How to talk to kids about climate change without scaring them

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WATCH: Greta Thunberg urges more tree planting to tackle climate change – Sep 27, 2019

Helping your child understand the world can be challenging enough as it is, but when it comes to climate change, it can feel overwhelming.

“As a parent and through working with parents, it is something that is constantly on people’s minds,” said Harriet Shugarman, a New York-based climate advocate and founder of Climate Mama.

“You have to make dinner and get life going, but [climate change] is also an emergency so we need to figure out how to bring it into our lives, not in a paralyzing way but in a positive way.”
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Because climate change is one of the biggest issues facing our planet right now, Shugarman says it’s vital parents talk to their kids about global warming — now.

But how? The first step, Shugarman says, starts with self-education.

Educate yourself first

Shugarman says parents should become informed about the depths of the climate crisis. How can you talk to your kids about the realities of climate change if you don’t understand them yourself?

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When climate change is understood, Shugarman says adults can not only explain the science to their kids, but they can also give themselves time to process the emotions that come with realizing our planet is in need.

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It can be very upsetting to think about dying species and destroyed wildlife, and what the future holds.

“It’s like going through the steps we experience with grief: you can’t believe it, it can’t be true, sadness — all of those five stages — but then we move [to] hope and showing our children that we’re doing what we can,” she said.

This sense of optimism is what will help children realize they can be part of the solution, Shugarman explained.

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It’s also good for parents to know what their child’s school is teaching them about climate change so they can answer any additional questions their kid may have, Shugarman added.

Start early and speak often

Talk to your kids about global warming at an early age and have ongoing conversations — not one-off talks.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, to speak to your children in age-appropriate ways, Shugarman said. An eight-year-old will have a different understanding of the environment than a high schooler will.

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For very young kids in preschool or lower elementary school, Shugarman suggests reading them stories about protecting the environment. Another good way to incorporate climate conversations into everyday life is by showing children — at every age — the importance of the environment.

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“Whether you’re at the beach or in a park, use all those opportunities to point out how wonderful our planet is and then help them understand that there are threats to it,” Shugarman said.

“Showing children what it is that we need to protect is really critical.”

What’s also important, Shugarman says, is assuring kids that parents are doing what they can to help protect the environment. It can be incredibly overwhelming for kids to learn about the dire aspects of climate change so you want to offer them comfort.

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One way to do this is by developing a “climate plan” at home. This can outline actions that family members will take to engage in greener practices or activities that the family will partake in together.

“Let them know that you’re doing everything that you can to move solutions forward and slow down what’s happening [to the planet],” Shugarman said.
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Lead by example

“Actions speak louder than words,” Shugarman said.

Explain to your kids why you are doing something when you do it. For example, if you’re bringing a reusable coffee cup to a cafe, tell them it’s to help eliminate waste. If you’re not buying a certain brand’s products because of their environmental practices, let kids know why.

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If your child wants to get involved in environmental action, help them find groups or organizations. Bring them to climate strikes, too, if it is age-appropriate.

“Help them write a letter to their member of Parliament or city mayor,” Shugarman said. “Help them use their voice.”

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Be honest but optimistic

Many people experience climate change anxiety, and it can be incredibly hard for kids who are concerned about the future of their planet to feel at ease.

Parents should not lie about climate change, Shugarman says, but be realistic while maintaining optimism. Remind children that the responsibility of global warming doesn’t fall just on their shoulders and that many scientists have been working hard to combat this crisis for years.

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Children can also find inspiration from other youth, like Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg. Seeing how powerful their voices are can offer hope to both children and adults.

“Especially in the last little while with these organized [strikes], we are listening because our kids are speaking truth to power,” Shugarman said.

“They’re sharing their concerns, and people know that the way kids present it, it’s the truth. They’re speaking the truth.”


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