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How to talk to your children about climate change

Whether they learned about the greenhouse gas effect at school, saw a dire post about global warming on social media or experienced a weather-related disaster firsthand, chances are good that your kids are aware of and worried about the dangers of climate change—possibly, very worried.

The anxiety, these days, starts young. Last year, a poll of 1,000 children between the ages of 7 and 12 by an eco-grocer found that 71 percent were worried about climate change. And those feelings only deepen with age: A 2021 survey of 10,000 teenagers and young adults in 10 countries published in the medical journal The Lancet found that 84 percent were worried about climate change, with more than half of the respondents saying it made them feel sad, anxious, helpless and angry.

What can adults do to help? Parents are often unsure if they should talk about climate change with their offspring and risk adding to their child’s distress or instead downplay the subject. “Since climate change is a topic that can bring up anxiety, helplessness or guilt in adults and especially in caregivers, a natural urge is to avoid it,” says Sarah Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Suffolk University whose research looks at the impact of climate anxiety in youth. “But that can leave kids feeling isolated in their concerns or feeling like the topic is too scary even for the grown-ups in their lives.”

The better path is to engage with your child in an age-appropriate way that helps validate how they’re feeling, gives you the opportunity to answer questions and correct misinformation and, most importantly, opens the door to an ongoing conversation. Here’s how experts suggest you go about it.

Raise the Subject Organically

You know that impulse to avoid a subject that could give both you and your child anxiety? Ignore it. The most important thing a parent or trusted adult can do to help kids manage their feelings about climate change and ensure they get good information is to broach the topic. A natural time to bring up climate change for the first time, says Leslie Davenport, a climate psychology educator and author of two books on helping children manage climate anxiety, is when there’s a related event—say, it’s too hot for your kids to go outside or there’s been a climate-change-related natural disaster that is being talked about on the news, such as this summer’s wildfires in Hawaii or giant baseball-sized hailstorms in Minnesota.

“If [an event related to climate change] is disrupting what they want, or the rhythm of things, they want to know why,” Davenport says. As climate events increase, these opportunities will become more frequent. And if a climate event has impacted your child directly, it’s going to be even more important to speak directly about climate change.

You can use positive events as a springboard for discussion, too—if your child’s school has an Earth Day program, for instance, or the teacher is doing climate-related activities and projects in the classroom. “Ask them what they are learning,” Davenport suggests. “Ask them what they think and feel and what they want to know more about. Help them connect the dots.”

The point isn’t to have an in-depth conversation about climate change right off the bat, but instead to show your child that you’re always available to talk.

Keep the Talk Age-Appropriate

How you bring up climate change depends on the age of your child. Maria Ojala, a researcher from Örebro University in Sweden, says that until children are 10, the best approach is to focus on the immediate environment and not bring up global or systemic problems. “This can be hard to grasp for children who have not developed abstract thinking yet.”

For school-aged kids, you can expect that they’ll be asking more questions about climate change. As more states pass legislation requiring climate science to be taught in all grade levels—New Jersey became the first state to do so in 2020, followed by Connecticut in 2022—Davenport says that parents can expect to get specific questions about things like carbon emissions, trapped greenhouse gases and extreme weather. While you may not know the answer to some of these scientific questions, you can partner with your child in discovering the answer by watching YouTube videos together or searching for information online as a team.

For children older than 12, expect that your teenager may know more about climate change than you do, so approach the topic as a conversation, not a lecture.

Let Your Child Take the Lead

It’s the parent’s job to initiate the discussion, says Davenport, but it’s the child’s job to direct where the conversation goes. Once you introduce the subject, she advises, “It’s a lot of listening. What are their questions? What are their concerns? You don’t just do this big science download.”

Depending on your child’s age and temperament, those first attempts at a climate change conversation may be met with 20 questions or, at the other end of the reaction spectrum, a shrug and a change of subject.

Kottie Christie-Blick, an education consultant who works with schools and teachers to create climate-change curriculums, emphasizes the importance of asking children what they’ve learned and where they’ve learned it. She says, “We don’t exactly know how children are taking in what they’re hearing.”

Having an open conversation and showing an interest in your child’s questions also gives you an opportunity to correct misinformation. Christie-Blick recalls speaking with a young girl who was devastated to learn about sea-level rise, because the child thought it meant all of North America might flood overnight.

