Real Conversations: How to talk to kids about climate change

Written by Trudie McConnochie for Real Insurance.

The world might feel like a complicated place right now. Even as adults, it can be hard to make sense of it - which means our children are being asked to understand ever more complex issues.

With the likes of Greta Thunberg leading the charge, climate change is increasingly becoming a talking point for younger generations. According to a 2021 global survey of 10,000 children and young people in 10 countries (including Australia), 59% of respondents said that they were "very", or, "extremely" worried about climate change, and more than 50% reported feeling emotions such as sadness, anxiety, anger and helplessness about the situation.

For parents, it can be difficult to know what to say without adding to their fears or causing undue anxiety about the future of the planet. According to the Real Concerns Index 2022 commissioned by Real Insurance, almost 8 in 10 Australians are concerned about the environmental legacy we are leaving to our children.

To help you navigate conversations about climate change with your kids, we asked environmental psychologist Dr Susie Burke for advice.

Dr Burke, who co-wrote the Australian Psychological Society guidelines on talking to children about climate change, says trying to shelter your kids by ignoring what’s happening isn’t a helpful approach.

“We know that if children are out in the world – i.e. they’re at school – then they are going to be hearing about climate change, they’re going to be overhearing it on the news, they’re going to be picking up stories about it all over the place. And it’s a pretty alarming prospect for children,” she says.

You’re the best person to help your kids make sense of what’s happening, she says.

“Parents can help them articulate how they might be feeling about it and correct any misperceptions, and also help them to develop a hopeful perspective about the world.”

Here are Dr Burke’s suggestions.

Find out what they know

Children often don’t perceive time and space in the same way we do, says Dr Burke. Your child may be thinking climate change is happening dramatically faster and closer than what it is, causing increased anxiety.

“You need to know what they’re feeling and what they’re thinking – children will often be distressed about something because they’ve got a misperception,” she says, suggesting you ask questions like: “Have you heard about climate change? What does it mean to you? What do you think’s happening?”

Validate their emotions

It might be tempting to tell your kids not to worry about climate change, but Dr Burke says it’s better to validate – rather than dismiss – their feelings. Tell them that talking about their feelings, instead of bottling it all up inside, is a good thing, and let them know you understand how they feel. It could be as simple as saying: “It makes sense that you feel worried about climate change – sometimes I do too.”

Instil a sense of ‘active’ hope

One of the main emotions children reported in the 2021 global survey was a sense of powerlessness about climate change. To counter this, Dr Burke recommends taking a position of ‘active hope’. That doesn’t mean putting on rose-coloured glasses and pretending everything will be fine, it means conveying a sense of optimism built on actionable steps to help the situation.

For example: The planet is hotter than it was before humans started putting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And then following it with the good news, e.g. However, we have solutions! There are ways to get to where we need to go and have the things we need without relying on fossil fuel energy.

Show the ‘helpers’

Popular US children’s TV host Mister Rogers used to tell his young audiences: when confronted by scary events, look for the people who are helping. You could show your kids videos or articles about people and scientists who are actively seeking solutions to climate change. This is another way to counteract that sense of powerlessness around the problem.

“It’s about being reassured that this is a shared problem, and that the more and more people are concerned about it and doing something about it, the more we get solutions,” says Dr Burke. “So that’s one way in which we cultivate a hopeful perspective about it.”

Be a role model

Many children are distressed by the idea that adults aren’t doing enough about climate change, says Dr Burke, so it can be reassuring for them to see their parents are taking action – even in small ways. You could talk to them about how you’re using public transport more than using the car and composting food waste, for example.

Create a family plan

Depending on the age of your family, it might be helpful to come up with some strategies you can take to tackle climate change. For example, you might commit to riding bikes to school or work, writing letters to politicians together or joining community tree-planting days.

“It’s a win-win, because you are helping yourself to feel less distressed about the problem, plus you’re also reducing the problem,” Dr Burke says.

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