Climate change affects each of us across the globe – and this includes children. In addition to what they are experiencing first hand as they go through heat waves, hurricanes, and floods, children are also picking up messaging about climate change through school, social media, and their friends.
As parents and caregivers, it can be challenging to talk to our kids about climate change. We already worry enough about what their future will look like, and would sometimes prefer to avoid the topic and the anxieties it can bring up.
However, open and honest discussions about climate change will both help children understand and process what they’re seeing and hearing all around them, and also empower them to take action towards a climate safe future.
Plus, rising to the challenge of having these difficult conversations also comes with the powerful benefit of deepening your connection with one another – a gift to both parent and child.
CONNECT WITH EACH OTHER AND WITH NATURE
Even the youngest children are highly aware of the world around them and are beginning to develop their relationship with the natural environment. One of the best ways to build this connection is to spend time in nature, while encouraging a deep feeling of gratitude for our planet and the ways in which it supports and nourishes us.
According to Vancouver-based psychologist Chrstine Korol, the best way to build a strong foundation for future conversations about the importance of protecting our awe-inspiring planet is to build a “love of nature and taking care of the earth.”
This can look like going on nature walks, exploring local parks, building a small garden, or simply just being outdoors.
As your kids get older, you can begin to build connections between their own actions and how they can have an impact on the world around them. You can start by relating climate change to their daily activities and interests to help make it personal for them, and encourage them to be thoughtful about the potential their actions have to either protect or harm.
For example, you can open a conversation around the dinner table about the food you’re eating, how it was grown, and how it ended up on your plate. Encourage them to think about each step of that journey, what impact it may have had on our planet, and focus on building the understanding that food comes from nature.
This step is meant to be foundational advice, rather than advice for how to talk to kids when intense things are happening – which brings us to point number two.
As grown-ups, we know that talking about climate change may bring about feelings of despair, anxiety, and sadness. Kids are by no means spared from this, and often feel these emotions in ways they may not be able to easily explain. Although these feelings might seem big and scary (yes, even for grown-ups) the goal is to create a space where they can be expressed and processed safely.
Encourage children to share their emotions freely in whatever ways feel right for them. To help them name and understand where their feelings are coming from, ask them to think about how climate change might affect the things they care about – such as their favourite animals or the places they love most.
Before you leave the conversation, it can be helpful to help them brainstorm activities that might make them feel better when they are experiencing climate-related emotions. According to climate psychologists Megan Kennedy-Woodard, Melissa James and Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams, these can include, “speaking with a friend or adult, meditating, relaxing scents, reminders to go for a walk, reconnecting with nature, and reading.”
You can close by congratulating the child (and yourself) on having the courage to have a tough conversation – that is powerful in and of itself.
LEAD BY EXAMPLE
Parents and caregivers are childrens’ first teacher and most trusted source. We can use our own actions as a teaching point to show them that we value the natural world and are doing our part to take care of it.
This can include things like using public transportation, making sustainable choices around what we buy and eat, and engaging with government leaders.
It’s also empowering to engage our kids in this process. Ask them what kinds of actions they would like to take, and make a plan together to do them. This lets them know that their input matters, and encourages them to start thinking about their own role in creating change.
By taking action together, you can reinforce the idea that combating climate change is a shared responsibility.
HOPE AND HONESTY GUIDE THE WAY FORWARD
No matter what we’re talking about with our children, it’s powerful to be honest. Children are incredibly perceptive and often understand more than we think.
With the foundation you’ve been building with the previous steps, you can be honest with your kids about how climate change is affecting the world now and in the future – after all they are already seeing it with their own eyes.
At the same time, there is a powerful message of hope that can exist in that same space. Explain that this is something that we can immediately tap into within ourselves and use to light the path forward – something author, activist, and scholar of Buddhism Joanna Macy calls “Active Hope”.
She explains, “Active Hope is something we do rather than have. It involves being clear what we hope for and then playing our role in the process of moving that way…When our responses are guided by the intention to act for the healing of our world, the mess we’re in not only becomes easier to face, our lives also become more meaningful and satisfying.”
You can help your children understand the idea of Active Hope by explaining that hope is something we do, not just something we have. Tell them they can express this hope in the actions they choose every day to make the world a better place.
And on the topic of hope, something that makes the My Climate Team hopeful is this article, which shows that if we can reach net zero carbon emissions soon, we can stabilize Earth’s temperature quickly, and start to see a decrease in temperatures in the years that follow.
Not only can this message help to soothe some of the fears and anxieties that our kids might have, it can also serve as a powerful inspiration to take action.
KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING
As the climate continues to change, so too will our kids’ questions about what it all means. You can remind them that you’re available to talk, and take the initiative to set up touch points to check in with them. This can be especially useful after an extreme weather event they experience, or something they might see on the news.
These conversations won’t always be easy, but as our children grow and take their place as stewards of the future, they will always be worth having.
And remember, these conversations can take place over time at whatever pace feels best for you and the young people in your life. We can’t protect our children from everything, but we should feel proud of taking the time to deeply connect with them – no matter the topic. After all, this connection is the best gift for them and for us.