Explaining climate change to young children without sparking fear
So far, 2021 has featured an unprecedented number of weather disasters in the United States, including a deep freeze in Texas, bouts of scorching temperatures in the normally temperate Pacific Northwest, a continuation of severe wildfires in California, and historic flooding in the New York area from Hurricane Ida.
And today’s children are likely to live through more severe weather events. One study estimates children who are currently 6 years old will experience, on average, three times the number of climate disasters as their grandparents over the course of their lifetimes.
Experts say it’s important to talk that children understand climate change. But how young should a child be to start that conversation, and how can parents navigate the discussion without frightening them?
Jeremy Wortzel, a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, and Lena Champlin, a doctoral student in environmental science at Drexel University, recently published a children’s book about a young squirrel worried about climate change, produced with the support of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry’s Climate Committee. Called “Coco’s Fire: Changing Climate Anxiety Into Climate Action,” the book demonstrates how parents can talk to early elementary-aged children about the topic. Below the book’s authors and experts address common questions parents may have while talking with kids about climate change.
Why should parents talk to young children about climate change?
Addressing the topic early on can give children some clarity about the scared and anxious emotions they’re feeling when global warming or natural disasters come up, Wortzel said.
“This is an issue that impacts their whole lives and will impact the lives of many future generations,” Wortzel said. “It’s important for us to inform younger generations now so that their understanding and their interaction with the scientific community and the climate change community is positive, and so that their relationship with the science and this activism work is rooted in a place of love and empowerment rather than fear.”
Children are also likely to hear about climate change at school, on the television or from other kids — another important reason for parents to start the conversation early, according to Dr. Janet Lewis, co-chair of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry’s Climate Committee.
“There are a lot of young people and a lot of children who really care and know a lot about climate change, even more than the adult population now,” Champlin said. “They know so much and they have so many feelings about it that they are such powerful players in climate change activism.”
How young is too young to talk about climate change?
There is no age too young for children to start understanding climate change, Wortzel said. “But the way that you approach the topic and the severity and the language that you use has to change as (kids) grow.” It’s equally important, he added, to get young people invested in nature by “getting them outside as early as possible and talking about the beauty and wonder of nature.”
The key to talking to young children about a scary prospect such as climate change is using language that informs rather than frightens, Lewis said. When children, and even adults, feel afraid and overwhelmed at the thought of something, Lewis said it can be appealing to turn away from whatever is causing that anxiety. The goal is to be honest in a way that doesn’t cause them to shy from the topic.
“That’s what needs to happen with communications about climate change: they get the facts, but also it’s communicated in a way that people can feel hopeful about being able to engage,” Lewis said.
What is a good example of how to talk about these issues?
It can be as simple as talking to children about why it hasn’t rained in a while, or why there have been more storms than usual. It helps to keep the examples local, Champlin said.
“A lot of education about climate change historically has been, ‘This is a global problem,’” Champlin said. “But we’re thinking about trying to communicate climate change in a way that talks about local examples and local environments that we love.”
Even the scarier aspects can be talked about with children, as long as it’s done in a way that doesn’t induce stress. It should be similar to how adults talk about other hard topics with children, such as death, according to Dr. Elizabeth Haase, who is also co-chair of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry’s Climate Committee. The idea is that children who experience climate anxiety, whether because of lived climate disasters or exposure to the topic, will come away from it with post-traumatic growth.
“You go through an experience that is profoundly painful, and often you need to fall apart a little bit, in order to get to the place where you’re most likely to grow,” Haase said.
This is modeled in the book, “Coco’s Fire”: the young squirrel reads a letter at the start from his aunt, who reports that she narrowly avoided a forest fire. The short book follows Coco and a “little flame of anxiety in his belly” that eventually turns into a spark of hopefulness and action, with the help of his dad and a scientist owl.
The book also mimics simple ways to explain complex topics to younger kids: instead of saying “greenhouse gases,” the scientist owl talks to Coco about it as too many layers of “blankets” covering the Earth.
These conversations are going to be imperfect, Lewis said. What’s most important is that the conversation happens.
“The child is going to feel contained by the fact that the adult is able to talk about this in a loving and honest way,” Lewis said. “The parent and teacher is with the child in it. And in that way, the child feels like, ‘Oh this must be tolerable. This must be tolerable because look, the adult is tolerating it.’”
Ultimately, children should come away with a sense of urgency about the problem but with the understanding that something can be done to address climate change – that the future is not hopeless.
This story about understanding climate change was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.