Talking to young children about climate change

With World Environment Day being celebrated this week (June 5), we thought it worthwhile to share a piece with you about talking to young children about climate change*.


Explaining climate change to young children

Conversations about climate change can be difficult for young minds to grasp, and difficult concepts paired with distressing content can lead a child to feel overwhelmed.  Conversations about these topics need to match the child’s intellectual understanding as well as their emotional capacity, both of which are still under development.  It is important to first attend to and reduce any distress the child is showing, before providing the facts.  The information will just get ‘lost’ if a child is upset or worried.

Try to teach kids about climate change by matching the content of answers to their age and level of understanding.  Try to speak in an honest but tempered way to ensure they are getting accurate information, while avoiding sharing unnecessary information that could leave them anxious or distressed.  Also try not to omit information, as this can lead to them filling in the blanks, and often, our minds do this by jumping to worse conclusions than reality.


Finding a balance

When children have learned about a natural disaster, whether or not this event is a result of climate change, it can be challenging to find the right balance between providing honest, age appropriate information, and helping them to manage their fear and anxiety.

Let your kids lead the conversation and try to think about these events from their perspective.  What might distress our adult mind, can be downright terrifying to little minds that don’t have concepts of distance or time yet.  Kids are still learning all about their emotions, let alone what to do when they feel strong emotions like fear, anger or despair.  Kids easily become confused about the facts and the extent of the threat, and their developing minds are not yet able to engage in abstract thought, so they tend to interpret things quite literally.  While the flood might be over 2,500km away, in their mind it’s about to be in their backyard and they are scared what might happen to them, to you and their home.

It can be challenging, but it can be best not to watch the news with the kids around, especially if there has been a devastating event.  When there has been a natural disaster your kids have learnt about, talk about it:

Address feelings first

Respond firstly to what you notice about how they are feeling, and say something like, “You seem pretty frightened about the bushfires.”  Acknowledge their feelings as valid and be careful not to dismiss their concerns as trivial. 

Provide safety

Reassure them of their safety.  Let them know that they, their family and their friends are not at risk from the natural disaster.

Talk about the facts

When their distress has decreased, provide them with space to talk about how they feel and answer their questions about the event in a factual way.  Let them guide the depth of the discussion, and gently and respectfully correct any misinformation or misunderstandings they might have.


Engaging young children to help them think about climate change

Look to help expand childrens’ understanding of things about the environment that are of interest to them.  Things like where our electricity comes from can be very interesting to an enquiring young mind and can lead to conversation about fossil fuels and renewable energy, to pointing out solar panels and helping them understand wind turbines.

Instil hope.  We need our kids to know that taking care of the environment and addressing climate change starts with all of us.  We need our kids to know that they can be active participants in making a difference to the environment and that each act, no matter how big or small, all helps to make a positive difference.

As a psychologist, I know that little people watch everything we, as parents do.  Setting a good example ourselves, sets up ‘behavioural habits’ in our kids that will serve them and our planet well.


Engaging kids in lifelong habits to look after the environment

Try to be conscious consumers.  Ride bikes or scoot to school whenever possible, have waste free lunches, use canvas bags when shopping, compost food scraps, recycle what and when you can. Buy food locally and with minimal packaging. Turn lights off.  Let the sun dry your clothes, not the dryer.

Talk to your kids about why it is important to be conscious consumers. These conversations don’t have to be long, but are more effective as brief comments woven into your everyday conversations.   But over time, the information your kids learn will begin to hang together and they will develop their own understanding of why it is important to look after the environment and what they can do.

- Nicole


*Excepts from this piece were originally written for and published in Issue 9 of Lunch Lady