How to talk to children about climate change: ‘We cannot hide or avoid difficult topics’

Age-appropriate information, visual lessons and daily discussions will help children understand the issues the planet faces. But when it comes to instilling the sustainability message, parents need to lead by example

Climate change will continue to dominate the headlines for generations, meaning parents need the right tools to effectively discuss and help their children implement good environmental practices. Torsten Dedrichs / Unsplash
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With the United Nations’ Cop26 in full swing in Glasgow, attended by heads of state including a UAE delegation led by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, as well as US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, climate change is dominating global headlines.

The sheer scale of coverage and the agreements decided upon at the conference has meant it is impossible for anyone, including young people, to avoid being confronted with stark facts about climate change. An outcome, experts are agreed, is a good thing as long as parents help children process the information and messages.

When shielding children from certain aspects of the adult world, parents are aware there are many things young people shouldn’t be exposed to until they are older. The current and future state of the planet on which they live isn’t one of them, however. With the right tools, conversational techniques and leading by example, parents can teach and discuss climate change with their children in ways they not only understand, but also can proactively react and respond to.

‘Children know more than you think’

When it comes to talking to children about climate change, experts agree that in our plugged-in, 24-hour news cycle world, young people are exposed to more information and messaging than ever before. Issues arise, they say, when parents don’t step into the void between data and conclusions, and leave children to process information without help.

“Children are more clued in and more aware than we think,” says Dr Ola Pykhtina, psychologist and art and play therapist at Thrive Wellbeing Centre by Dr Sarah Rasmi. “They pick up on the information around them, and a lack of explanation concerning that information may become dangerous. Since children’s cognitive abilities are still developing, and as imagination together with emotional development precedes logic, they are very likely to hear facts as more threatening and overwhelming than they may be.

“It is our responsibility to speak to our children," she says. "Not to hide or avoid difficult topics, but rather clarify, explain and help cope with emotions that this may cause.”

Children as young as 3 can become aware of news and global events, and they tend to realise the news is “real” around the ages of 7 or 8. Given the sheer volume of platforms that information is now available on, it is up to parents to monitor where they themselves get their news and where it is viewed at home.

“In the early primary school years, children's understanding is limited and often literal, ie they are not fully able to understand the scale of things such as distances, times, populations or the motivations and reasons that events might happen,” says Dr Ateeq Qureshi, child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. “However, as they get to older primary years, their understanding develops and by early adolescence, most have a fairly good awareness of events.

“In today’s world, information can travel very fast, but can also be very narrow, based on the child’s interest. So it is often the exposure that they get at school and at home that determines how clued up they are to world events.”

What’s the best approach when discussing climate change?

Naturally, an age-appropriate approach is best, but what does that look like for different age groups and school years?

“Kindergarteners may have trouble understanding the carbon cycle, but they may be able to understand that it rains more, or less, than it used to where you live,” says Sneha John, clinical child and adolescent psychologist at Medcare Camali Mental Health Clinic. “An adolescent may already have learnt about the science in school and may need instead to talk about difficult feelings and potential ways forward. Regardless of how much your child knows, there is lasting value in your having meaningful conversations about climate change.”

It is always important to make discussions regarding climate change relevant and appropriate, and to avoid technical and theoretical speeches.
Habiba Al Marashi, chairperson, Emirates Environmental Group

Visual representation of potentially abstract concepts works best when discussing issues with children, and parents and carers should take the opportunity to recognise teachable moments in everyday life.

“It is always important to make discussions regarding climate change relevant and appropriate, and to avoid technical and theoretical ‘speeches’ when parents are introducing new topics or trying to change patterns of behaviour,” says Habiba Al Marashi, chairwoman of Emirates Environmental Group. “Talking to them about their food, where it comes from and how important it is not to waste, is really easy and crucial to the way they will think about food wastage in the future.

“Parents can also talk to young children about why water is important and how we need to use as little as we can when washing our hands.”

Dr Pykhtina says: “Skirting around issues is definitely not the way to go as it may cause misunderstandings and result in mistrust. Brutal honesty on the other hand, can be too overwhelming. Use words the child can understand at their level of development. It is also crucial to engage the child in the discussion by asking: ‘What do you think is happening? Do you think we can do something about it? Why does it matter?’ Here we encourage the child to express their thoughts, look for solutions and develop problem-solving skills.”

