How to Talk to Children About Climate Change

Research shows that there is a wide gap between what parents believe should be done and what actually happens when it comes to discussing climate change with our children. NPR polled nearly 85 percent of parents in 2019, across all political stripes, to suggest that children should learn about climate change. Only half of those parents spoke to their children about climate change.
Your child is probably already aware of climate change. Leslie Davenport is a therapist who also wrote All the Feelings Under the Sun, How to Help Kids Process Climate Change. She said that she had spoken to many children about climate change while writing her book. It was amazing to see how well-informed many children were about climate change science, even though they were only 8 or 9. A report on the COP26 summit featured a 8-year old from Glasgow saying that if the world heats up, all animals will die and (...) people will not survive.

Davenport said that the problem was that the information didn't come from a trusted source like a teacher or parent. Instead, the kids she spoke with were getting partial informationoverhearing something on the radio or in a conversationthat they would then try to research on the internet. Davenport said that the emotional distress levels are high. She described everything from anger and frustration to depression and panic, as well as headaches, stomachaches and agitation. These are normal emotions to learn about a world in turmoil, but they do not have the ability to process them.

It's important that you acknowledge your fear and ignorance about the climate crisis before you start a conversation. Mary DeMocker is an environmental activist and author of The Parents Guide to Climate Revolution. 100 Ways to Create a Fossil Free Future, Rake Empowered Kids, and Get a Good Night's Sleep. She points out that while climate change may seem scary for children, it can also be frightening for adults. This could explain why important conversations aren't taking place. She says that adults are often very closed off to the issue of climate change. This can result in your child being dismissed or soothed by you downplaying the urgency and severity of climate change. Or it can cause your own anxiety to steal the show, making your child even more afraid. Davenport argues that there must be both science and emotion in any meaningful discussion about climate change. It cannot be just facts and data. We can't just present science. It is missing a lot of the human experience, our life beliefs, values and behaviors.

Here are some age-appropriate suggestions to help you prepare before you send a text/Whatsapp/Alexa message to your child asking them to come down for a talk.

Below 6 Years of Age

Davenport says that children under six years old are too young to understand climate change. He suggests encouraging a love for nature through seasons and plant cycles, beauty, play and teaching basic responsibility for caring for the environment. This will help children become environmental stewards. DeMocker's children are now grown. She says that there was not much language about climate change when she was a child, so she tried to be an example. We took them out into nature, read stories about it, and did a lot of care for the environment. They grew up with the concepts of an ethic and care, joy and wonder in nature, and responsibility.

DeMocker stresses that the most important thing is to be reassuring. If they bring up a question or you feel it's important to discuss [the climate crisis] with your family or before them, be energetically reassuring. It's warming up the planet and that's causing problems.

Here are some examples of phrases:

We are our planet, and we must take care of it to ensure that it is a safe place for us to live.

Although climate change is a major problem, there are many people who are working together to address it.

People create pollution that is released into the atmosphere and acts as a blanket. This blanket heats up the planet, which causes problems.

Ages 7-12

Davenport states that children are interested in climate science at this age. She says that the bigger picture of climate change and its implications is understood and felt by children as early as age 8. Ask your children what they know before you begin talking.

It is a good time to begin to recognize your emotions and practice emotional resilience. Davenport explains that it is normal to feel overwhelming emotions when the world is in crisis. However, children are not equipped to deal with those emotions. She explains that they are often left feeling overwhelmed, which can cause chaos in all aspects of their lives. Davenports book recommends "toggling," which is the ability to toggle between distressing news about climate change and self-regulating emotions. These skills are vital to navigate the world with clarity-mindedness and empathy, especially as climate change challenges increase.