How to Talk to Your Kids About Climate Change — & Why You Have To

There’s no doubt about it: We’re in the midst of an environmental emergency. Human-caused climate change has reached a crisis point. Our summers and winters keep getting warmer, average wildlife populations have dropped by 60 percent in just over 40 years, and we’re losing entire islands and capital cities (farewell, Jakarta) as sea levels continue their rapid rise.

The message from the United Nations is clear: We need to keep the global temperature rise in this century to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — ideally, to 1.5 degrees Celsius — to avoid “severe, widespread and irreversible” damage. But if we carry on as we are, we’re likely to pass that crucial cutoff point sometime between 2030 and 2052. That’s only 11 years away. My eldest child will be 22, barely an adult, and my youngest won’t even be a teenager yet.

If you’re not scared yet, you should be. And our kids are scared, too; just ask them. We did — chatting with the teens of our SheKnows Hatch program, whom we’ve followed for five years to gain their perspectives on current issues and what it’s like to come of age in this decade. Their verdict?

“At this point I don’t even know if I’m going to have kids, because it’s just not right to bring children into this world when the planet is going to die,” says 14-year-old Sabine (you can watch her responses and other kids’ in the video below). “We need to be taking action right now, before it’s too late.”

Yes, we do. And one of the crucial steps of that action is education: talking to our kids about climate change. Because they’ll be dealing with this issue a lot longer than we will. But where do we start, and how do we have that conversation without scaring them?

Trust your instincts

The best way to overcome what’s rapidly being known as “eco-anxiety” is not to ignore it, dismiss it, or distract ourselves from it, says environmental activist Maureen Jack-LaCroix, the founder of the non-profit Be the Change Earth Alliance, which gives climate change workshops to thousands of school kids. “Eco-anxiety and ‘planet grief’ are natural responses to environmental change,” she said. “If we don’t talk about it and deal with it, the anxiety will only grow.”

When it comes to the crunch, you probably already have all the tools you need to talk to your kids about climate change — you know your kids and you know how to talk to them. If there’s one thing Jack-LaCroix often finds, it’s that parents don’t ask enough questions. “Ask your kids questions about climate change and find out what they already know,” she suggested. There’s a good chance that your kid knows more than you do. “What kids seem to really want to know is what we can do about it — ‘we’ meaning us and them, together,” she added.

For very young kids, stick to science and facts

For young kids who don’t know anything about climate change, veteran environmentalist Maya van Rossum, founder of the non-profit Green Amendments For the Generations, recommends starting the conversation with science and facts — describe what climate change is and where it comes from. “Be clear that climate change is a non-natural condition,” she said. “It results from people putting too much carbon dioxide and methane into the air, which is harming natural ecosystems that help keep us safe, like forests and rainforests.”

It’s important to be honest about the real consequences of climate change, and share examples kids can understand, she stresses. For example, we are getting more rain which is causing flooding, and in some places the earth is getting hotter and drier so it’s difficult for people to live there and grow food. Keep it simple, but don’t try to make it less important than it is.

However, we don’t have to share facts that can overwhelm children with fear, warns van Rossum, such as that parts of the earth will soon become uninhabitable or that climate change is linked to increased spread of disease, war or acts of terror. “This information is real and important, but it not information children need to understand that climate change is a serious issue that needs to be addressed.”

Encourage older kids to take action

By nurturing a sense of empowerment and the belief that there is always something that can be done, you can help reduce the risk of your child feeling helpless to act, which can create stress and anxiety. For instance, talking about the impacts of climate change and the importance of solar panels may be good information, but you have to give your child a way to act on that information, otherwise they may feel powerless. “If you are talking about solar, you could work with them on a plan for getting your family on solar, or you could encourage them to attend a school board meeting and urge the school district to consider putting panels on their rooftop,” suggested van Rossum.

Give them permission to hold others accountable

It’s important to make sure your child understands that climate change causes and solutions don’t all rest on their shoulders. “Government has the most important role in allowing the activities that have brought us to this place and need to be the ones to ensure that industry, communities and government implement key solutions,” said van Rossum.

But you can also help your kid understand that they can be part of the solution, not only in the decisions they make for themselves but in what they seek from (and how they vote for) those who have greater authority, which can have a greater impact. This could be anyone from a government official to a class teacher who is using single-use plastic straws for the end-of-term party.

Get kids of all ages involved in finding solutions

Whatever the age of your kids, Jack-LaCroix suggests the following as solution-oriented approaches to encouraging ongoing conversations about climate change.

  • Get them to help you do a personal carbon audit, figuring out the ways you contribute, as individuals, to climate change. “Everyone in the family should do this,” she said. “Make a plan of action to reduce your personal impact, and take a family pledge to turn this around where possible.” Ways you can make a difference include transportation (walk/cycle instead of driving), eating local produce, eating less meat and buying less stuff. “Set an example to your kids by showing that changing habits is possible,” Jack-LaCroix added.
  • Show your kids you care by getting politically involved. “Research your political candidates and vote for those who have big plans for tackling climate change — and talk about this at home,” said Jack-LaCroix. If you don’t know where to start, she recommends looking into things like candidates’ targets for GHG reduction and their policies for implementing them.
  • Get connected by joining local groups that are lobbying or working in communities for change. “Engaged citizenry matters in turning this crisis around,” said Jack-LaCroix. As well as making a difference, your kids will benefit from truly valuable skill-building, community-engaging opportunities.

Remember, it’s not all about age

The conversation you have with your child about climate change will take shape based on many things besides their age. “It’s also about their personality and the level of information they may already be receiving from other sources,” said van Rossum. She advises checking in with your kids regularly to see how they’re feeling, what they are hearing about environmental issues, and to talk about how they can be part of the solution.

The most important rule, she says, is to be honest. “Do you best to gauge the level of information your child can hear, understand and act upon,” she said.

And don’t worry if you get it wrong! It’s a big issue and nobody expects you to be perfect. We’re walking a fine line between not frightening children and making sure we’re completely honest with them, otherwise we risk them mistrusting us when they hear the full story from somewhere else. “As long as you’re consistently checking in with your child, you’ll be able to gauge if you’ve said too much and take steps to alleviate any anxiety that may have been caused, or if you’ve said too little and your child doesn’t understand that this is an important issue,” explained van Rossum.

If you still need help, there’s lots of it out there. The Climate Reality Project published an e-book on how families can start conversations about climate change, and NASA’s Climate Kids site offers practical suggestions for ways kids can reduce their own carbon footprint, such as turning off lights when they’re not needed and drinking tap water instead of bottled water.

And if they need a young climate activist to inspire them to take action, look no further than Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, whose rousing “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood” United Nations speech to world leaders has hopefully spurred millions of people — of all ages — to take action.

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