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How to talk to your kids about climate change

Recently, parents have had to explain some pretty big stuff to their kids, from “why can’t we go to the playground?” to “what’s a global pandemic?”

The impulse to protect our children from troubling truths can be powerful.

So what do parents do when confronted with slower-moving crises – like global warming? The evidence suggests that many of us avoid it. A 2019 poll in the US found that while 84 per cent of parents thought kids should learn about climate change, only 45 per cent said they’d spoken about it with their own children.

“I think a lot of parents are really in a quandary about how to respond to their kids,” says Ann Sanson, a developmental psychologist and Honorary Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne. “They’re worried about scaring them, worried about how to respond authentically when they’re dealing with their own concerns about it… and then also, a lot of the time, parents just get caught up in the day-to-day and don’t think about these big issues so much until they really hit them in the face.”

Here are some tips for having empathetic and empowering climate-change conversations with children that acknowledge what’s at stake and help to inspire positive action.

Start talking – and listening

While it’s tempting to wait until kids are older before having talks, international research shows that most kids from primary school age up already know about climate change – and are worried about it.

But parents may not realise what their children are taking on. “Some kids feel silly talking about their worries; some don’t want to worry their parents; some – especially boys – think it’s not cool to show that you care about such things; and some don’t know how to bring it up,” says Sanson. “So I think it is really important for parents to be proactive, and to give kids a chance to talk about what they do know and feel.”

The Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children have a right to know about things that are going to affect their future, and to be involved in decision-making around those issues. “It wouldn’t be right to hold it back from them,” says Sanson. “This is going to be something that is critical to their future. They do need to know – and we need to be thinking about how to best equip them to deal with it.”

Make space for feelings

The first thing to do in a conversation like this is make space for kids to voice their feelings and have them validated. “So parents should be able to say things like ‘yes, I can understand why you’re scared, it is a really big problem and I get worried about it too’ and ‘I can understand why you’re angry with my generation for making this situation worse and not doing enough about it’,” says Sanson. This may require parents to first make space for their own feelings on the topic – such as by talking about it with other adults.

Get the facts straight, together

It’s also crucial to remember that kids may not have all the facts straight, and that might be causing them extra stress. “There’ve been kids who think that all of Melbourne is going to go underwater really soon, or that the whole world is going to burst into flames,” says Sanson of her own research, “so it’s really important to know what kids are thinking so you can correct their misconceptions.”

Children may well ask questions about climate change that their parents don’t know how to answer. Instead of fobbing them off, “that’s a really nice opportunity to say, ‘Well, I don’t know quite how that works, let’s research it together’,” says Sanson.

Given the climate change content in many schools’ curricula, older kids will likely know things about the topic that their parents don’t. “So that’s another time where parents can be learning from and respecting their kids’ knowledge,” says Sanson.

Find reasons for ‘realistic hope

When children bring up worries about their future in a changed climate, it’s important not to placate them with platitudes such as ‘don’t worry’ and ‘everything will be OK’. Focus on what’s being done to address the problem – and what else could be done.

A useful starting point might be talking about all the people who are already working on the problem – from scientists and policymakers to 17-year-old activist Greta Thunberg who initiated the 2019 school strikes for climate action and the students across the globe that joined her.

“We can remind them that we’ve solved big problems before, like slavery and apartheid and so on,” says Sanson; “we can talk to them about how all those things happened because people got together and demanded them to be changed.”

Move from anxiety to action

Challenging feelings can be powerful motivators for change. Modelling climate-smart behaviour at a household and local level is a great way to begin with young children. “You can tell the stories about each of the things that you’re doing: why you’re taking public transport, why you have your compost bin, why you’re growing veges,” says Sanson, “and just very gently draw the links between those local things and the broader environment.”

That might mean re-examining some of our own practices. “It’s important that kids know their parents are doing everything they can to make sure it is going to be a safe world for them to grow up in,” says Sanson, “and that means there’s a responsibility on parents to do the right thing.” Supporting kids to come up with solutions themselves (for example by asking them “How can we cut down the amount of plastic we use in our house?”) can help to increase their sense of adaptability and self-efficacy – both key attributes in a quickly changing world.

But while reducing our personal carbon footprint is one piece of the puzzle, it’s also important to look beyond the home. “The responsibility and the need for action is really at a government and industry level,” says Sanson, “and so I think that the responsibility on us as citizens to try to be influencing policy is really important.” We can help older kids find ways to voice their concerns in the public sphere – for example by contacting policymakers, lobbying businesses and raising awareness among their peers. “That learning of active citizenship skills is really important for them,” says Sanson – “in part to get a sense of control, not just helplessness and hopelessness – and to see that individuals acting together can make a difference.”

Main photo by Caroline Hernandez, Unsplash

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