Focus on Feelings, Then Facts

In her research, Ojala has spoken with hundreds of young people between the ages of 10 and 18, and she says there is evidence that what helps most is simple: validate their feelings. She says it’s important to help young people put words to their emotions. For example, they may be feeling distressed but not be able to verbalize what they’re feeling or why.

For a child younger than 10, it’s important to help them name their feelings (“Sounds like you’re feeling pretty sad”), then validate the emotion (“It is sad that so many animals are losing their homes”), then remind them that there are adults are handling the situation (“There’s a lot of people working to save the homes of animals”).

For a child older than 10, you might respond similarly in tone but with less reassurance and more help integrating the overwhelming reality of climate change: “I’m hearing that you’re feeling distressed and overwhelmed learning about wildfires. I feel overwhelmed about wildfires and wildfire smoke, too.”

What not to do: Don’t be a cheerleader, offering empty platitudes. Resist the instinct, Davenport says, to tell your child not to worry, that everything will be fine or that adults will figure it out because that reaction can come across as invalidating to their level of distress and the realities of what we’re facing. She says, “It comes from good intentions but it’s bypassing.”

As teenagers learn about climate change and how this might impact their futures, they often ask why their parents’ generation hasn’t done more to reduce emissions. Some parents may feel an impulse to defend themselves, but Davenport emphasizes the importance of making space for your children to express their anger, their outrage, their fear and their sadness.

“Young people are scared, sad and angry,” says Schwartz. “For many, concerns about climate change are influencing daily functioning, how they think about their future and important decisions related to education, career and family.”

Christie-Blick says that even if the sentiment comes from a place of encouragement or hope, avoid telling your child that their generation is going to have to fix it. She says, “It’s so cruel to say to a child: ‘You kids need to lead the way.'” Instead, help them re-focus on the actions that individuals, scientists, governmental authorities and world organizations are taking to tackle climate change and other environmental challenges.

Provide the Right Resources

To further your child’s understanding of climate change, you can get a helping hand from reputable, engaging educational material on the subject. For instance, Climate Kids, a website run by NASA, offers games, activities and videos targeted to kids ages 8 and up. Local zoos and aquariums often have programming that deals with climate change and can also be a fun way of catching your child’s interest.

Breena Bard, an award-winning graphic novelist, says an engaging story can help children process complex topics. “Comics, specifically, have a way of engaging their imagination so they aren’t just taking in information.” Bard’s most recent graphic novel, Wildfire, is written for youth and follows a middle-school-aged girl who lost her home in a wildfire and turns her anger into climate action. Davenport’s All the Feelings Under the Sun is a workbook designed to help older kids and young teens both learn basic facts about climate change and process any feelings that might arise. For children under 10, Davenport suggests The Lorax, a Dr Seuss tale (also made into a 2012 movie with Zac Efron and Danny DeVito) chronicling the plight of the environment through a 12-year-old boy’s search for a character who “speaks for the trees;” and We Are Water Protectors, a lushly illustrated Caldecott Medal-winning story of a young Indigenous girl’s efforts to prevent a black snake from destroying her people’s waters and the Earth.

Part of providing the right resources is also being mindful to avoid the wrong ones. Constant exposure to news about climate disasters can be overwhelming to a child who is just learning about climate change. Because of the way algorithms are constructed, social media can promote a kind of “gloom-and-doom” climate content that isn’t always supported by science. Depending on the age of your child, it may be impossible to limit access to this kind of content, making it even more important to initiate calm, informed discussions at home.

Lead by Example

Kids emulate their parents. If you are comfortable talking about the feelings and facts of climate change, they will be, too. If they see you thinking critically about potential solutions and action to tackle environmental challenges, they will develop their own muscles of problem-solving and critical thinking. If they see you actively making choices to lower your family’s emissions—flying less, eating less meat and buying an EV are three of the most impactful things you can do —they will start to naturally understand the link between climate change and lifestyle choices.

And while you don’t want to process your feelings in front of your child, being able to name your emotions will help your child be able to name theirs.

Most importantly, kids need to see that their parents can tolerate hearing their child’s negative feelings and can provide a safe space for their kids to feel anxious, without being dismissed or placated. Above all, you want your child to know that their worry is normal and not something that isolates them from others but instead connects them to others. As Ojala says, “Worry about climate change is a rather rational emotion in the face of a very dangerous threat.”

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