What On Earth

10 tips for talking with kids about climate change

Unlike monsters under the bed, the climate threat is real — and so is kids' and teens' anxiety about it. So how to talk climate? A top anxiety expert weighs in.

Unlike monsters under the bed, the climate threat is real — and so is kids' and teens' anxiety about it

In 2019, thousands of students around the world took to the streets for climate marches. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Eamon Knell was just six years old when he began lying awake at night worrying about climate change.

He had seen a climate video for kids that said humans had just 11 years to make significant changes or the damage would be irreversible. To him, that meant the world would end in 11 years.

Megan Flynn's son Eamon, 7 (at left), used to lie awake nights worrying about climate change. (Megan Flynn)

"Until COVID started, it was the number one theme in his life. He wanted to talk about it every night before he went to bed, and he would go from being grief-stricken and upset about it to lying in bed thinking about solutions and things we could do," said Eamon's mom Megan Flynn from her home in Toronto.

Eamon also started questioning his own actions. "He was saying things like, 'I feel really torn because I want to see my cousins who live in Ireland, but planes use oil. So if we go to see them, is it making climate change worse?'"

Flynn and her husband Mark Knell, an environmental scientist, reassured Eamon that there is hope, and that there are things they could do.

"My husband had a really good way of explaining it to him. He said, 'It's not that the world is going to end in 11 years. It's like if your house is really messy, and you have to keep tidying it up,'" said Flynn.

"Because if you don't tidy, then it gets to a point where it's impossible to get it back to where it was."

Flynn and Knell certainly aren't alone. When kids are afraid of monsters, parents can shine a light under the bed to show there isn't anything there. But with climate change, the risk is very real — and so is kids' anxiety.

Talking climate with kids

According to registered psychologist and Vancouver Anxiety Centre director Dr. Christine Korol, for many kids the worries come up when there are climate-related stories in the news, or they talk about them in their school.

"I certainly had a lot more discussion with kids about it when the protests were happening before the pandemic," said Korol in an interview with What on Earth host Laura Lynch.

Lily Knell (centre) and Eamon Knell (left) ahead of the 2019 climate march in Toronto. (Megan Flynn)

"And it can also be more serious for kids who have obsessive compulsive disorder or other anxiety disorders, where they just can't shift their thoughts off of climate catastrophe and it's keeping them up at night, or they've got sore tummies and are really struggling."

Korol says teens tend to express concerns about how climate change will alter their plans — some even say they likely won't have kids of their own — and wonder how much time they have before things get really bad.

Younger children often experience misconceptions and confusion, she says, and end up feeling like something catastrophic could happen tomorrow. "But it's really the sense of a foreshortened future," she said. "That's the dominant worry I hear."

So how can parents talk about climate change with their kids, but limit the fear? Lynch spoke with Korol, who has been helping kids and adults with anxiety for more than two decades, to get her tips. She also spoke with Regina teacher Aysha Yaqoob, who has been working climate change into her high school English curriculum.

1. Don't say "Don't worry." The threat of climate change is a big concern for both grown-ups and kids, and when a child expresses worry, it's important not to dismiss those emotions.

"That never works. I never tell a patient not to worry," warns Korol.  "When we're worried about something, most people in our lives say, 'Oh don't worry, that'll be so far in the future.' But those of us who worry know it could happen."

2. Find out exactly what your child is worried about. When it comes to climate change, many adults have misconceptions or find the information confusing — but for a child those misconceptions can be downright terrifying. Younger children, for example, might think something terrible is going to happen tomorrow.

"So as parents, one of the things that you can do is really focus on making sure you understand exactly what your child is worried about," said Korol. "Because a lot of times they're worried about things that they don't need to be."

Swedish student Greta Thunberg was just 15 years old when she spearheaded a worldwide movement by starting her "School strike for the climate" outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm, Sweden. (Hanna Franzen/Reuters)

3. Come up with a coping plan. When her young patients express fears, Korol gets them to talk about their worst-case scenario, then she works with them to find solutions. For example, she had one patient who was afraid of ghosts, so she asked him what he would do if a ghost showed up in his room. He answered that he would scream.

