If the child is younger than seven years of age, start by fostering her relationship to nature, either through family hikes or camping trips, or by taking her to a local park and teaching her the names of birds, flowers and native plants. Enabling your child to appreciate and develop a bond with nature will—when the time comes—make it easier when you explain the implications of climate change.
Another way to prepare your child for living in a world where climate change exists is to show him that you are a good environmental citizen. Choose environmentally friendly household products and organic and locally grown foods when possible. Get rid of food waste responsibly either through backyard composting or by having your municipality cart it away. Make an effort to cut down on how much you drive, and be mindful of water usage. Leading by example will show your child how to make a positive difference, while also highlighting the importance of respecting the natural world.
Create opportunities for your child to learn about climate change whenever you can. Read a newspaper article with him or watch a TV program. View YouTube videos or browse the EPA website. Take him to a natural history museum featuring exhibits about what the Earth’s climate was like in the past as evidenced by fossils, rocks, ice, trees and corals. Here, your child can learn about climatic shifts going back over thousands of years. Compare this to the shifts happening over the two hundred years since the Industrial Revolution and he will come to understand the drastic impacts of climate change.
Learning the science behind these changes is important to your child’s understanding, and to help with any emotions she may be feeling. A recent report, Beyond Storms and Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change published by The American Psychological Association, says that children are particularly vulnerable to the psychological impacts of climate change. Daily media reports highlighting the destruction caused by extreme weather, not to mention children’s actual experience of floods and wildfires, can increase stress, anxiety and depression.
The last thing you want is to instill fear in your child, so balance the doomsday discussion by giving her examples of how people are working to make things better. Suppressing grief or sadness can lead to frustration and apathy, whereas becoming involved in creating a healthier planet will have the opposite effect. Look for ways to involve her in youth-based environmental initiatives such as cleaning up the local shoreline, helping organizations working with victims of floods or other natural disasters, or participating in events to educate others on environmental issues related to climate change. Environmental organizations such as The Nature Conservancy offer youth internships, giving older children a chance to be part improving the planet for future generations.
For the older child interested in a specific field related to climate change such as geology, oceanography, atmospheric sciences, or environmental sciences, contact a professor to see if she might speak to your child about her profession. Or, find out if the department at your local college or university runs any information sessions for students looking to break into this field.
Cultivating an understanding of the science behind climate change, and developing qualities of strength, respect for nature and compassion, will help your child to more easily accept the changes and participate in finding better, more sustainable answers for future generations.
Seven Ways to Help Your Child Cope with Climate Change
1) Foster a respect for nature
Help your child understand the importance of living in relationship to, and learning lessons from, nature.
- Partake in outdoor activities such as camping or hiking.
- Garden with your child in a small backyard plot, a child’s garden planter, or even in a sunny spot in the house.
- Read books or watch videos that teach your child about the ecology of the planet.
- Read our Guide: How to Get Your Child Excited About Nature.
- Encourage wildlife to visit your yard by developing your own Backyard Wildlife Habitat.
- Participate in, or develop your own local Annual Bird Count. Birding is fun for kids, and their keen eyes are perfect for spotting wildlife in natural habitats.
2) Cultivate resilience
Every generation has its challenges. In the early 20th century, Europe had two world wars and the onset of the Cold War brought the threat of nuclear annihilation. Humans have weathered famines, epidemics, floods, droughts and economic depressions, and yet we continue to survive and—in many cases—thrive.
- Show your child photos of your parents, grandparents and great grandparents and share stories about what life was like for them and how they managed to overcome difficulties.
- Allow your child to do things for himself whenever possible.
- Encourage him to partake in outdoor activities such as sports or camping that build confidence and strengthen physical, mental and emotional resilience.
- Show him that trying new things, while sometimes frightening, can be lots of fun.
- Teach him that change has happened throughout history and will continue, but that he and your family are strong and adaptable, and will face any difficulties together.
3) Acknowledge emotions
Child psychologists and educators link talk about climate change to an increase in anxiety among today’s young people.
- Tell your child it’s natural to experience anxiety and sadness, and that these emotions motivate us to change and grow.
- Talk to your child about climate change without instilling in her the fear you may be experiencing about the changes.
- Experts say to watch children for psychological symptoms like depression, anxiety, clinginess, and aggression after weather-related disasters.
- Help her learn small steps she can take to reduce her carbon footprint. Any positive action, however small, can lead to a greater sense of control and will help to lessen anxiety.
4) Demonstrate the value of friendship
The American Psychological Association cites strengthening existing social groups and networks as one of the best ways to plan for climate change’s psychological impacts. Friendships allow children to develop emotionally and socially and help them build networks of support during times of crisis.
- Teach your child the importance of being a good friend.
- Encourage him to join different kinds of groups so he makes friends with wide ranging skills and interests.
- Lead by example through practicing listening, sharing and lending a helping hand to your own friends.
5) Show the importance of compassion
Entrust in your child a sense of compassion for all living things so that she cares about the health and wellbeing of the planet.
- Encourage offering assistance to others such as opening the door for an elderly person or helping a sibling out at home.
- Avoid name-calling and help your child understand that her actions or the actions of others can be hurtful and have consequences.
- Create opportunities for your child to give without needing something in return.
- If there’s an interest, encourage her to volunteer to work with animals or people in need. A visit to a nearby wildlife rehabilitation shelter can stimulate interest in caring for animals.
- Anger can often prevent compassion from taking root. Help your child understand how his anger may negatively impact him and others.
6) Participate in the community
Connect your child’s actions—however small—to the greater story of making the planet a better, greener place.
- Carry your own actions into the community to influence policymakers.
- Help translate your child’s concerns into action by encouraging him to join others in addressing the crisis.
- Make your and your family’s voices count by visiting the websites of local political representatives and emailing or writing your opinions on issues that matter to you. Learning respectful ways of political activism are part of one’s community responsibility.
- Advocate as a family for renewable energy over carbon-based electricity sources.
- No matter what your child’s age, help her see herself as independent and able to contribute in a positive way to making choices that are good for the environment.
7) Nurture a sense of wonder
Fostering wonder in your child early on will help her to deal with climate change news and events.
- Take her into nature when she is very young and allow her to discover it on her own—with you close by!
- Introduce her to the miracles of nature such as how a bee takes nectar from a flower or the way a snake sheds its skin.
- If at first she is afraid of a common spider that isn’t poisonous, or a chicken that approaches her, show by example how you’re not afraid.
- Make nature-inspired crafts with her to celebrate nature.
- Let her experience the natural world on her own terms and fall in love with its mystery and wonder.
- Support her in a safe way to play and explore the outdoors as much as possible.