‘Adults should inspire wonder and interest in the environment’

Children’s brains have long been described as “sponges”, able to soak up huge amounts of information. Retention, however, is different from processing, and when it comes to creating lessons that stick, a visual approach has the edge over the verbal.

“My advice would be for adults to inspire wonder and interest in the environment in their children,” says Sagarika Sriram, 16, the Jumeirah College student behind the Kids For A Better World website and blog. “Raise them in an environment where protecting the climate is at the forefront of everything they do, so that at a young age they automatically recycle and reuse, take part in gardening, turn off taps and lights, that kind of thing.

“I was raised that way in an environmentally-friendly home,” the Year 12 student says. “We have a kitchen garden and compost, and I was always taught to minimise waste. We make meals using the fruits, vegetables and herbs we grow in the garden. My grandparents taught me how to make [our] own cosmetics from products at home such as honey, sugar and oatmeal.”

Indeed, a practical, hands-on approach will yield higher engagement and involvement in practices that directly affect the household’s responsibility towards tackling climate change.

“Parents and teachers can talk about the need and the benefits of eco-conscious living, but children learn by experience,” says Qureshi. “So involving them in practical environmentally friendly habits is the best way to teach them. Older children can be given clearer, scientific information about the urgency to act on climate issues.”

John says: “Give kids reason to hope and ways to take action. You can talk about how you’re already supporting some of these activities around your own home, whether it is by supporting reducing food waste, recycling or simply by more conscientiously turning off unneeded lighting or appliances. Ensure yours is not a one-and-done conversation. The first intentional talk may be the hardest. Look for climate-related touchstones in your day-to-day routine.”

Tackling childhood anxiety around climate change

Older children may express anxiety or fears around the issues arising from climate change, although the emotion can also manifest in younger ones, too. Experts agree that engaging children of all ages in eco-friendly practices will help reduce anxiety around the issue, by taking a proactive approach.

“Safety is one of the most basic necessities and rights that children have. If a child feels unsafe, it is our job as parents to reassure, to calm and to help process fears,” says Dr Pykhtina. “Verbalising feelings is the first step to taking control of them. With younger children, art and play may work better than a conversation. Draw or role-play climate change, and encourage the child to share their feelings and thoughts in a creative way. Stay hopeful and encouraging, remind the child they are not alone and that there are many people who care about the planet. Finally, come up with a plan of what can be done every day to take care of the environment and our planet: plant trees, recycle, take short showers, and turn off the computer when not in use.”

When allaying anxiety, it helps to reassure children that their fears are an emotional manifestation of how much they care about the climate and planet, and that their responses are appropriate and normal.

“Once you have validated the child’s feelings, help them gain some perspective,” suggests John. “Helping them find accurate information, for example, explaining that your city will probably see more rain and hotter summers is more precise and less scary. It is important to let children know that the fate of the world doesn’t rest on their shoulders. You don't have to be individually responsible for saving the planet, but we can do things individually to look after our own footprint. Then, help them communicate what they’re doing to influence other people.”

Hope for the future: ‘I have a ‘glass half full’ approach’

When it comes to showcasing visually stimulating and proactive examples of current innovations in tackling climate change, we’re fortunate to have a shining example right on our doorstep.

“The UAE is showcasing many of its initiatives regarding climate change at Expo 2020 Dubai,” says Al Marashi. “Masdar City is another unique extensive project that the UAE embarked on to look at climate change challenges and address these. The UAE is investing in various agricultural projects to address future food security risks, and these make for some interesting discussions.

“All schools in the UAE spend time teaching students about living responsibly and have various projects that allow students to actively participate in becoming more aware of the issues facing the environment,” she says. “For example, many schools organise clean-ups, art exhibitions related to environmental issues and debating forums to discuss climate change.”

“I see this as something we can tackle and not as something we can’t do anything about,” says Sriram. “This is a delicate topic and can be scary to young people. Teaching children through encouragement rather than scaring is the best way to address it.

“I have a ‘glass half full’ approach,” she says. “If I can teach other people to create change then I can create a domino effect.”

Updated: November 14, 2021, 1:13 PM