A few months ago, I was standing at the sink in the kitchen. Suddenly my daughter, who’s seven, said, “You’re lucky you got to have your adulthood before the planet was completely destroyed by climate change.”
I didn’t know this was on her mind. I hadn’t spent all that much time talking to her about it.
And the worst part, somehow, is that her voice wasn’t full of emotion. It was completely matter-of-fact. Like, oh well, we don’t have time to stop for ice cream, and I don’t get to grow up in a world with a functioning ecosystem.
How do you comfort a child when the science suggests she’s correct?
These six tips form a guide to parenting through a slow-motion emergency.
1. Break the silence
For a growing number of families all over the world, there’s no avoiding it: Climate change is already at their front door.
Others, who are privileged enough to have evaded the direct impacts so far, seem to be struggling to deal with the constant barrage of anxiety-provoking news about the environment. And one of the biggest barriers among that group is emotional.
Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, is working on a book for MIT Press about climate change and reproductive choices.
He says, despite the fact that the climate crisis literally affects everyone on earth, too many of us are sitting alone with our worries, our faces lit by our phone screens in the middle of the night. “We seem to be more scared of upsetting the conversation than we are scared about climate change.”
Mary DeMocker, an activist and artist in Eugene, Ore., is the author of The Parents’ Guide To Climate Revolution, a book focusing on simple actions families can take both personally and collectively. “The emotional aspect is actually, I think, one of the biggest aspects of climate work right now,” she says.
Asked what feelings parents tell her they are grappling with, she ticks off guilt, distraction, confusion. And the big one: fear.
“Who wants to talk about this idea of imminent doom or huge storms or wildfires sweeping through your town? … It’s frightening. I can’t look at it every day. I have to take it in microdoses honestly.”
And on top of that, “We also fear alarming our children or saying the wrong things if they have big feelings.”
But, DeMocker says, talking about climate change with other adults, including our feelings about it, is a necessary first step towards helping our kids cope.
2. Give your kids the basic facts
NPR found in a poll earlier this year that fully 84 percent of parents, including a majority of both Democrats and Republicans, agreed that children should be learning about climate change. But, only 45 percent of parents, just over half as many, said they had actually talked to their own kids about it. (There was a similar gap among teachers surveyed as well, so we can’t rely on schools to do this for us.)
Here’s a suggested script, based on conversations with several educators and psychologists, that could be used for kids as young as four or five:
“Humans are burning lots and lots of fossil fuels for energy, in planes, in cars, to light our houses, and that’s putting greenhouse gases into the air. Those gases wrap around the planet like a blanket and make everything hotter.
A hotter planet means bigger storms, it melts ice at the poles so oceans will rise, it makes it harder for animals to find places to live.
And it’s a really, really big problem, and there are a lot of smart people working hard on it, and there’s also lots that we can do as a family to help.”
We’ve written before about learning resources on climate change. If you want to do a deeper dive, watch a movie or read a book together.
You know your kids best, so try to make sure the level of information you’re giving them is appropriate and not too graphic or upsetting. But at the same time, we can’t always control what they may be hearing elsewhere, so it’s good to be proactive with the simple facts.
3. Get outdoors
Dawn Danby lives in Oakland California and has spent 20 years working in sustainable design, technology and business. She also has a 6-year-old daughter, a “fierce little person,” and she doesn’t want her to be too scared by what’s happening to the planet.
“I’ve encountered lots and lots of people who’ve been really traumatized as they’ve encountered” ecological crisis, she says.
So Danby takes a different approach. She and her daughter spend as much time as possible exploring the outdoors, from old-growth forests to vegetable gardens.
You don’t have to live near mountains or the ocean to expose your kids to nature. You can start with ants on the sidewalk. Dawn encourages her daughter to “look at the bugs and think about what the bugs are doing … everything has a role to play here.”
She’s raising her daughter to understand the web of relationships in nature rather than dwelling on ecological damage, because, she says, “I have a rationale around this that it’s very hard to defend what you don’t love.”
4. Focus on Feelings
Amber, in Huntsville, Ala., responded to our callout on childhood anxiety. We’re not using her last name because she’s sharing information about her daughter’s mental health. She says when her daughter was just 3, in preschool, she learned that sea turtles will eat plastic in the ocean and die. To this day, five years later, at the age of 8:
“If she sees litter it’s not just enough for her to pick it up and throw it away — which she’ll do — but she’ll bring up the sea turtles again.” With questions like: “‘Why would people throw things on the ground? The sea turtles are going to die!’ She cannot let it go.”
Clinical anxiety affects a small (and growing) percentage of children. But worries about the environment are widespread. In a recent poll in The Washington Post, 7 in 10 teenagers said climate change will harm their generation — that was a bit more than older folks.
Susie Burke is a senior psychologist at the Australian Psychological Society. She’s an environmental psychologist, specializing in what’s become an emerging field: climate psychology.
She says there are three big-picture positive responses to a huge stressor like climate change.
The first is known as “emotion-focused coping.”
This could include “Spending time with people who we love and care for. Doing positive activities. Spending time in nature. Having a break.”