"And I said, 'Well that's a great idea. Someone's going to come running and help you out,'" said Korol. She then helped the boy create a list of all the different things he could do if a ghost appeared in his room, and he felt relieved.

"It's a very simple thing to do, and it's easier to brainstorm with somebody else when you're nervous," she said. "But it increases your belief in your ability to cope with things."

4. Check your own anxiety. Kids pick up on how their parents are doing, so when their parents are anxious about climate change, they can pass those fears onto their kids — and ironically, if they look too hard for signs of climate anxiety in their children, they can actually spur it.

"Maybe their kids weren't doing so bad until the parents started probing too much. So it's one thing if your child brings up a fear, then address it," advises Korol. "But if they aren't, and you start poking around, you can instill some of your own fear."

Vancouver psychologist Dr. Christine Korol says when it comes to climate change, parents need to figure out exactly what kids are worried about, then create an action plan. (Anick Violette)

5. In younger kids, address fears as they come up. Korol doesn't recommend bringing up climate change as a topic when kids are young, but rather says parents should address concerns and fears as they appear.

"I would focus on fostering love of nature and taking care of the earth," said Korol. "Lots of playtime and distraction, though, and for the most part in keeping the TV off."

6. In older kids, expect some anger. Once kids are around 8, 9 or 10, they often start hearing about climate change in their social studies classes at school, and they start asking stronger questions. They might also express frustration.

"You're going to have deeper conversations, and probably deal with anger at how dumb adults are to have destroyed the planet, and to have let it happen," said Korol.

"So you can help them process some of that anger and agree with them and tell them that their perspective is not completely off. But then get them to focus on problem solving."

7. Focus on problem-solving. Climate change can seem both insurmountable and totally overwhelming, especially for kids, many of whom have experienced its effect first-hand — things like flooding, drought, warming winters or smoke from forest fires — or they've seen climate change-related disasters on TV. The key, says Korol, is to hatch a plan, then jump into action.

"I ask, 'What's the safety plan you can put together with your family? What are the things you can do?'" said Korol. "If they're older, I'd have them write their MPs and MLAs and speak up or join an organization that helps advocate for the environment."

Those plans are very individual, she adds, but they usually involve developing concrete actions the child, and the family, can take. "And I usually try not to plant too much in them. I get them to outline it, and I stay quiet and take notes for them."

That idea of an unsafe climate for future generations was so scary for Haida Gwaii Indigenous teen Haana Edenshaw that she joined 14 other Canadian kids in suing the Canadian government for inaction on climate change in 2019. (Healthy Climates)

8. Teach kids to identify reliable information sources. In the age of social media, information flies around at a dizzying pace — and much of it is unreliable, or downright false. So Yaqoob says kids need to learn how to separate the good information from the bad.

"They always come at me with stories from Snapchat and say 'Oh, my friend posted this and so and so said this,' so we are constantly debunking misinformation they find online," said Yaqoob, who teaches the kids critical thinking early in the course.

"By the end of it, they actually get pretty good at cross referencing and fact checking and all of that. So it's a pretty cool experience that we do together."

9. Look for successes. Yaqoob says many kids and teens feel their actions won't make a difference, so as part of course, she has them find examples of youth who are inspiring change.

"We took a look at some youth activists to showcase that even though we're young, we still have voice and we can still use that voice to advocate for things we care about," she said. As part of the exercise, the students also write to elected officials at the regional, provincial and federal levels, and many got responses saying their concerns were being taken forward.

"It was super empowering for them," said Yaqoob. "They were really excited about the fact that they also were able to voice some of their concerns, and that they were being taken seriously."

Regina secondary school teacher Aysha Yaqoob says kids need to learn how to identify reliable media sources, especially in the age of social media. Looking for success stories can also help kids feel empowered. (Supplied by Aysha Yaqoob)

10. Take their concerns seriously. In conversation with kids, Yaqoob often asks kids what they think would help them. Many say that, because they're young, they feel nobody is going to listen to them, so there's little point in taking action. But once they see their concerns aren't being ignored, their outlooks shift, as they did when the kids received replies from the politicians.

"It was really awesome to see them feel empowered and to know that this is an option for them to do as well, that they can continue writing letters, either about climate change, or about other things they're passionate about."

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