Our generation of parents is faced with one task that no previous generation has had to address: preparing our children for climate change and the related stresses. Our children will likely experience more climate-related natural disasters at a frequency that previous generations did not experience. One study estimated that young children today will experience three times the number of climate disasters as their grandparents did.1 This fact may make our own anxiety rise at the thought of what our children might experience in their lifetimes. How do we prepare our children for a future filled with experiences that we ourselves have never faced? Scientists and experts can help us find ways to assuage our own fears, as well as those of our children and prepare them for the future.
Do Parents Need to Discuss Climate Change?
Many of us may be hesitant to bring up issues of climate change over the family dinner table. They seem heavy, anxiety-laden, and we may worry about burdening our children with these issues. Why not allow them a carefree childhood free of such concerns? In reality, our children have probably already heard about climate change and its potential impacts on their future. Through classmates, the media, and other sources, many children are very aware of the world around them and the changes that are occurring.1 In this situation, it becomes part of our responsibility as parents to ensure that our children understand the facts.
Secondly, it is also quite possible that many of our children have experienced or will experience a climate-related natural disaster or major weather event that could impact their lives. Around the globe, the prevalence of extreme weather events, wildfires, water shortages, and other events has increased2 dramatically and is only expected to rise.2
In response to these conditions, many children have questions and fears associated with climate change. By providing them with facts, the best answers we have, and support, we can help them manage their fears and learn how to move forward.
Tips for Discussing Climate Change
It can be challenging to know how to respond to children’s questions and concerns about climate change. These tips can help you face this discussion head-on with confidence.
Discover What Your Children Know: Before delving into an in-depth discussion of climate change with your child, it’s helpful to get a sense of what facts or ideas they already know. Depending on their age and the source of their information (e.g., friends, media, etc.), some of the information they have may or may not be accurate. One way to start is to simply ask them about what they have heard about climate change and what they think it means for them.
Beyond that, it can be helpful to clear up any misunderstandings or inaccurate information they may have received. If you are unsure of the facts about climate change, it might be helpful to read some simple science-based summaries first.3
Keep It Simple: When it comes to complicated topics like climate change, it’s often helpful to keep the discussions simple, especially with younger children. Try to answer children’s questions directly and simply. If possible, use child-friendly explanations of climate change issues. For example, instead of discussing the complexities of greenhouse gases, you could explain how the layers of the earth’s atmosphere are like a blanket covering the earth.1 As children mature in their understanding and knowledge of science, you can begin explaining more complex concepts.
When discussing these issues with children, it’s also helpful to remember to avoid provoking fear in them. Discussing climate change in straightforward, simple language can help with this.
Manage Your Own Emotions: The thought of climate change and its consequences can provoke a lot of anxiety in both us and our children. Thus, a key part of having these discussions is managing your own fears and emotions surrounding this topic. If possible, prior to discussing climate change with your child, think through what you plan to say and how you might calm any fears your child may express. It’s important to keep in mind that the tone you set in these conversations with your children will partially determine their reactions to the information.
In recent years, the fear and worry associated with climate change have begun to be recognized by the mental health community as climate anxiety or ecoanxiety.4 Like other forms of anxiety, it can be managed with proactive approaches rather than attempting to ignore it. Experts suggest that people address climate anxiety in many of the same ways that one would address similar mental health struggles. You may want to seek out support from friends and family, learn to cope with your fears through mindfulness4 and reappraising the situation,4 as well as be physically prepared in your own life for a climate-related weather emergency.4
Support and Encourage Action: Taking action to support conservation and care for the earth is perhaps the most effective way to help calm you and your child’s fears regarding climate change. Feeling a sense of agency through making choices in your own life to support the health of the planet can make you and your children feel better. Although one family’s choices may not have a huge impact alone, the habits you are establishing with your children may trickle down for generations.
Children of almost any age can understand small decisions your family can make to conserve natural resources, appreciate nature and live a more sustainable lifestyle. For example, fostering a sense of conservation in children could be as easy as teaching them to turn off facets or lights when they are finished using them, recycling plastics and cans, or learning to compost food scraps. Older children with a passion for the environment might be able to attend rallies, meetings or write letters to government officials regarding climate policies. Although small, these actions can go a long way towards helping children feel empowered in combating climate change.
Although none of us know completely what a changing climate will mean for our children’s future, we do know that they need to be aware of environmental issues. By approaching this topic armed with knowledge, we can confidently guide our children towards understanding it and taking action. The resilience they build by facing this issue directly can help them in other aspects of their lives.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.
- Gilreath, A. (2021) Explaining Climate Change to Young Children Without Sparking Fear. The Hechinger Report, https://hechingerreport.org/explaining-climate-change-to-young-children-without-sparking-fear/
- What is climate change? A really simple guide – BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-24021772
- World Meterological Association (2021) Weather-Related Disasters Increase Over Past 50 years, Causing More Damage But Fewer Deaths. WMO, https://public.wmo.int/en/media/press-release/weather-related-disasters-increase-over-past-50-years-causing-more-damage-fewer
- Whitmore-Williams, S. C., Manning, C., and Krygsman, K. (2017) Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/03/mental-health-climate.pdf