TALKING TO KIDS ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE
by Charlotte Barron, Guest Contributor
As the consequences of climate change become more and more apparent, the need for open dialogue by educators and parents with children and youth about our planet's future has grown exponentially. Children will be exposed to the reality of climate change one way or another, and without proper explanation, young imaginations run wild. I was recently reminded of a much beloved family video, in which my five-year old self attempts to describe climate change using a spinning globe and a flashlight. I emphatically stated that the issue with climate change was that too much light pollution would cause other planets to think Earth was a new Sun, leading them to change orbits and ultimately create a black hole. While my science may not have been even close to factual, the genuine concern in my voice was evident, as I urged my mom's FaceBook friends to start recycling to prevent this fate. That sense of urgency, even as young as five, is not unique to me. Rather, it is a symptom of a much larger phenomenon of climate anxiety among young people (Figure 1). Research shows that most youth are worried about climate change, with 62% saying that they are anxious about climate change and 67% describing themselves as sad and afraid of the future. Dr. Sarah Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Suffolk University in Boston says more and more of her young patients tell her, “I think my life will be much worse than my parents' lives.”
Because of the potential anxiety it can cause children, talking about climate change with them can feel challenging. Many people may want to protect kids from worry by keeping information about climate change from them entirely. However, children of a certain age are inevitably exposed to climate change, whether through their own experiences of extreme weather events, media sources, or their peers. Therefore, it is important for adults to help children discover and understand factual information about climate change, mitigate the natural anxiety that accompanies that information, and help them find ways to take action.
Figure 1. Word cloud generated from university student responses to questions about climate change from (Leimbach, T., et al, 2020)]
Generally, children experience two different types of anxieties that must be addressed uniquely. According to Samantha Ahdoot, a lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on Global Climate Change and Children’s Health, children experience climate change through extreme weather events and through the effects of a changing world and the fear that that evokes.
Here are some tips on having productive conversations with children in either category about climate change and how to manage their emotions and fears.
For the child who is anxious about the future:
Youth climate activist Greta Thunburg captured the feelings of a generation in her address to the U.N. Climate Summit by saying, “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” Even children who have not personally experienced extreme climate disasters can suffer from all-consuming anxieties about climate change through news coverage, political dialogues, or even concerns overheard from peers and family members. At every age level, there are steps to take to support children in their emotional processing and conceptual understanding of climate change.
Start the conversation by giving kids space to express their hopes and fears about climate change. You can even let them describe to you what they already believe they know about climate change (yes, including spontaneous black holes). Instead of quickly dismissing any worries they have – even incorrect ones, consider telling them that you have fears about the climate too. Give them your full attention and assure them that this is an issue you and lots of other people are working together on. You can even find and encourage creative ways for the kids to express these emotions, such as creating comics, art, or poetry.
Offer age-appropriate information about what climate change is and isn’t. Assistant director for the American School Counselor Association Eric Sparks advocates that “a high school student in most cases is going to be able to handle more information… whereas with younger students, what you say needs to be more general.” Be sure to do your own research to tell children what is known, but also grant them opportunities to do their own research. This can take many forms, including just simply going outside to develop curiosity about the natural world. Numerous online resources are available for age-appropriate climate science such as visual aids, NASA’s Climate Kids site, and the Center for Behavior and Climate's online courses for middle-school to high-school students.
For every problem, be sure to offer a solution if you can. This helps avoid defeatism and instead shows children what they and others can do to mitigate the consequences of climate change. For younger kids, this may include composting food scraps, using reusable bottles, tending a garden, or walking instead of driving to school. Older children may instead show more political and humanitarian interest. Make sure to also emphasize climate action as a collective effort, not just theirs alone. What are you doing as a family? What is your larger community doing? What are some inspiring stories about climate action and climate policies that you have heard recently? Empower children by explaining how other young people have taken climate action beyond simple lifestyle changes, such as Isra Hirsi, who co-founded the US youth climate strike at 16, or 14-year-old Leah Namugerwa, who created the Birthday Trees project to provide tree seedlings so kids can celebrate their birthday by planting trees. If they are interested, introduce them to opportunities to get involved themselves such as this young activist toolkit.
For the child who has experienced extreme weather events and climate disasters
Since 2014, climate change-caused disasters have displaced 100 million people worldwide. The fallout from these events can be especially devastating for children who may lose family members, homes, or important resources such as doctors and schools. This disruption of routine can cause mental health consequences to children of all ages: “Rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and later substance abuse tend to increase after you’ve experienced a [climate emergency],” says Dr. Susan Clayton, a conservation psychologist at The College of Wooster in Ohio, and a CBC Advisor. Thankfully, these consequences can be mitigated when addressed appropriately.
Offer small, familiar comforts for children, depending on the child’s age and needs. For example, Ahdoot advocates that parents of infant-aged children “try to save so-called comfort objects — any toy, blanket or other item to which a young child has a special attachment,” or replace any comfort items that have been lost with a substitute. Older children may seek more interpersonal comforts, such as quality time with friends or familiar activities.
Children will often express curiosity about the event in question. Clayton recommends respecting children’s emotional resilience by speaking frankly but age-appropriately about the facts of the disaster. “Be honest, but don’t offer too much detail,” says Clayton, “I would not lie to them, of course, but emphasize that things are going to be O.K.” Transparency between children and adults during the aftermath of a climate emergency helps ensure that their emotions and questions feel validated.
Above all else, remind children of their support networks and that there are people who are there to protect them. Further, give them the opportunity to feel that they are protecting something else, whether it be a sibling, pet, or even a toy. Even when all is said and done, you can comfort children by helping them understand how future climate emergencies may happen, but they will continue to have control of how they respond to it. Clayton suggests a simple script, such as saying: “Well, sometimes big storms happen and we thought we were ready, but this was worse than we thought. We’re going to make sure that we’re safe from weather in the future.”
“So what can we do?” my mother’s voice asks from behind the camera. The video was filmed just a few years after my family was forced to evacuate our homes in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, an event I have no memory of, but have witnessed the trauma through my family members at every passing anniversary. My young eyes light up as I shine the flashlight on my globe. “Here is what we’re going to do,” I say matter-of-factly, “We’re going to set a good example by telling our neighbors that we care about the Earth and then they’ll say ‘hey I really like how you do that,’ and then they’ll copy you!”
Our children care about the planet. They have things to share and say, ranging from expression of traumas to innovative solutions. It is our job as educators and parents to grant them the resources and platforms to be informed, empowered, and emotionally resilient; thus enabling them to thrive and take age-appropriate climate action.
Charlotte Barron is a summer intern with CBC from Wellesley College.
P.S. The Center for Behavior and Climate is pleased to have contributed a chapter on Teaching Behavior Change Skills for Climate Careers for the the 2023 book: Key Competencies: Practical Approaches to Teaching Sustainability (eds: Potter, Evans, Hiser, and Feldman).The book, a joint effort of the Sustainability Curriculum Consortium (SCC) and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), is freely available for download from the AASHE website.
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