By Climate Psychologists Megan Kennedy-Woodard, Melissa James and Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams
Climate change is an ever-present part of our lives, through the direct experience of extreme weather events, like heat waves, droughts, and forest fires, and indirect effects, such as exposure to anxiety-inducing headlines warning of yet another climate disaster. The climate crisis is undeniably here.
Awareness is crucial, but so are well-being and action; the three must go hand in hand.
Recently, there has been a collective recognition of the threats posed by a changing climate among adults and children. As a result, we, as psychologists, are seeing increasing reports of eco-emotions such as eco-anxiety—the chronic fear of environmental doom which can result in difficulty concentrating, low mood, panic attacks and depression.
We also see the presentation of eco-grief, anger, paralysis, overwhelm and hopelessness relating to climate change. But importantly, we also see motivation, connection, power, action and hope.
Young people often tell us that they want to leave education fully equipped to tackle the climate crisis through finding work in the green economy, activism, and so forth. Supporting young people to talk about, make sense of, and remain resilient in the face of the climate crisis is an important role we have as parents and educators.
Children and young people are living through this environmental crisis, are exposed to the weather events and information, and will inevitably bear the brunt of the direct impacts—more so if we do not take action now.
Helping children to make sense of what is happening in the world, and to understand their emotional responses, is vital in aiding them to build resilience and navigate their individual and collective pathways as they grow up in a changing world. Facilitating these conversations can help children to recognise their place in the climate movement and where their personal impact might lie.
Knowing the importance of helping children process these conversations meaningfully can add weight to the responsibility we feel when answering the big (sometimes very mature) questions posed by children. In this case, the monster under the bed is real.
As parents, we often feel inclined to offer a ’Don’t worry, darling,’ but we must push past our personal comfort zones as we broach these conversations. To facilitate this, here are our six top tips on how to talk with children about the climate crisis.
1. Go inwards
Most children are emotionally attuned to the significant adults in their lives and will know when they are worried or anxious about things. So, we must go inward and be honest with ourselves about our eco-emotions.
Identifying how we feel first allows us to truly empathise with our children when we later ask how they feel. Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to share your deepest fears with children, but it will enable you to truly empathise with their feelings by saying things like, ‘It makes me feel angry and a bit scared too’.
Reflecting on our own feelings allows us to listen to children without judgment or fear of what it might bring up in us because we have already done the work of discovering those feelings beforehand. It will allow you to have an open, honest conversation, whereby you can sit with children in, what might be, some quite uncomfortable emotions.
In turn, it will help create a safe space for young people to continue returning to the conversation when they need an outlet or support. You can reflect on your eco-emotions by asking yourself the following simple questions.
- How do I feel about the impact of climate change?
- How do I feel about my children or students living in uncertain times?
- What sensations in my body do I experience when I think about Climate Change?
- What ways could I support myself as I process this? (e.g., speaking with a colleague, friend or family member, taking a walk in nature, taking some climate action)
2. Tell the truth
When young people express concern over a very real problem, it can be tempting to give them an edited version of the truth to make all of their worries go away.
Of course, we want to protect our children from the doom and gloom of the news cycles and social media. However, children are often exposed to these stories no matter how hard we try to protect them.
Giving young people an age-appropriate* explanation of what is happening can provide them agency when deciphering what information to pay attention to. Knowing that they can have truthful conversations with you will mean they may be less likely to seek out (dis)information online or ask you questions about it when they do.
Plus, having truthful, factual conversations about the climate crisis whilst also providing space to discuss their climate emotions and develop an environment of transparency and respect.
We like to operate on the rule of three: we don’t want to sugarcoat things, but we also don’t want to bombard our kids with overwhelming, scary, and difficult information. Especially because threatening information has a habit of being more readily attuned to and remembered. Make sure the balance is weighted accordingly; for every difficult piece of information, we follow up with three solution-based facts or stories to inspire young people with hope, connection and agency.
* It is important to emphasise the necessity of age-appropriate language when discussing the climate crisis with children. You know your child or student best, so ensure that this conversation is suited to their developmental stage.
3. Ask them questions
While some children might deal with their climate concerns by asking you a myriad of questions, others might be more reserved. It’s important for us to ask them questions too.
