Talking with young people about climate change


At the time of this writing, my children are nearly four and nearly one. We haven’t yet talked directly with them about climate change. They currently live their lives unaware of the situation that has settled over this world.

But one day, they will learn that they live in extraordinary times, characterized by rapid change, uncertainty and the requirement that human society rework itself to preserve the possibility of a future. And when that day arrives, I want them to remain open, engaged and hopeful. I do not want fear to grip their young hearts and drive them towards despair and withdrawal. I want them to recognize the validity of their emotional reaction to the challenge while also moving beyond those emotions. And I do not want their love of the world to falter in the face of grief.

A lot clearly rides on those early conversations. And as two of the most trusted adults in their young lives, much responsibility rests on the shoulders of their father and myself. It has therefore felt essential to consider those conversations so that when they do occur, we are able to provide information, hold space for our children’s emotions and also provide a meaningful sense of hope and empowerment. To prepare, I’ve turned to my background in both counseling psychology and early childhood education. I’ve also scoured resources on the topic. And I’ve filtered all of this information through my experience as a mother. 

Why talk about climate change with young people?

Before diving into the “how” of talking with children about climate change, let’s briefly consider the “why”. Because I truly get it if you feel that you’d rather avoid addressing this overwhelming topic with your children (truly!). The desire to shelter the young people we love from the harsher truths of the world is both common and understandable.

So, here are a few points I’ve considered that might help us all better understand why it is so important to talk to kids about climate change:

Your children will find out about climate change sooner or later, even if you do not discuss it at home. More and more schools are, thankfully, beginning to address the topic in the classroom. Also thankfully, the subject is receiving more headlines and more airtime in the news. If your extended family or circle of friends are anything like ours, the topic is also being talked about with increasing frequency at social gatherings. We are addressing climate change in more places, and we should be. It should be everywhere.

When we shy away from a topic, we send the message to our children that the topic is too scary, too overwhelming for their consideration. This has a powerful impact on young people. Think back to your own childhood. Were you ever scared that monsters might be lurking in the dark corners of your room at night? How did the adults in your life handle that fear? Did they quickly brush the topic aside or did you have the opportunity to sit down and hold a meaningful conversation about the fear with a trusted adult?

I remember how it felt when grownups quickly moved on from a topic, clearly trying to steer my attention away. I wasn’t fooled. A little red flag went up. The subject was clearly a big deal and I should be worried. My parents couldn’t even talk about it, after all! On the other hand, when time was taken to calmly explore my fears, it was like casting a bright beacon of light over something that was previously dark, tangled and confusing. With that light came courage. 

We have a choice: we can shy away from discussing climate change with young people, thereby sending the message that the topic is too terrifying for consideration and certainly too big for us to do anything about. Or we can embrace the opportunity for honest, open discussion, and thereby model holding complex emotions as we consider climate change while also cultivating the awareness that solutions exist and we have the power to enact positive change. 

Additionally, we are much better able to digest and integrate topics into our worldview when we are exposed to them regularly as children. Imagine that you suddenly learned at age sixteen that sugar can negatively impact human bodies. You spent your childhood consuming sugar with abandon, but were now expected to change your behavior to preserve your health. If you had spent your whole childhood learning that sugar shouldn’t be consumed in excess, that thinking and the corresponding behaviors would be second-nature to you. 

The fact is, we don’t have to struggle much to imagine how challenging it would be to suddenly learn about climate change as an adult and realize that, to successfully address the problem, we must make significant changes to how we behave and the values we hold. For many of us, this has been our reality. We know this challenge all too well. The good news, the great news, is this: we have the opportunity to do things differently with today’s young people. We have the opportunity to raise them with a worldview that not only includes climate change, but also reflects the shift in values and practices needed to sustain life on this planet. 

Having the conversation

Okay, enough about the why. Here’s where I’ve landed on how to approach the tremendous responsibility of talking to my children about climate change. 

First, in many ways, the challenge is akin to the responsibility involved in discussing death with young children. Research has shown the importance in following the curiosity of young people when beginning conversations about death and dying, in sticking to facts and presenting the information simply and clearly, and in honoring any feelings that arise. When assisting young people in their early wondering about death, we are tasked with simultaneously addressing the indisputable and inevitable presence of a great change at some point in their life – a change full of uncertainty, a change that is often wrapped in fear and grief – while also helping them stay open to the beauty and possibility contained in life in the present. This same challenge exists when introducing young people to climate change. 

So how do we do it? How do we share the information with children in such a way that they emerge empowered to make a difference, rather than terrified to grow towards such a future?

The answer lies in the when and the how. 

When?

There isn’t one answer here, as every child is unique and is ready for new topics at a different age. Let your children take the lead. Don’t force the serious conversation on them anymore than you would sit them down and say “You know, everyone eventually dies.” Just as with death, if they trust you, they will come to you and ask when they are curious. Follow their curiosity when they do. As you answer their questions, notice how engaged they seem. Their interest will be your guide on how far to dive into the topic. 

