not like they won’t be hearing about it from others anyway. Today’s kids will bear the brunt of serious climate change impacts in the future, with or without discussion.

But by talking about the issue openly and honestly, parents – precisely the information source children most trust – can help prepare their children to stay resilient and find meaning through climate change.

1. Consider your child’s age. Some advise against getting into climate change specifics with younger children, arguing they may not have the cognitive or developmental capacity to process environmental problems. Instead, they recommend beginning with simply, yet purposefully, connecting kids and nature.

Others however, recommend talking about climate change as early as you can. Psychotherapist Caroline Hickman of the University of Bath, in the United Kingdom, and the Climate Psychology Alliance, advises teaching children about climate change as early as ages two or three. “As soon as you start teaching them to talk, and engage emotionally and relationally with the world,” she says, “climate change needs to be woven into their world, so they are developing that emotional intelligence and resilience from a young age.”

She argues it’s similar to talking about other difficult things in a child’s world. “You wouldn’t not talk to your child about divorce. You’d find ways to talk to them about it, to help them understand. Climate change is no different – it’s already impacting on the child day in and day out, so start talking now.”

Whenever you are ready to broach the subject, find age- and child-appropriate ways to connect climate issues to real life. For example, many kindergarteners may have trouble understanding the carbon cycle, but they may be able to understand that it rains more, or less, than it used to where you live. Meanwhile, an adolescent may already have learned about the science in school, and may need instead to talk about difficult feelings and potential ways forward.

2. Find out what they already know. Much like that other oft-dreaded “talk,” it’s likely that your child will know more about the subject than you think.

Hickman says she’s encountered many parents who assumed their young children had no knowledge of the subject, then sat in horror as the child described how climate change is destroying the planet. Media, school, and casual conversations with peers their age, says Hickman, can bring climate issues into children’s worldview far more than many parents realize.

Regardless of how much your child knows, there is lasting value in your having purposeful conversation about climate change. After all, even if it turns out your child knows more about climate change than you do, your effort will help show that it’s a topic worthy of your family’s time.

3. Brush up on the science ahead of time, and then perhaps together, too. It’s okay if you don’t know everything about climate change – in fact, no one does. But do some homework so you can start your conversation from a well-informed foundation and be better prepared to field your child’s questions. (The BBC has a helpful primer here.) If your child has questions you can’t answer, that’s okay too: You can learn together with resources like NASA’s interactive Climate Kids website.

4. Address climate science, but don’t overlook climate feelings. Explaining the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on local weather patterns may be a good place to start. But many parents and children aren’t in it for the scientific education – they want to help their children cope with the deeper effects of climate change as they grow.

To that end, Hickman advises what she describes as classic psychotherapy measures to help your child talk about what can be very complex feelings. For example, she asks children to imagine how climate change could affect their favorite animal, and to then speak from its point of view. Purposefully exploring how your child or children feel about climate change can help them better cope with the grief and anxiety that youth are increasingly experiencing.

5. Give kids reason to hope and ways to take action – without glossing over the challenges ahead. Solutions to reducing the risks posed by the most extreme climate change abound, from curbing greenhouse gas emissions outright to investing in adaptation efforts. Very likely, you can talk about how you’re already supporting some of these activities around your own home, whether it’s by supporting climate change-fighting efforts or interests, reducing food waste and “eating smart,” recycling, or simply by more conscientiously turning off unneeded  lighting or appliances. You can also point to inspiring examples in your community, like new solar arrays or wind farms.

Avoid the temptation, however, to paint too rosy a picture. As children mature, they will need to be able to also cope with and adjust to inevitable disappointments like environmental policy rollbacks and species extinction or habitat destruction. 

6. Ensure yours is not a one-and-done conversation. The first intentional talk may be the hardest. But from there, you’ll have opened doors for more open, ongoing dialog about an issue that will dramatically shape the future. Look for climate-related touchstones in your day-to-day routine, whether it’s making windmills out of popsicle sticks and digging in healthy soil with younger kids, or discussing a youth-led climate march and catching a documentary with older ones.

We may not be able to predict precisely how our children’s futures will look in a climate-altered world. But, by talking honestly and openly with our kids about climate change, we can give them the knowledge and emotional resilience they’ll need to cope with it.

Daisy Simmons, August 2020
https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/08/how-to-talk-with-kids-about-climate-change/?ct=t(EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_DAILY_081220)