This gives us the opportunity to find out what they already know, where their knowledge is lacking, and where it might be a bit fantastical! Children often engage in magical thinking, bridging their knowledge gaps with imaginative ideas about how the world works (for example, a child thinking smokers are responsible for climate change).
Knowing where a young person’s knowledge lies will give us a better chance at tailoring the conversation to their needs and help us to clear up any harmful beliefs they may have.
Sometimes these magical ideas can leave children feeling even more worried because they have imagined an outlandish ending to the world, happening tomorrow.
Getting to know our children’s thoughts and beliefs around climate change can therefore help us to help them maintain a healthy, rather than a debilitating, level of concern.
You might ask questions like ’What have you heard about climate change?’ ’Who talks to you about this?’ ’Is anyone doing anything about the climate crisis?’.
To keep this conversation flowing, ensure that children feel safe and respected in sharing their thoughts with you. So, no matter how creative their thoughts may be, we should ensure that we take them seriously and correct them gently, where appropriate.
If a child feels shamed, they may hesitate or stop sharing their thoughts in future.
4. Choose your time and place
The right time and place will be different depending on the situation.
Try to choose a time when everybody involved feels—as much as possible—calm and prepared. It’s helpful to have a proactive, rather than reactive, conversation. For example, before an exam might not be the most impactful time to start the conversation.
Equally, you might not be able to pay the conversation the attention it needs if you yourself have a big meeting the next day.
Try to make sure there is time for you both to process the conversation afterwards by starting the conversation earlier in the day rather than last thing.
If you are asked about some aspect of the climate crisis, and it doesn’t feel like the right time to respond, you can always acknowledge the question and return later; ‘what a fantastic question. Let me think about my answer, and I’ll get back to you tomorrow’.
Choosing the right place to talk about climate change is also important.
Try to choose an environment where you feel comfortable and safe to talk and where there aren’t too many distractions. Taking the conversation outside can really help to engage young people in the topic area. This allows you to discuss the relevance of climate change to the trees, insects, and other living things in the area.
If you try to broach the subject only to be met with dismissal or disturbances, come back to it later.
5. Make time for emotions
We want to highlight the importance of engaging in the reflective work of tip 1, because we must make time for children to express their feelings about climate change.
Learning how children feel about the climate crisis allows us to help them develop the resilience they will need to deal with big feelings about big world changes.
Whilst the first step is acknowledging and validating their feelings, a second step might be finding ways of using those emotions as a way of coping. For example, those emotions may spark a passion for a certain issue your child could get involved with. Or, rather than problem-focused coping, it may be that you lead more on emotion-focused coping, like coming up with a set of ideas for managing strong emotions (see number 6 below).
The important thing is making time for the recognition and validation of children’s eco-emotions.
6. Self-care and bookend with something positive
We know that climate action requires sustained attention. Climate conversations are in themselves an important climate action, and it is helpful to acknowledge the strides we are taking.
Ask children how they could create a ‘toolbox of selfcare’; what activities help them when they feel climate emotions? These could include speaking with a friend or adult, meditating, relaxing scents, photographs of friends, reminders to go for a walk, reconnecting with nature, reading, making something … what helps them take the time they need to return to their purpose?
Think about how you can bookend that conversation with something that leaves you and the young person you are speaking with engaged and hopeful.
Taking some immediate local action is a great way to demonstrate our commitment and give a sense of self-efficacy to that young person, for example, organising a litter pick or some local action through the school or community.
Another important aspect is signalling and celebrating our actions; another nice ending to a climate conversation would be to take a moment to congratulate the young person on having a tough conversation.
Some key takeaways
- Keep the conversation short and simple, don’t add to their overwhelm.
- Give them space to think and speak; there is no rush.
- Manage the effects of your own environment. Be completely focused and have time after (physically and mentally) for follow-up conversations and questions
- If you don’t know, be honest and return to the topic.
- Think of how to close the conversation. Brainstorm self-care plans and some easy, localised actions you can take together.
The more we remind ourselves of what is important to us, the more we will anchor into the values they signify; this will strengthen our purpose and resolve in a way that fills us with abundance, self-care, and sustainable action that is sustainable for ourselves and the planet.