when it comes When we talk to our kids about climate change, research shows there’s a huge gap between what parents think should happen — and what actually happens. A 2019 NPR poll found that nearly 85 percent of parents across the political spectrum agreed that children should learn about climate change. But only about half of those parents said they’d spoken to their own children about it.
The thing is, your child is probably already hearing about climate change. Leslie Davenport, a therapist and author of a workbook designed to help children process climate change, called All the Feelings Under the Sun: How to Deal with Climate Change, said that while researching her book, she spoke to many children who knew more about climate change than their parents did. “I was very surprised how well informed many children were about the science of climate change by the age of 8 or 9.” As the climate crisis grows in urgency and continues to make headlines, it will continue to permeate children’s consciousness. An article on the COP26 summit quoted an 8-year-old from Glasgow as saying: ‘I worry because if the world gets too hot, all the animals will die and (…) people will not survive .”
The problem, according to Davenport, is that the information didn’t come from a trusted source like a teacher or parent. Instead, the children she spoke to were given bits of information – they heard something on the radio or in a conversation – which they would then try to research on the internet. “As a result, the emotional drain is pretty high,” Davenport explained, describing everything from anger and frustration to panic, depression, and even headaches, stomachaches, excitement, and acting out. “While these are normal emotional responses when learning about a world in crisis, they are incapable of processing the feelings.”
Before you start talking to your child, it is important to deal with your own fears and ignorance about the climate crisis. Mary DeMocker, an environmental activist and author of The Parent’s Guide to the Climate Revolution: 100 ways to build a fossil-free future, raise capable kids, and still sleep well, points out that climate change isn’t just a really scary concept for kids, it’s also scary for adults, which may be why these important conversations aren’t happening. “Adults are often really isolated because of the climate problem,” she says. This can lead you to dismiss your child’s concerns or try to calm them down by downplaying the seriousness and urgency of climate change, or it can lead to your own distress stealing the show and scaring your child even more. Davenport points out that any meaningful discussion of climate change must be a balance between science and emotion. “It can’t just be facts and data. In presenting only the science, we leave out a large part of what it means to be human – our beliefs, values and behaviors.”
Now, before you text/whatsapp/Alexa/email/DM your child to start a conversation downstairs, here are some age-appropriate ideas to help you prepare.
Under 6 years old
Children under the age of 6 are still too young to understand climate change directly, so Davenport suggests cultivating a love of nature through seasons, plant cycles, beauty, play and teaching the basic responsibilities of life. This sets the stage for children to grow up to be good environmentalists. DeMocker, whose children are now grown, says when her children were little there was no language about climate change, so she struggled to lead by example. “We immersed them in nature, we immersed them in stories about nature, we composted and we took great care of nature. So they just grew up with concepts of an ethic of caring and a life of joy and wonder in the natural world and our responsibility for it.” DeMocker also made an effort to get her children to protest so they would be familiar with the concept of political involvement .
The most important thing, DeMocker insists, is to be reassuring. “Anytime they ask a question or if you feel like it’s important because you’re talking about it [the climate crisis] Do something to your family or in front of them that reassures you vigorously, like, “Oh, yes, we have a problem. It’s heating up the planet, and that’s causing problems, and it’s our turn.’” DeMocker says that young children need to know they’re going to be okay and have a sense of when things come up, their parents or caregivers take care of it.
- “The planet is our home, so we must take care of it to make it a safe place to live.”
- “Climate change is a big problem, but there are many people working together to solve it.”
- “People create pollution that gets into the air and can act like a blanket, and that blanket is heating the planet and that’s causing problems.”
Ages 7 – 12
By that age, Davenport says, kids are already interested in and hearing about climate science. “Around 8 o’clock you start to understand the broader perspective of climate change and its impacts, and the feelings start to build up,” she says. So before you start talking, ask what your kids already know.
This is also a time to start naming feelings and practicing emotional resilience. Davenport points out that while it’s normal to feel great emotions when learning that the world is in crisis, children are unable to process those feelings. “You’re left with a feeling of overwhelmingness that can turn almost every aspect of life upside down,” she explains. Davenport’s book suggests “switching,” or learning to toggle, between worrying climate news and tools to self-regulate emotional responses. “These are essential life skills needed to successfully navigate a world with clear mind and empathetic action, especially as the challenges of climate change escalate.”
This is also an age group where children are really interested in making a difference and taking action. Therefore, finding ways to work with your child on climate action can be empowering and bonding for both of you. DeMocker points out that there are a variety of ways children can make a difference. For example, the more introverted may not be as comfortable in a political arena but would like to contribute their gifts in other ways, through art, writing, or as part of a child-led effort like the 1 Trillion Trees campaign.
- “What have you heard about climate change? Do your friends talk about stuff like that?”
- “Would you be interested in getting involved with me — we can explore options together?”
- “What are your feelings? Can you call her by name? Can I give you some ways to calm down when you’re feeling really overwhelmed by emotions?”
As your child enters high school and subsequently begins their adult life, the conversations you have with them about the climate crisis will change dramatically. Davenport points out that entering high school is a natural time to think about the future, and climate change has already radically impacted your children’s futures. “There is a sense that their future has been hijacked by the high level of destruction that is taking place now, and that may escalate in the coming years due to the warming of the planet.”
At this age, your child likely has access to their own information, so you may want to focus more on listening and asking questions, being honest about your own feelings, and committing to keeping the conversation going with trusted, reliable sources of information keep.