All of this being said, if your children reach age eight and haven’t asked yet about climate change, it might be time to start bringing up the topic in an age-appropriate manner. In most settings, it is highly unlikely that they have not heard the phrase by the time they reach the age of eight. They may even already be thinking about climate change but are too anxious to ask. 

Laying the foundation with the very young

In the years prior to directly discussing climate change with the young people in your life, there is much you can do to lay the groundwork that will support them when the reality of the climate crisis does finally enter their awareness. This is what we are currently doing with our children. 

With the very young, the time is ripe for the essential work of building a strong, positive connection with the natural world. This should be your first priority. This connection builds the foundation needed for environmental action when your child gets older. It cultivates a respect for the ecological systems that will be necessary to address the issue. And it connects your children to a powerful source of inspiration to draw upon when they do ultimately learn about climate change: love for the natural world. 

In the natural world, you and your child can practice noticing when certain seasonal events happen and any shift in those patterns. You can provide experiences of the interconnection between humans and other living beings. All of these explorations help build an awareness and view of the world that will help your child better understand both the challenge of climate change and the possibilities that exist for solutions. 

During these early years, you can also build behaviors that are part of addressing the issue, such as composting, recycling, reusing, not overconsuming, distinguishing wants from needs, and more. When engaging in these behaviors, you can indirectly address the topic, discussing how these practices are good for the earth and a very simple explanation as to why. When you are out and about in the world at large, you can help your child notice things like solar panels, windmills and electric vehicles, explaining that these are ways of making power and driving around that are good for the earth, building an awareness of other ways of doing things. Through engaging in and bringing awareness to these behaviors and choices, you both build them into your child’s life a second-nature and establish a connection to the solutions that can provide hope when you do directly discuss climate change. 

Do not avoid the topic in your own life in your child’s presence. Remember, when we act as though we are shielding young people from something, we send them the signal that the topic is scary and threatening. Just as we should not avoid talking to them about the topic when they do ultimately bring it up, we should not avoid talking about it with others in their presence, or hush others who are having a conversation that might be overheard. Instead, as much as possible, be mindful about what is being said and might be overheard and try to not build confusion or fear.

Three steps to the conversation

When the time does arrive to have a direct conversation about climate change, there are three key steps involved. All three increase in complexity as your child grows older. 

Share information – whether it’s scientific facts, historical events in work on climate change, or information about what is happening today to deal with climate change. Share facts in an age appropriate manner. Don’t editorialize, stick to the facts. Again, your child will largely be your guide, but this great resource from the Climate Reality Project includes a consideration of the tendencies of different age groups. Be sure to steer away from media stories intended for older audiences. 

Hold plenty of space for feelings – and share your own in a way that feels healthy and safe for your child and does not make the moment about you. Honor the fact that feelings on big topics like climate change are very normal.

Engage, encourage and empower.

  • Engage your child’s mind and heart in the topic – ask them what they think, what they hope for, what they want to see happen. Brainstorm about what the future might look like in a positive way and give lots of space for your child’s ideas ideas. Young people have incredibly important and valuable ideas on the topic of climate change and intergenerational problem solving is essential. Listen – and then listen some more. Active listening is an important factor in inspiring your child’s creative engagement.
  • Encourage – get your child thinking about what they can do, encourage them with positive stories about what others have done and are doing. Share stories about innovators throughout history, the challenges they faced and how they prevailed and stories of people who had a positive impact on the world despite difficult odds. Share stories of what people are already doing about climate change. Reassure your child that adults are on the issue (this is very important). Don’t make it seem like it is a burden that will fall solely to children, or that children bear an extra responsibility to address the issue. Provide examples. At the same time, do also provide examples of the many young people who are engaged in the issue and raising awareness. 
  • Empower them – help them get active and believe in their capacity to have impact and make a difference. Honor their citizenship. Also, and very importantly, empower them through connection with community – provide them with the opportunity to feel how people can make a difference when they come together.

Plan, consider, even practice. This is very, very different from speaking with an adult about climate change. If, like me, you do not want to lie to your child, you need to consider what you are going to say and how you are going to say it to avoid scaring your child and causing them to shut down around the topic. Personally, I do not like the idea of telling my child that “everything will be fine” if it might not be, or promising a safety I cannot be sure of. Instead, I want to focus on what I can say to open my child’s mind, honor their emotions, and help them feel safe in this moment while also hopeful and empowered about their future. I know that, when the time comes with my own children, I will focus on the many times humanity has overcome significant odds to enact important change. And I will draw on the wisdom of the natural world and the many places where humanity is still connected to that wisdom.

Categories: Parents, Children & Climate

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