How To Talk To Your Kids About Climate Change (Without Freaking Them Out)
Climate anxiety is real, and it’s only going to get realer. But there are ways to help our kids feel empowered and connected, rather than doomed.
Climate anxiety is real, and its effects on children’s mental health are devastating. If there was any lingering doubt, it was put to rest by a recent survey of 10,000 young people across 10 countries between the ages of 16 and 25. “We didn't realize quite how frightened [kids] were,” says the study’s co-author Caroline Hickman. “We didn't realize the depth of the feeling. And we didn't realize how that was impacting on their thinking and their daily functioning.”
If you haven’t had a frank — but age appropriate — conversation with your kids about climate change, then that should probably change. As Hickman told NPR last month, “We have to talk to children about these frightening things that are going on in the world, but we have to find ways to do that that helps them understand what's going on and not feel alone.”
Now that you’ve accepted that you have to talk to your kids about the climate, where do you start? The first thing to know is that your goal should be to help your children feel empowered and connected rather than doomed. Fortunately, there are therapists, educators, and community organizers who know how to do this. Because so much of climate work plays out locally, we focused our research on one community and got advice from people already doing the work in New York's Hudson Valley, a region with a rich history of community-building, conservation, and environmental activism.
Here was their best advice:
Name the feelings that come up
Already, kids and young people are having feelings about the world that has been left for them. It really helps people to name it and to talk about what it is. Sometimes it’s anxiety and sometimes it’s grief. The same way we experience grief in a personal loss: sadness for what could have been.
Be aware of — and embrace — your own emotions
When talking to your kids about climate change, it’s so crucial to be aware of your own emotions; it’s not just intellectual. Sometimes parents feel so anxious that they don’t talk about it at all, and it becomes “a thing we don’t talk about.”
But activism and any kind of progress isn’t so dry that we will never feel during it. We can’t just act, we have to feel too. Emotions are a part of this, and that’s OK; we’re all human and we have our own emotions about it.
Avoiding the subject sends kids the wrong message
If parents don’t talk about climate change with their kids because they don’t want to overwhelm them, and take the mindset that “This is the only time they have to be kids, don’t need to worry about adult issues,” they give the message either that these issues aren’t important or that they’re so awkward or taboo that we don’t talk about them at home. We need both the language and the courage to talk; how will we talk about these issues in the world if we don’t talk about them at home?
Your life is an example
I get questions from parents like, “When can we teach kids about social issues?” I say that you’re teaching all the time by the way you live your life.
Teach them awe
Strive to teach an awareness and an awe. Children need to fall in love. They need to be in the grass. They need to catch and observe critters. They need to be comfortable on the earth before they’re called to save the earth.
Keep it close to home
“I think there’s also a very common abstraction that we want to teach kids about the zoo animals and the rainforest. Koalas and pandas are cute, but they might as well be unicorns, because we never see them! There’s all this immediate stuff right around us that’s really interesting: hawks, deer, squirrels, worms. Whatever we can do to make our observations and investigations more relevant to their lives and more local, the better.”
There is such a thing as too much information
I caution parents that there is such a thing as giving kids too much information. If you give children more information than they can digest or handle at their developmental stage in order to try to instill values or a sense of responsibility, you can actually do the opposite.
We have a tendency to overthink and give the child more information than they’re asking for.
Validate their feelings
If a child’s expressing anxiety, then it’s real. You don’t want to ignore it or shut it down. You want to listen really carefully and support what the child is asking, try to interpret it. “Oh you seem really worried that people are throwing garbage in the ocean, and it is sad, isn’t it?” Think about helping the child feel safe and secure.
Shifting from anticipation to adaptation can be freeing
The most recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Report was great because it said there’s no longer any “wiggle room” — the data is so clear now with the storms that we’re seeing, the fires, the sea level rise. It’s all directly linked to anthropogenic activity. There’s no argument anymore. It’s freeing in a way. For a while some people were able to say, “We’re not sure,” but now scientists are able to say we know for sure.
Anticipation often causes more anxiety than acting when something has arrived. This isn’t some looming catastrophe that’s off in the far distant future. Now that it’s here and it’s happening now, it’s about adaptation. How are we, as a community, going to adapt to the reality? You can’t do it alone.
Climate justice is intersectional
Climate anxiety is wound up in all kinds of other anxiety — anxiety about racism and police violence and sexism and education and transphobia. There’s a sense from young people that adults don’t trust them, and so there’s a lack of autonomy. Now we’re seeing a generational imbalance of who’s going to be dealing more with climate change issues and impact.