Becoming more emotionally literate as a family, and having a toolbox of comforting activities to try when your kids are feeling anxious or low, is one way to help everyone become more resilient to stressors — whether it’s something on the news, or a storm coming to your city.
Burke says that of course our instinct is to protect our kids from the harshness of the world or from ever feeling bad. But once they are old enough to be in school and to understand a bit of the news, that may not be possible. It’s our job instead to be open to “hearing how children might be feeling and thinking about the climate crisis and be able to help the children to manage those feelings.”
5. Take action
The second big-picture way to cope with a stressor like climate change, after emotion-focused coping, is problem-focused coping. These, says Burke, are “the things that we do to try to mitigate the actual problem that is causing the stress.”
Shuo Peskoe-Yang worked in public health. A self-described “do-gooder,” he had never paid special attention to environmental issues before his daughter was born in 2018. He realized that she had a good chance of seeing the year 2100, and the business-as-usual climate forecasts are grim.
Peskoe-Yang went all in. He started volunteering full time for a group called The Climate Mobilization. “The year 2100 was always a really abstract thing for me. It’s not something I’ll see, it’s not something I’ll experience. But when [my daughter] was born it became very real.”
Of course, not everyone is in a position to change their lives this dramatically. But there are other places to start. DeMocker, in her book, lists 100 different ideas for families at all levels of time, budget, and introversion or extroversion, from actions of “stewardship” for the environment like composting and picking up trash, to civic engagement, like writing a letter or showing up to a local meeting or protest.
Beyond taking action as a family, increasing numbers of parents find themselves supporting teenage activists. That same Washington Post poll reported 1 in 4 teenagers had taken some sort of climate-related action.
16-year-old Jayden Foytlin has become one of 21 youth plaintiffs of a case called Juliana vs. the United States. These are young people suing the federal government, claiming it has violated their rights to a livable planet.
So she’s balancing schoolwork, her love of art and court appearances. Jayden says it’s about, “Showing people that youth voices do matter. And this is something that has to be taken seriously, or we will lose lives.”
Jayden’s mother, Cherri Foytlin, has been a dedicated environmental activist in Louisiana since the BP oil spill in 2010. She says Jayden has fun and goofs around like any other kid.
“The only difference,” Foytlin continues, “Is her mind and her heart is so passionate about protecting life. She’s just inspiring to me, to be honest.”
The youngest of Susie Burke’s three children has taken an activist path too. She co-founded the Australian chapter of the School Strike for Climate. Burke says, getting involved with an urgent cause “fits beautifully with the skills and qualities that we know are great for children to develop in order for them to thrive as adults.” Like empathy, cooperation, presentation skills, self-efficacy.
But it doesn’t mean, says Burke, we should push any particular actions onto our children.
Her daughter Milou Albrecht 14, says in turn of her parents: “Some of the most important ways they support me would be listening to me and providing helpful information and support, but also kind of stepping back and let me do my thing.”
6. Find Hope
Emotion-focused coping is about feelings. Problem-focused coping is about action. The third path to coping with a stressor like climate change, Burke says, is meaning-focused coping. This is about thinking: how to frame the problem so that we can continue to hope and not collapse into cynicism, apathy or despair.
She cites Swedish psychologist Maria Ojala, who is looking at how children and teenagers are finding resilience to the threat of climate change. Ojala found one successful strategy was to develop trust that others are working on this problem — to realize none of us are alone. A second was to focus on the many benefits of a sustainable future, like more social justice, stronger communities, better health.
“To be able to keep hope is important,” says Burke. And for our kids, reminding them to take breaks and enjoy just being a kid. It’s important that they are “still also feeling carefree and joyful and finding things that are wonderful about the world, learning ways that the world is worth living in, even though they’re also addressing big life challenges.”
DeMocker says parents have a tricky role to play as young activists step up. “We have to partner with them and we have to not abandon them in this crisis and we have to step back at the same time and let them lead.”
She compares the balance to parents’ job when children are younger and first finding independence.
“So it’s this funny dance, which is a lot of what parenting is — whether you have a toddler who wants to put on her shoes herself and then whoops! she trips. So now she actually just needs to be a little kid again and be comforted.”
When I think about the options available to me as a mother in 2019 trying to cope with a global crisis while also paying my mortgage and packing lunches, I don’t see “hope” as a landing place or a single destination. I see myself facing the facts, taking action, and offering comfort when I feel stronger, and taking breaks, reaching out for support, and looking to others to carry on when I get tired. It’s all a cycle, or in DeMocker’s words, a dance.
Anya Kamenetz | Education Correspondent: Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
Kamenetz is the author of several books. Her latest is The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life (PublicAffairs, 2018). Her previous books touched on student loans, innovations to address cost, quality, and access in higher education, and issues of assessment and excellence: Generation Debt; DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, and The Test.
Kamenetz covered technology, innovation, sustainability, and social entrepreneurship for five years as a staff writer for Fast Company magazine. She’s contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post, New York Magazine and Slate, and appeared in documentaries shown on PBS and CNN.