How to Talk to Kids About Climate Change Without Terrifying Them

sAnnie Reneau

“Are all the animals going to die, Mommy?” she asks in a small voice.

“Of course not!” I answer. “What makes you ask that?”

My sweet six-year-old had just watched an educational show about endangered species. As an ardent animal lover, she’d carried the program’s warnings about climate change to their logical (at least in the mind of a six-year-old) conclusion.

Naturally, I didn’t want to tell her if things got so bad that all the animals died, we’d all (likely) be dead, too. But I also didn’t want to send the message that climate change isn’t concerning. Even if we seriously clean up our act in the next decade, climate change is a reality our children will inherit, and we need to equip them for it sooner rather than later.

But how do you strike the balance between educating and informing kids about the precarious future of our planet without terrifying them? As I learned firsthand, it isn’t easy, so we asked the pros for their best tips for navigating this tricky subject.

Keep the conversation age-appropriate

There are a few moments in a parent’s life where talking to your kids is going to be challenging, but when it comes to big, globally worrying topics, the key to having a good conversation may come down to a little empathy and understanding. Parenting coach Dr. Richard Horowitz says we should “be honest but optimistic” with kids. “Acknowledge that climate change is a real challenge, but that a lot of smart people are working on solutions.”

When discussing a tricky topic, it’s also wise to keep a child’s emotional and psychological maturity in mind. We don’t want to underestimate their ability to understand complex issues, but we also don’t want to bombard them with more than they’re ready to handle.

My six-year-old didn’t need to hear the direst climate change predictions; she wouldn’t have known how to process that information. What she needed was reassurance, and to be shown there are lots of people working to help protect the animals she loves so much.

Focus on the fixers

As Mister Rogers told us, when frightening things happen we need to look for the helpers. While climate change can be scary, many scientists and innovators are dedicated to finding new ways to curb its effects and protect the earth. Some of these fixers are even young enough to serve as awesome role models for our kids.

Take Boyan Slat, for example. As a teen, he invented a way to clean the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, founded The Ocean Cleanup project, and gave a TED Talk explaining his plans. After several years of research and planning, the project’s first major clean-up got underway this summer.

There are many young innovators from around the globe who are tackling specific environmental issues from fast fashion to wasteful food processing and everything in between. Showing your kids young people dedicating their skills and smarts to solving environmental problems can help them see that they can take ownership of this issue without feeling helpless.

Give them real actions

Kids don’t think the way adults do. Changes expected to happen in a decade may seem urgent to an adult, but a decade is a literal lifetime for a 10-year-old. Kids have a harder time dealing in abstracts. Specific actions and habits—small steps like turning off the water or lights and recycling—lets kids know they have some control over what’s happening to their planet.

“Climate change is such a huge thing, and the earth itself is such a huge thing, it’s hard for anyone—not just kids—to wrap their brains around the fact that little things can make a big difference. But they do,” says Dr. Linda Cook, a biology professor at Washington State University who teaches environmental science classes. “It’s really important for kids to understand the little things.”

Beyond actionable tasks, you can also help your kids see positive solutions to everyday problems. “Even a five-year-old can understand economies of scale,” adds Cook. “They understand when you tell them, ‘If you throw your gum wrapper on the ground, it’s only one gum wrapper. But if everyone threw their gum wrapper on the ground, what would that look like?’ They can see that.”

For kids who display a particular sense of fear for the earth’s future, forming earth-friendly habits can have a positive emotional impact, too. “Empowering the children to do their part in helping the family reduce its carbon footprint will mitigate the fear because they are doing something about it,” says Horowitz.

Help them explore with reliable resources

For young kids, Cook recommends using materials published specifically for them. For example, she points to a copy of the children’s magazine, Click. National Geographic Kids, Public Broadcasting Service, and Highlights Magazine are also all good resources for kids with a natural curiosity for the world.

As kids get older, they need to know where to go themselves for answers. Teach kids how to find professionals who study and research climate change in reputable institutions for reliable information. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a good place to go for global scientific consensus. And NASA has a helpful website dedicated to teaching kids about climate change called NASA Climate Kids, which offers reading materials as well as earth-friendly projects and games you can do with your kids.

And while your younger kids will likely look to you for information about the earth, older tweens and teens will likely be starting to explore online. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about climate change, and it’s important to teach kids to be discerning about the information they take in and to know where to get the most accurate data.

Keep it positive

We can approach talking to kids about climate change from a couple of different angles: the planet we rely on for life is in terrible danger, or this beautiful, amazing home of ours needs our TLC. The first approach isn’t inaccurate, but it may inspire more apathy than action. Positive reinforcement is preferable to negative reinforcement in parenting, and we can apply the same principle to talking about climate change.

Staying positive can seem difficult, especially when we see our government backing off on environmental protections and international climate change goals. But Cook says there is real reason to remain positive. Overall, she sees humanity moving in the right direction.

“I have a lot of students who are anxious and negative about climate change,” she says, “and it gets their attention when they see that I’m optimistic. Five years ago, I wasn’t. But in five years I’ve seen a lot of positive change. We’re going the right way.”

Cook says that nature and ecosystems are much more resilient than models predicted, which gives us reason to hope. We just have to be prepared for change.

“Fixing this problem and making things right again doesn’t mean they’re going to be the same,” she says. “The earth will never look like it did before the Industrial Revolution. It won’t be the same, but it can be healthy. Changes are a natural part of earth’s history. We just need to make sure those changes are healthy and sustainable.”

In the meantime, we can inspire kids to action by developing in them a love and reverence of nature. Help them see the earth’s majestic beauty and awe-inspiring landscapes. Let them explore natural spaces and get up close with rocks, water, plants, and animals. When kids appreciate the environment on a deep and personal level, they will be more inclined to want to protect it—without having to be scared into action by doom and gloom climate change predictions.