‘The environment’ is wherever you are
We define the environment in such a narrow way — it’s not just the Catskill Mountains or the Hudson River, it’s a walk to the bus. Kids need a daily experience of “the environment.” Otherwise the environment, and environmental activism, becomes inaccessible based on geography, race, class. We used to talk in terms of citizen science, but a lot of our youth aren’t citizens, and environmental racism is a real factor, so now we use the term “community science” to be more inclusive on all these fronts.
Start with birds
With younger people, we focus on trying to make this really positive connection with the outdoors — actually being outside, having a connection with a trail, or an animal, or a garden, or even a city block. What ends up being best is outdoor experiential moments when we can tie in climate trends. Learning to observe. Start with birds, who live everywhere; it’s a great place to begin to make observations.
Foster peaceful moments outside
With high schoolers, we focus on beginning to manage that anxiety. It’s about fostering quiet, impactful moments where all kinds of anxieties can come out. We see this happen when our students are sitting in a canoe in a wetland; they realize they feel calm, they’re making connections for themselves. The things we, as humans, fight to save are connected to those kinds of moments.
Accountability comes later
College is the stage where I begin to ask for more accountability. Decisions about vehicles, car purchases, careers. There are so many social issues related to climate change, now people can link in anywhere they want: poverty, farming, women’s education. You can work on anything and you’re working on climate change: a climate-conscious doctor, mother, gas station attendant. You don’t have to be a scientist.
Practice staying in the present
We should support their ability to manage their feelings of anxiety when they come up. To do this, it's helpful to have a here-and-now orientation. Rather than focus on a fear-inducing future, ground them in the present: have them feel into their bodies, and be intimate with the space around them. Support their ability to feel connected with their community. Teach them to trust that this is where all solutions will come from, not from disembodied, anxious thinking.
I use play and art therapy to have them process their feelings through creative means: A child might become a storm through physical movement, or draw a scene describing their perceived future, or make a landscape in the sand tray. They then have the capacity to change the narrative, add magical elements, channel overwhelming feelings, and problem solve around the issues they are grappling with. This helps children feel a bit more in control and feel they have agency over their environment.
Sometimes anxiety is appropriate
Anxieties are often about future things we can’t control. Climate anxiety is very real and, if anything, appropriate.
Follow their curiosity — and silliness
Keep the goal of what you really want your child to learn at the center: We want our kid to feel safe and explore curious questions, and let them be ridiculously silly or very serious.
With really young kids, go to the senses. Start with “How does it smell in our home? How does it smell outside? Can we see the moon out the window and track its phases?” Maybe you have a plant that they’re nurturing; ask open-ended questions like, “Why do you think your plant leans towards the window?”
Slowly, as children get older, follow their curiosity to build their knowledge base. Our job as parents is to plant seeds and support curiosity. The environment is messy, let them get messy!
Learn with your kids
Own the fact that you might not have the answers, that you might be wrong as a parent. Openly articulating humility, or acknowledging that you don’t know something, that you are actively learning, too, is critical.
It is important to remind children that they are not alone in facing the problem of climate change. It is a global problem that we are facing together. Show your priorities as a parent through your actions.
Learn with your kids. Always — but especially now — a lot of people are very disconnected from the earth, but a lot of that is about safety. There isn’t a safe way to relax and be in nature, especially for many non white non cisgender folx.
Hold onto what the pandemic taught us
Specifically in the past year, families got so much more time together. They finally had time to just be outside with their kids. You had to! You were either in your house or outside. As we’re speeding back up, how do we honor how powerful it was for all of us to go outside more during pandemic?
I’m saying to a lot of people: Remember what it was like to be slow? I have clients saying to me now: “Do not let me overschedule — I just want to be outside with my kids.” Hold those boundaries. Slow down. Take a deep breath. Get back to who you are.
No one has all the answers
Children so much want to be understood. They, and we, need to recognize that no one has all the answers. These are constantly evolving issues. There are many, many ways to address them and we all can play a part, but we need to take it one step at a time.
Nurture a sense of possibility
I’m noticing feelings of possibility more than dread with young people right now. When kids’ home environments support them in a way that they’re encouraged to be leaders, take chances and step out, there’s this sense of We can do this.
Illustrations: Margaret Flatley for Romper, Getty Images