Dire climate change predictions and the impacts of global warming that we’re already experiencing can be tough for adults to handle. So how do we talk to kids about it?
Mary Beth Mannarino is a psychologist and professor emerita at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Mannarino about how to talk to kids about the existential threat of climate change that scares many parents about the future.
Kara Holsopple: At what age is it appropriate to broach the subject of climate change with kids or should you wait until they ask you about it?
Mary Beth Mannarino: I think one of my cardinal pieces of advice when I talk about these issues of climate change is to know your child.
Some children will be curious. They will have heard things and will ask questions. Other children may not ask questions but it doesn’t mean that they’re not thinking about it.
So keep in mind your child’s personality. If your child is a particularly anxious prone child, you want to keep that in mind when you talk with them. The libraries do carry some children’s books for very young children about climate change but as a parent, you should probably review those and make sure that they’re appropriate for your particular child.
KH: So how do you talk to toddlers through elementary school kids?
MBM: I would put most of the emphasis on thinking about our natural world in general and how our children and we are part of that. And seeing that as something to protect and be grateful for and experience at the very young levels. That’s a more productive way to do it. If climate change or other environmental questions come up, then you talk about how people are working to make sure that we’re taking care of things.
It’s kind of like what Mr. Rogers says — that you look for the helpers. When you talk with children, you make sure that you can identify the positive things that people are doing to help things be better.
KH: Should you talk about the science of it? How deep into it should you get?
MBM: Some children will be very curious about that and, depending upon your own level of knowledge and expertise, I think it’s fine to actually answer things and to help them find resources to get more information, or to do it together with your kids.
The underlying question is often, “will I be OK? Are bad things going to happen? Who’s going to take care of me?” And with those kinds of kids, I think I would just frame it as “the world often faces big large problems and we all work together to try to solve them and make things better and we’re doing that with this.”
KH: We don’t actually know how this is all going to turn out. So how do we handle that kind of uncertainty when talking to kids about climate change, and as you said, about their own future?
MBM: So this is where I think parents really need to do some soul-searching and self-care and think about this very carefully for themselves before they get into it with their children. We all deal with ambiguity and uncertainty in many aspects of our life. And this is one of the biggest and scariest ones, if you’re aware of it.
KH: Is there a danger of projecting our fears onto kids?
MBM: I would caution against projecting your own fears on the child. I think you need to manage your strong emotions and think very carefully about how to talk about your own response to this situation.
In talking with kids I think it’s OK to say “this is scary to me too,” but I would put the focus on what they’re feeling and on the places where action is being taken.
I also think be aware that, even if you’re not involved in activist work or any kind of protest about climate change, many families are already taking steps in the home that reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, which is a big part of climate change. If you’re reducing the use of plastics, if you take your own grocery bags to the store, for example, that’s something you’re already doing. You can model that for your child.
And also if you’re a family that has a garden or has pets or has plants in the house, you’re already communicating your reverence and your respect for nature and how we take care of that.
KH: What if your kid doesn't want to hear about climate change?
MBM: I would respect that. Your kids take away so much more from what they observe you doing than they do from the words you say. So if a child is not ready to hear about something, I would respect that and tell them the door is always open and you’re willing to talk.
I would really respect that because a lot of kids take stuff in and process it before they’re able to talk about it. I saw that in my own children following Columbine and 9/11 where one of them had question after question after question, and really wanted to talk about it. The other one just kind of sat with it. I would be observant of your child if they do that because sometimes that masks a lot of distress. Other times it’s just their style that they need to sit with it for a while and they’re taking it in and trying to process it themselves.
KH: What should you absolutely not do or say?
MBM: I would try my best not to make it an us/them kind of framework. Good guys, bad guys. I would really try to find examples of how people are trying to cross over those bridges between different perspectives.
I would not go Doomsday. I think that adds to anxiety which can go in all kinds of different directions that aren’t healthy for kids. I would not communicate helplessness, like it doesn’t matter what we do or we’re all going to hell in a handbasket.
You know I just wouldn’t go that way. I think the way that you manage this is to give your children tools that can be applied to many different difficult situations that come up.