Anxiety over climate change can affect the psychological wellbeing of kids, just as it can for adults. As much as we want to shield our kids from unpleasantness and reassure them that their world is stable and secure, it’s impossible to ignore the reality that the planet is facing unprecedented changes due to global warming caused by humans. Parents have a responsibility to provide their children with accurate information from trusted sources and prepare them for difficult and “inconvenient truths” that will impact them throughout their lives. But how can we address this important topic without creating “eco anxiety"?
Become informed yourself It’s hard to have a rational and informed discussion about climate change if you don’t understand how it occurs and impacts the earth.
1) Brush up on your own knowledge before opening up a discussion, and keep it scientific rather than political. Please find reputable websites* at the end of this article.
2) Come to terms with how you feel about climate change yourself before listening to your child’s perspectives and providing input.
3) Find out what your kids already know. Current curricula in schools may teach students about global warming and climate change, but in one study, 1500 science teachers interviewed throughout the United States revealed they spent only about 1-2 hours on the topic per year in middle schools. Climate change education in the classroom can also be contentious, depending on what state you live in.
4) Dispel misconceptions and offset misleading messages they may have picked up via the media, social networking, or climate change deniers.
Cultivate a love of nature Instead of taking an alarmist approach out of the gate by talking about polar bears dying and ice caps melting, cultivate respect and stewardship of the earth. Building a positive relationship with nature and the environment provides a foundation for subsequent conversations and understanding what’s at stake. A daily “green hour” of unstructured free play outdoors fosters caring for the environment and is essential to children’s physical and mental health. You don’t need to go into a complex explanation of the carbon cycle with kindergartners, but you can raise their awareness about the cycles of nature.
Start small Kids needs to be taught basic information about global warming before they can grasp why we shouldn’t use throw-away plastic straws. Otherwise, the main message becomes convoluted. We don’t have to sugarcoat the topic, but we can try to keep it as simple as possible when getting started. ScienceMoms.com is a website launched by nonpartisan scientist moms who break down climate change into simple and digestible concepts.
NPR provides this script from educators and psychologists for children as young as four or five: "Humans are burning lots and lots of fossil fuels (like oil, gas, coal) for energy -- in planes and cars to light our houses -- and that's putting greenhouse gases into the air. Those gases wrap around the planet like a blanket and make everything hotter. A hotter planet means bigger storms. It melts ice at the poles so oceans will rise, and it makes it harder for animals to find places to live. It's a really big problem, but there are a lot of smart people working hard on it, and there's also a lot that we can do as a family to help."
Teach kids that there are clean energy sources such as solar energy and cleaner energy-using machines such as electric cars that make a big difference. They may already notice that it rains less than before or gets really hot, but we can talk about and take actions that save water. In order to process complex topics and tough concepts, kids will often ask the same questions over and over for clarification, and we can be there to listen and provide age appropriate answers.
Create opportunities for discussion Climate change shouldn’t be a taboo subject in the household but rather a matter of accepted truth. Cultivate a respect for science and scientists. Make the most of teaching moments, whether it’s in the car after school pick-ups or discussion at the dinner table. There are many excellent PBS shows on nature you can watch together. Keep the dialogue casual, matter of fact, and non-threatening. Some psychologists say the more serious points of global warming should be saved until kids are at least eight years old unless they are asking specific questions that indicate they are ready for more information. Some parents compare such discussions to talking about sex; you approach it honestly and openly but provide information commensurate with their maturity level.
Empower kids to act Climate change is a pretty profound topic for children to grasp, but focusing on what we can do to help is more productive than dwelling on the negative. Make kids feel capable of making changes in their daily lives to prevent despair about the present or future. Explain that choices we make do have an impact on the planet and your kids can be a part of the solution. When packing their school lunches (ideally, together), raise their awareness that you’re making conscious decisions like choosing cloth napkins instead of paper napkins, using reusable bags and containers (e.g. Sistema Plastics) instead of plastic baggies, or opting for a low carbon menu with hummus and veggies instead of a salami sandwich.
Cultivate long-term community behaviors such as riding bikes together or coordinating school carpools. Create fun family challenges like timing showers to save water. Whether you landscape a yard or keep containers on an apartment balcony, get your children involved in choosing plants that are drought-tolerant and pollinator-friendly. Make an activity out of measuring your family’s carbon footprint through the Contra Costa Challenge. Encourage older kids to take actions that support school-wide sustainability like starting an eco club, getting compost bins put in the cafeteria, or donating excess food to charity. High school kids may want to participate in peaceful protests or write letters to representatives and should understand the importance of voting for candidates that support environmental legislation. Groups such as Sustainable Contra Costa’s own youth leadership branch, Sustainable Leaders In Action, provides excellent opportunites for high school and college students to get involved and take on leadership roles. Kids of all ages can be incredibly effective in partnering with schools, cities, and local organizations to be agents of change.
Keep it positive Provide hope and optimism without becoming a Pollyanna. Ask kids for their input when making meals together or committing to Meatless Mondays. Reinforce positive behaviors and “catch” them when they’re doing something that's pro-environment (e.g. using their reusable water bottle or turning down plastic straws).
Discuss sustainability regularly and often so it becomes second nature and part of their everyday routine. Be a good role model. Talk about what you’re doing in your own home so they have a point of reference for what environmentalism means. Keep home recycling and compost containers accessible so they use them regularly, and encourage behaviors for reducing food waste, eating smart, and saving energy by turning off appliances/lights when not in use, buying less, and reducing/avoiding plastic when entertaining or hosting birthday parties. Participate in fun and informative Earth Day celebrations and attend local farmers' markets together. Point out solar panels, wind farms, and other energy saving examples while traveling. If you are consciously offsetting carbon miles by using public transportation on family vacations, bring that to their attention. Inspire them by emphasizing the progress that has been made in the world and what steps still need to be taken.
Keep the conversation going Discussing climate change with your kids is not a “one-and-done” but an ongoing process. Parenting will always be a complex, ever changing work in progress and is different for every family. However we choose to address global warming with kids, we can make sustainability a regular part of everyday life for this and future generations. Check out these children’s books about climate change and NASA's "Climate Kids" website for fun activities, like making s’mores in a solar oven or creating a drought tolerant terrarium with succulents and cacti.
*Reputable websites for addressing climate change:
Sources and further reading:
Photo by Alexandr Podvalny