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Greta Thunberg "You all come to us young people for hope, how dare you!"
There is a lot of uncertainty in the world today, not least about the changing climate on Earth and how this may impact on us all.
When I think of the enormity of the climate crisis facing the world, it rattles my bones. So I can only imagine how a child or teenager must feel when they hear themselves referred to as the "hope" for the world. It must be very frightening if they stop to actually think about what this could mean.
Personally, I think the time has come to deflect this narrative from our kids and give them the space to grow and develop before lumbering them with saving the world!
There are issues that come up in life that, as a parent, I find unsettling to think of myself, never mind exposing my kids to them. I see horrible stories on the news and rush for the TV controls to turn off the nasty side of life, sheltering my kids from the gorey and, at times, downright evil that lurks in our world. But I won’t always be there to buffer them from life's ugly truths. So, how do I protect them from the stark realities of Climate Change and, then again, should I?
If they are going to hear worrying things about our planet, and disasters in our world, I am starting to realise they are better to hear it from me. At least I am a trusted source of information, rather than the far fetched playground bravado they will no doubt encounter at school. It's time for me to prepare them to be resilient in the face of climate change, and the consequences it may have for our world, and then help them find their own power in adding to the solutions.
But how can we take the pressure off this young generation. I believe we must partner them in the face of this massive challenge, not leave them alone with their worries.
After researching this topic, I have gathered tips and recommendations for guiding children through the “slow motion emergency” which is the climate crisis. Use whatever you find helpful to start the conversation with your kids, so that we can begin to face this problem together, as a family, as a community and as one worldwide tribe.
We Need to Talk about Earth
Face the facts and acknowledge our own fears
It can be frightening to face the reality being predicted for us all, in the years to come, on our warming planet. When we see communities in other countries already facing these stark realities, or even coastal towns in Ireland experiencing more frequent flooding events, it’s a dose of reality that is hard to take on in one go. We can become laden with guilt about our own lives and choices, even questioning the wisdom of bringing children into the world at all. We can feel confused by the bombardment of information and contrasting voices on this matter and all of this can make us feel helpless and insignificant.
So if you or I feel that way, our children no doubt will too. But the difference is they haven't the emotional maturity to cope with this looming threat. For myself, I take it in bite sized portions. I find it daunting at times and don't always know where to start when it comes to taking actions in my own life. But, gradually, I have begun to put small changes into action and it helps to feel that I am contributing in some small way and am part of the solution.
Megan Kennedy-Woodard, Coaching Psychologist and Co-director of Climate Psychologist, told The Independent (UK);
“We should absolutely not avoid difficult conversations - anxiety loves avoidance. The conversation is, fortunately, all around us now. We don’t want to teach denial, we want to teach resilience."
She also promotes picking the right time to talk. Pick a time when your chat naturally flows, like on a walk or a drive. And end with focusing on the positives.
2. Listen to how they are feeling and share our own feelings.
Together we can unite with our children over feeling worried, scared and unsure about the future. It's a very natural reaction when faced with a threat to our well being, or the planet's, so it might help to let your child see that you are not afraid to own these feeling. Be honest that you can't promise everything will be ok. But the key is to then work on making a plan of achievable actions that will help them to take back some control over the situation. You can also highlight the positive actions that are ongoing in the world for the environment. Taking action, however small, will go a long way to empowering our children and maintain their confidence in the future.
Help your teen to get involved if they feel strongly enough and encourage them to find their voice. You can support them if they wish to contact their local elected official, or join a volunteer group, as a way to express their frustration. They could become part of a growing movement of young people acting together to make change happen, like the Fridays for Future marches.
But not all children will want to be activists, or have an interest at all about climate change. Many may feel so disconnected from it here in Ireland that it leaves their mind again within moments of seeing a news segment referring to it. Perhaps they feel, “sure I’ll be dead when all that happens”. That is fine on the surface, and may be where they are right now. Or maybe it's bravado masking deeper feelings beneath. Taking the time to have an open conversation with them about the environment is a good idea, otherwise you’ll never know if they are harboring deeper, secret, fears about it.
