Talking to children and teenagers about the climate emergency

For starters, make sure you are well informed and facing up to the crises yourself

Being worried about your children’s future, and feeling guilty that you have not done enough for them, comes with the job of being a parent.

In the age of climate and ecological crisis these feelings are particularly acute. As parents, we now have to face the fact that our children’s lives are likely to be much more challenging than our own. We also have to live with the guilt that it is our lifestyles that are depleting the planet and their future home.

Rather than being stuck in these feelings, we have the choice to channel them into constructive action and to redouble our efforts to do all we can to preserve the planet and safeguard our children’s futures.

Take steps to inform yourself as a parent

Make sure you are informed and facing up to the climate crises yourself. The more you understand what is at stake and make your best decisions in response, the more you will be able to help your children manage and cope. Be self-aware of your emotional reactions and feelings. Take time to process your feelings so you don’t project your fears and worries on to your children. You want to respond in a thoughtful and hopeful way as you prepare your children for the future. (See previous articles in this series for advice on understanding and processing your feelings.)


Respond according to your child’s age

As with communicating any challenging and difficult news, it is most important to take into account your child’s age and stage of development. Preschoolers and young children should be largely protected from exposure to the “bad news” that dominates the media and this includes the many climate disasters. Instead, the focus should be on giving them a happy, fun childhood. You can of course begin to instil in them the value of caring for their planet through fun activities such as identifying birds and insects in parks and reading nature books at home. As children go through primary school, they will become more aware of the news, and the environment will be start to be covered on the school curriculum. At this point they are likely to ask you questions and it is important you respond in a way that is truthful but which does not overworry them. Once again you can focus them on positive actions they can take such as reducing food waste, visiting a community garden and even composting food in a wormery.

Over time older children and teenagers will become much more aware of the climate crises and they will need your help to process the information all around them. Teenagers, will need to be empowered to deal with the current and future challenges they face. Below are some steps you can take.

Tune in and listen to what your child needs

If your child raises a question or worry, take time to listen before you reply. Ask what makes them ask the question (eg, is it something covered in school or heard on the news) and explore what they think and feel first. This will give you a sense of what they know already and what they need from you.

Different teenagers respond differently to the challenging news about climate. Some process the information in a matter of fact way and may not be immediately concerned. For others, the news can become a trigger for a lot more anxiety and a lot more questions. It is important to listen carefully and to validate your child’s feelings, whatever they are.

Present information in a solution focused way

Try and present the facts and information in a solution-focused way. You could say: “We all need to make big changes for the future. We need to make personal positive changes and also to campaign for the Government and large businesses to make changes.” Set goals as a family and list the things you are doing to manage; how you are coping will inspire your children to manage in a similar way. For example, you might describe the personal changes you are making as a family or how you are voting or communicating with politicians to work for change. Listen to your teenagers ideas and suggestions. Young people are often better-informed than their parents on these issues, so often it is a case of taking a step back to let your children educate and lead you. The parents of teenage activist Greta Thunberg respected their daughter’s inspiring school protest and joined her on her campaign to change the world.

Empower your children to take positive action

As children become adults, the goal is to support them to make their own best decisions. For those teenagers who are anxious about the future, it is important to empower them to channel their “worrying energy” into constructive action that makes sense for them. Some teenagers might be more driven to activism and channel their energy into political actions such as Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace. Other teenagers might be more attuned to nature and make their contribution by engaging in conservation and join national groups such as the Native Woodland Trust, Irish Wildlife Trust or Birdwatch Ireland.

Engaging in positive actions will have many benefits for your children, including the benefits of reaching out and meeting like-minded young people or the mental-health benefits of engaging in outdoor activities and connecting with nature. Join your children in some of these actions; set family goals around becoming more resilient and living greener lifestyles. Joining together in action is a great opportunity to bond and learn together.

Striking the right balance

Being a good parent is about striking a balance between preparing children for future independence and providing them with a happy childhood. Concerns and worries about the future should not be allowed to dominate family life and the home should be safe space, free from worry and stress. Keep a focus on normal childhood activities and interests that are nothing to do with the burdens of a changing future. As mentioned in previous articles, one “silver lining” in accepting the reality of the planetary emergency we face is that it makes the life we have now much more precious. Realising the uncertain nature of the future can make you more appreciative of your relationships with your children and more committed to savour and enjoy daily family life.

– This is the final article in the Changing World, Changing Minds series which explores our emotional response to the climate emergency and biodiversity collapse that surrounds us.
Part 1: Eco-anxiety
Part 2: Denial
Part 3: Channelling anger
Part 4: Coping with grief
Part 5: Talking to children

– John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He is chair of the Feasta environmental charity