When it comes to talking about climate change to our children, the research shows there’s a big gap between what parents think should happen—and what’s actually happening. A poll from NPR in 2019 showed that nearly 85 percent of parents, across the political spectrum, thought that children should be learning about climate change. But only about half of those parents said they talked to their own kids about it.
The thing is, your kid is likely already hearing about climate change. Leslie Davenport, a therapist and the author of a workbook to help kids 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. “I was very surprised how knowledgeable many kids were about the science of climate change, even as young as 8 or 9.” As the climate crisis grows in urgency and continues to make headlines, it will only continue to permeate the consciousness of kids. An article about the COP26 summit quoted an 8-year-old from Glasgow as saying “I'm worried because if the world gets too hot then all animals will start dying and (…) people won't survive anymore.”
The problem, according to Davenport, is that the information wasn’t coming from a trusted source, like a teacher or a parent. Instead, the kids she spoke with were getting partial information—overhearing something on the radio or in a conversation—that they would then try to research on the internet. “As a result, the level of emotional distress is quite high,” Davenport explained, describing everything from anger and frustration to panic, depression, and even headaches, stomachaches, agitation, and acting out. “While these are normal emotional reactions to learning about a world in crisis, they are not equipped to process the feelings.”
Before you engage in a conversation with your child, it's important to deal with your own fear and lack of knowledge around the climate crisis. Mary DeMocker, an environmental activist and author of The Parents’ Guide to Climate Revolution: 100 Ways to Build a Fossil-Free Future, Raise Empowered Kids, and Still Get a Good Night’s Sleep, points out that climate change isn’t just a really scary concept for kids, it’s also frightening for adults, which may be why these vital conversations aren’t happening. “Adults are often really shut down around the climate issue,” she says. That can lead to dismissing your child’s concern or trying to soothe them by downplaying the severity and urgency of climate change, or it can lead to your own distress stealing the show and making your kid even more scared. Davenport points out that any meaningful discussion of climate change needs to be a balance of science and emotion. “It can't simply be facts and data. When we only present the science, we leave out a big part of what it means to be human—our life beliefs, values, and behaviors.”
Now, before you text/Whatsapp/Alexa drop in/email /DM your child to come downstairs for a talk, here are some age-appropriate ideas to help you prepare.
Under 6 Years Old
Children under 6 are still too young to directly understand climate change, so Davenport suggests cultivating a love of nature through seasons, plant cycles, beauty, play, and teaching the basic responsibility of caring for life. This sets the stage for children to grow into good environmental stewards. DeMocker, whose children are now grown, says there wasn’t language around climate change when her kids were little, so she made an effort to lead by example. “We immersed them in nature, we immersed them in stories about nature, we composted, and we did a lot of caring for the natural world. So they just grew up immersed in concepts of an ethic of care and a life of joy and wonder in the natural world, and our responsibility for it.” DeMocker also made an effort to bring her children to protests so they were familiar with the concept of political engagement.
What’s most important, DeMocker emphasizes, is to be reassuring. “Whenever they bring a question, or you feel like it's important because you're talking about [the climate crisis] in your family or in front of them, do something that's energetically reassuring, like, ‘Oh, yeah, we have a problem. It's heating up the planet, and that's causing problems, and we're on it.’” DeMocker says that young children need to know that they’re going to be okay and have a sense that when things come up, their parents or caregivers are taking care of it.
Sample Phrases:“The planet is our home, so we have to take care of it so that it’s a safe place to live.”“Climate change is a big problem, but there’s a lot of people working together to solve it.”“People make pollution that goes into the air and can act like a blanket, and that blanket heats the planet and that causes problems.”Ages 7 – 12
At this age, Davenport says kids are already interested in and hearing about climate science. “Starting around 8 is when the larger perspective of climate change and its implications are beginning to be understood, and the feelings begin to arise,” 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 big emotions when you learn about the world being in crisis, kids are not equipped to process those feelings. “They are left in a sense of overwhelm, which can upend just about every aspect of life,” she explains. Davenport’s book suggests "toggling," or learning to go back and forth between distressing climate news and tools for self-regulating emotional reactions. “These are essential life skills required to successfully navigate a world with clear-minded and empathic action, especially as challenges escalate due to climate change.”
This is also an age group where kids get really interested in making a difference and taking action, so finding ways to work with your child on climate action can be empowering and connecting for both of you. DeMocker points out that there is a big range of ways kids can make a difference. The more introverted ones, for example, may not be as comfortable in a political arena but might want to contribute their gifts in another way, through art, writing, or being part of a kid-led effort like the 1 trillion trees campaign.
Sample Phrases:“What have you been hearing 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 kind of emotions are you feeling? Can you name them? Can I share with you some ways to soothe when you’re feeling really overwhelmed with emotion?”Ages 13+
As your child begins high school and subsequently starts their life as an adult, your conversations with them around the climate crisis are going to shift 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 levels of destruction happening now, and that can escalate in upcoming years due to the warming planet.”
At this age, your child likely has access to their own information, so you might want to focus more on listening and asking questions, being honest about your own feelings and making a commitment to keeping the conversation going with trustworthy, reliable sources of information.
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DeMocker recalled making dinner one night when her 21-year old son brought up how hopeless he was feeling about some climate news he’d read and what it meant for his future. “I just stopped what I was doing because I could see he was emotionally distraught. So that was about me being as attentive as you would be with a 2-year-old, but with someone 20 years older, saying, ‘Tell me more.’ And I just listened to his despair.”
Sample Phrases:"I know this is big and overwhelming, but I also really believe there's so much we can do to rise to the challenge and make a difference.""I don't have all the answers, and I'm learning about this the same as you are, but I know it's important that we keep talking, and I'm really open to whatever you’re feeling or thinking.”“What would feel supportive? Do you want help learning more, or help getting involved, or just having me be a person you can share your feelings with and know I won’t judge you or try to fix it?
As a parent, it’s easy to feel like you have to have all the answers or be able to make your child feel better when they’re upset. That’s why talking about the climate crisis can be especially difficult for parents, and it can be tempting to change the subject or avoid talking about it altogether. But keep this in mind: Your kid doesn’t need you to have answers or solve their feelings. They just need you to show up, ask questions, and listen to the answers.
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