Even if they appear fine with it all, still offer your help if they want to get involved with leading your family in making changes for the environment at home. They will be happier knowing they have made small changes in their own home and you may find yourself connecting on a whole new level with your child on this issue.
Taking the time to explore how your child feels around this issue will let them know you are there for them, if their feelings become stronger or they want to become more involved themselves.
3. Help them to know when to step back
When I’m tried, or feeling like I have too much on my plate, I just step back for a while. I know I can't do it all myself so I don't put that pressure on myself. I will try to do the things within my reach and I then live in hope that enough other people will do the same to make a global difference. So help your children to see that they can't carry all the worry or effort in helping our planet on their own shoulders, nor are they expected to. And if they feel it getting too heavy for them, just step back and relax about it for a while as others do their share. Make sure to carry on with your lives, doing the ordinary things too, and not pass your own worries onto your kids.
John Sharry, adjunct professor of psychology with UCD, advises that children deserve a happy childhood, free of fears and worries where at all possible. He recommends parents not let concerns for the future dominate our lives and try to find a balance between preparing for the future and providing our children with a happy childhood.
4. Break the silence
Start an honest and open conversation with your children about climate change, remembering to pitch it at a developmentally appropriate level. We don't need to hide the reality from them but we should take care in how we present it to them, based on their age and emotions around it already. The idea is to let our kids know we understand their curiosity, confusion or worries surrounding climate change (if they have any) but not leave them burdened with additional worries or stress.
It’s a bit like when we look to the cabin crew when our plane hits turbulence - if they’re continuing as normal, we somehow feel everything will work out ok. Our children look to us for the same reassurance, so whether we always feel that confidence in the future or not, we must step up and be brave for their sake. Show them you won't abandon them with this fear and you will listen to how they are feeling, help them deal with their feelings and work with them to find meaningful ways to change what you can together.
Very Young Children
Connect your kids with nature and teach them about the relationship of every living thing and our part in this system. Help them to show love for nature and teach them that we have a job to do in looking after Nature and our planet. Always be hopeful and reassuring and try not to pass our concerns onto them.
For older kids & pre-teens
Start by asking them what they know already about the environment and climate change, making sure to ask them how they feel about that. They will have been taught about climate change at school and so may know more than you realise already.
Try to get a sense about the type of emotion your child feels around this. Having a one on one chat might give your child the freedom to speak without fear of judgement or being told they’re wrong by other siblings. Pitch your chat depending on how big those feelings are and whether you feel information is what they need or someone to just tell their worries to.
You can explain the science in a simple way with the National Geographic Link or other sources of useful information on this page.
Some explain it as follows:
“Our world is protected by a layer surrounding the earth, like a blanket that keeps it at just the right temperature. With global warming, there are more and more blankets being put around the earth. We can’t just toss them off. So we’re figuring out how to change back to the right kind and number of blankets.”
Always focus on a hopeful message. It’s nobody’s fault that the climate is changing, no one got up one morning and thought that they would reek havoc on our ecosystems and planet. In fact, a chain of actions over a very long time, harping right back to the very first humans have been making an impact on the natural world around them and they could not foresee the impact it would have. Try to relieve your children of any feelings of guilt and thinking we are doing something wrong.
Instead, focus on the fact its good news that we now can test our planet and see how it's doing. And once we know this information, we can start to take actions to heal our planet. Now with millions of amazingly smart people and scientists working to help earth, we are making brilliant progress in finding ways to live and work that are healthier for our planet.
Show them the things kids around the world are doing and that kids have power to make a real difference now and when they grow into adults. Empower them to do the same in your home, community or school if they wish. Put them into a position of doing.
You can use the pandemic as an example of how the world can work together when it needs to and make very positive progress for the world together in a short time. Also show them how pollution levels fell, and Nature restored itself in many areas, when the lockdowns happened during the pandemic. Nature can recover easily when given the chance.
