Tell me the truth – Talking to Children about Climate Change

Wallaby in a logged and burnt landscape

At what age do we start questioning our parents’ honesty? Research tells us that, partly because it is in our best interests to do so, we happily accept the existence of Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy until the age of eight.

And what effect does it have on us when we realise that our parents are not being honest with us?

As a parent then, how do we talk to our children honestly about climate change without causing distress? If we are not open and honest with our children we risk creating distrust, we risk alienating them and we risk fostering anxiety, just as we could foster anxiety by overwhelming them with information they may not be ready for.

And how do we support their activities and actions – some of which might have risky and far reaching outcomes – if those actions serve to relieve their anxiety and distress?

However we choose to talk about climate change with our children, eco-anxiety has been described by Dr Sarah Anne Edwards as an intelligent response to climate change that enables a better understanding and sensible choices and a movement from paralyzing emotions into empowering actions. In other words, a healthy, natural reaction to our growing consciousness of a real threat, one, she says, “we should not minimize, discount, distract or otherwise suggest palliatives to ease…” because “the more society and those around us discount the reality of the consequences at hand, the more anxious we become and the more maladaptive our responses”

Eco-anxiety – the mental distress caused by climate change and environmental degradation

We are often surprised by how much our children are aware of our concerns despite our best efforts to hide them, whether pur concerns relate to a sickness in the family, relationship tensions or climate change.

In the face of the ever present indications of Climate Change in the news, in school curriculums, in reading matter and in covert adult discussions, a study from RMIT found that young people feel anxious, overwhelmed, guilty, frustrated, grief struck and powerless. But hope is fostered when they engage with other people who share their feelings and concerns, and take action to address climate change.

As for all mental health concerns, talking to all people experiencing eco-anxiety or solastasia about their concerns firstly demonstrates that someone cares to acknowledge that their feelings and concerns are real and valid. And it also provides them with the language they need to identify and articulate how they are feeling. Engaging in activities that direct their attention outwards and also foster empowerment and hope, are also good ways for people to find outlets for their anxiety.

Resources for parents and teachers

These sites will provide guides or starting points for conversations with children regarding disasters and climate change:

The Australian Psychological Society’s page on Climate Change includes advice on

  • Talking with children about the environment
  • Coping with climate change distress
  • As well as the society’s Climate Change Empowerment Handbook.

Or go straight to Raising Children to Thrive in a Climate Changed World (PDF).

See The Climate Reality Project’s suggestions for
Talking to Children About the Climate Crisis

The Australian Parents for Climate Action have a number of age appropriate ways
parents can help children address climate change concerns.

And the National Geographic’s Talking to Kids about Climate Change page site has ideas for activities, amazing photographs and good news stories

For Young Adults:

Reachout’s Coping with Anxiety about Climate Change page has loads of useful tips as well as more general health and relationship advice

And see Teen Vogue’s age on Eco-anxiety.

Addressing Eco-anxiety and Solastasia

Climate change has already robbed many young people around the globe of a future resembling one their parents enjoyed; Young people are aware that the changes needed to prevent this are happening too slowly.

Having someone acknowledge, name and validate these feelings of anxiety or grief is the first step towards regaining control over them. Understanding that these feeling have a purpose is another way to gain control.

Sharing experiences with others, becoming informed, actively confronting the threat, engaging with the natural world, and realising personal values can be meaningful ways of continuing the battle against anxiety and against the threat causing it.

Eco-anxiety, the fear of an uncertain and possibly calamitous future, and Solastasia (a profound sadness caused by environmental change), are real and valid responses to the existential threat that is climate change and should not be ignored or underestimated – it may even be a motivating fear.

Everyone knows that human beings are a type of animal. Everyone knows that animals are a part of nature, and so we are a part of nature, and we are also dependant on the rest of nature. We are the natural world. We can’t destabilise nature without destabilising ourselves. – Matt Haig

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