Photo: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller
Photo: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller

ParentsNovember 17, 2021

It’s time to have ‘the talk’ with your kids (the climate talk, that is)

Photo: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller
Photo: Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller

Growing up in a world in climate crisis is far from ideal, but pretending it isn’t happening isn’t going to help your kids. Here are some tips for tackling a tricky conversation.

They’re marching down the streets. They’re ditching school. They’re abseiling off bridges in Glasgow. Kids aren’t just aware of climate change, they’re actively involved in fighting it. 

But just because they’re playing a part in spurring change doesn’t mean kids can properly process all the feelings that come with those actions: anger, frustration, hopelessness, sadness, doom, anxiety, optimism, camaraderie. 

Which is why psychologists around the world are now calling on parents to have “the [climate] talk” with their kids. 

And there are a few things they want you to know.

Don’t shy away

Child psychology experts say that avoiding tough conversations, and insulating kids from distress or discomfort, is actually terrible for them in the long run. 

“It sometimes seems that the more overwhelming the world gets, the more adults try to blindfold children,” wrote Kate Julian for The Atlantic. Julian’s article goes on to detail the many ways that over-protecting, coddling or generally thwarting efforts from kids learning to cope leads to a rough path to adulthood.

There’s an obvious element of age appropriateness but just writing a conversation off altogether doesn’t help anyone.

Give them some credit

Young people know what’s up. “Kids are much more attuned to the dangers and what’s going on in the world than perhaps many of their parents,” says youth and adolescent clinical psychologist Dougal Sutherland.

Giving them credit is both about acknowledging what they know as well as acknowledging their feelings. Telling them that it’s all OK and the world won’t end isn’t enough, says Sutherland. “It’s a pretty invalidating thing to say because you’re essentially saying they’re getting all upset about something they don’t need to.”

And that can shut the conversation down right then and there. “Kids and young people are pretty good at seeing through that. Probably they won’t want to talk to their parents about it again because they won’t get it.”

Instead, Sutherland suggests listening without prejudice.

US psychologist Leslie Davenport (who’s just penned a book about talking to kids about climate change) suggests using open-ended questions or phrases like:

  • What have you been hearing about climate change?
  • Do your friends talk about stuff like that?
  • What kind of emotions are you feeling?
  • What would feel supportive?
  • Tell me more.

Think about the circles

Climate change can feel like a huge, overwhelming deal, like something insurmountable. With Cop26 having just happened on the other side of the world, it can feel like you’re so far away from the solution.

It’s useful to think about circles of concern, says Sutherland. It means imagining three circles radiating out from a person like a target. The closest circle is your circle of control, the next one out is your circle of influence (things that are concerning that you have some say over) and the furthest away is the circle of concern (things that are worrying but that are outside your reach of control).

Sutherland says to focus your kids’ attention on the inner two circles – what they can directly control and what they can influence. “It’s a useful way of bringing what seems to be a huge uncontrollable, global problem down into what I can do, how I can drive my behaviour today and tomorrow, in my world.” 

Depending on how old the young person is, they can take simple actions like choosing a reusable drink bottle, planting trees, riding their bike to school or joining a climate youth group. Or they can think bigger by working towards what Nasa calls a “green career” like marine ecologist or environmental engineer.

It’s best to support young people in figuring out what to do, rather than telling them outright, says Sutherland. “It’s about helping them as children and as young people to actively engage in solving the problems.”

It’s also a good time to talk about what are credible sources of information and how to be critical of certain sources.

Be ready for the tough stuff

These kinds of conversations can bring up the blame game, with young adults resenting or feeling angry towards their parents for inflicting this on them.

Sutherland says parents don’t need to take responsibility for entire generations’ worth of climate-altering actions, but that they should stop and do a bit of personal reflection. Was there a time when everyone used plastic bags all the time? Yeah, for sure. Acknowledge that and how we’re doing better today.

“Is there a kernel of truth in what’s being said and can you latch onto that kernel without feeling overly defensive about it?” he asks. 

You don’t have to have all the answers

Kids aren’t the only ones feeling overwhelmed, with parents sometimes feeling like they should throw themselves at the problem to fix it. “It’s difficult for parents because your natural instinct is to put it right,” says Sutherland.

Go easy on yourself. You don’t have to lead the charge singlehandedly.

Davenport suggests phrases like:

  • I don’t have all the answers. I’m learning about this the same as you are.
  • I know this can feel big and overwhelming, but I also really believe there’s so much we can do to rise to the challenge and make a difference.

Bonus tip: most of this advice works great for anxious or contemplative adults too.

Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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