Teens & Young People
Teens may be curious about the science so find some trusted sources together to explore and learn more. Sites like Young People's Trust for the Environment UK are very useful. Chances are you will not know all the answers to their questions so try to find them together and don't be afraid to let them educate you. Show them how to look for trusted sources and avoid fake news, and to stop once they find one they trust. The internet is clogged full of information and trawling through it can be exhausting itself.
Share news articles with your teen about young people making a difference. Show them how to focus on things they can influence and have control over, like having their voice heard, making changes at home and at school, volunteering etc. Reassure them and talk about ways to cope when they feel afraid or overwhelmed, how to step back for a while and recharge, and remind them that millions of very smart people are creating solutions. Scientists are telling us we have time to make the changes needed and countries are starting to do this more and more.
Help them to use Nature to sooth themselves and find balance when upset or worried.
Help them understand how media works and that sensationalist news headlines can sometimes be used as clickbait to attract most publicity. Show other media examples when you see them, in relation to other topics, so your teen begins to understand that media can create strong emotions that are not always based in reality.
Explain that the language used around climate change also creates strong emotions, particularly fear, and how this is not always helpful.
They might then better understand and begin to read the situation surrounding media coverage in future, without it becoming so overwhelming.
Yes, the planet needs help, but scaring people will only cause stage fright and an inability to act, which is the very last thing we want.
Empower them to become active in your home, community or school if they wish. Put them into a position of doing and being a leader as they educate your family (if they wish) on ways to reduce your carbon footprint and regenerate Nature. For those less active teens, assist them where their interests lie, or keep them informed of the actions you take as a family so they can feel a part of that action too on some level.
And remember not to take over when it comes to young people. It is important that they feel their own personal power to act in whatever way they can. Lets try to understand their concerns and let them know we shoulder that worry and burden with them.
5. Take positive steps together-Get connected to Nature
Start to bring nature back to your family and grow their empathy and respect for the natural world around them. In my view, this is one of the biggest contributions you can make to our planet right now. If we need our children to grow up protecting our planet, and solving many problems that might arise in their life time, they will need a steady and committed love and respect for nature.
We can all give this to our children, quite simply, by just bringing our attention back to nature and showing them that nature is key to our lives. Let your children feel the positive emotions that being in nature can bring and the empowering emotions that they will feel by taking small achievable steps to Help Our Planet - Kids. This can build in them a self confidence around the outdoors and nature which will stand to them for the rest of their lives.
6. Become a greener family for your children's sake
Don’t feel you need to know all the answers or take on a huge load. Be there for your own child and, as a family, start to move towards living a greener, more sustainable life Help Our Planet - Parents. Set goals as a family which do your share and show your children how you as a family are making positive changes for your planet. Try to operate within the premise that if you do your share, and others do there’s, the load will be shared across the world and everyone's actions will count.
7. Always be positive & hopeful
When you have your conversation, it is important to balance the negative facts with some positive actions the kids can take:
National Geographic's article, Talking to Kids about Climate Change, suggests challenging your children to come up with 10 ways to take positive actions as a family to help leave them feeling hopeful. They also suggest teaching the children that influencing others to take action is also a powerful tool in helping our planet.
Think about using the rule of 3 in your chat: For every negative fact, refocus on 3 positive actions you can take in your own lives to counter balance it.
Find hopeful and inspiring stories to share with your kids here - Motivation. Point out the local initiatives that are helping our planet and biodiversity, such as tidy towns leaving wild places for our insects, farmers leaving hedgerows for our wildlife, water refill stations and many more.
I believe keeping one eye on the positive impact people all around the world are having will keep you and your kids feeling hopeful. You can satisfy yourselves that you are becoming less and less part of the problem and more and more part of the solution.
Links & Useful Articles:
80% of teens feel under pressure to save the planet, but aren’t learning how | Training Journal