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Promise Me This Will Never Happen: Why Parents Need to Talk About the Climate Crisis

Youth Climate StrikeA crisis we can do something about  

Are you anxious about climate change? Do apocalyptic visions keep you up at night? Are you distressed thinking about the world we are leaving to our children? If so you are not alone. In fact, a recent poll reported that 3 out of 4 adults see climate change as a crisis. And, to be clear: climate scientists agree: We are in a climate crisis. The glaciers melting each day in Greenland and Antarctica. The increasingly intense and ravaging hurricanes wiping out towns and shattering lives. The flooding. The droughts. The record high temperatures in Europe this summer, the devastating fires in California and the Amazon—try to pretend this is normal, and you would fail. Yes, this is a crisis, but it can be mitigated, but only with sweeping changes in the ways that we live and power our world.

This is where we all come in. Even in a crisis there are things that are helpful and things that are not.  What is most comforting to kids in a crisis? Adults clearly stepping up and taking charge. Does it feel out of your comfort zone to talk about the climate because it is overwhelming, or it feels political, or because you’re not sure what it all means? Just as we ask our kids to keep expanding their comfort zone with math that’s hard, learning to fall asleep on their own, going off to college, we, as parents, must step out of our comfort zone too. This isn’t political, it’s science and in the words of sixteen year old Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, we need to “unite behind the science.”

Kids are anxious, parents are anxious, the American Psychological Association recently recognized the term “eco-anxiety” to describe a multi-faceted emotional experience to direct or indirect impact of climate instability, and even the most seasoned climate champion Bill McKibben recently said that he has learned to get out of the “fetal position” on a regular basis, lately with increasing difficulty. So what do we do with this eco-anxiety? We must counter it with eco-resilience.

We would do anything to protect our children, but there are truths we can’t shield them from, and while that sounds like bad news, it is truly the task of parents to bravely step in to the discomfort of uncertainty, tough realities, and help kids emerge from fear to optimism and slow the course of the climate crisis, by being part of the momentum to mitigate it. What can we promise our children? That we will be resilient, that we will be informed, that we will take action and help them do the same.  

That means thinking accurately about the situation and taking action wherever we can, and yes, for parents—though you may be reluctant to bring up the topic of climate crisis, just like any other difficult topic—this is part of your job description. Here are some ideas to help you through. Don’t be afraid to talk to your kids, be afraid of what they will think if you don’t. Parents can show kids how to take responsibility for their well-being and face down the hard issues too on their behalf, and that when it comes to the tough challenges of climate instability—they are on it.

What’s the Frame? We are all in this together and need to be

Maybe you aren’t having apocalyptic visions, and you’re thinking that what is outside your door, feels manageable. But even if you’re not aware of being in the path of a climate change-driven weather event, we are all impacted. There is no planet B. Whatever may or may not be happening outside your door, all the doors on the planet are connected. We need to show kids that we are taking responsibility for all. From an anxiety standpoint, the fine print of what impacts us and what doesn’t is blurred. In this case, there is greater accuracy to our “anxiety”—and it is not to be shushed away. What eco-anxious kids feel is that those things are right outside the door, and in a sense they are correct, but we need to help kids see that in an adaptive rather than frightened way.

Zooming Out: Seeing solutions as a process

When kids hear news items, or other kids talking about bad things happening in the environment without adults around them willing to talk about this in a constructive way, kids can have trouble putting information in context. They can fall into the child-sized existential hole of hopelessness. That’s where parents come in. Yes, we as adults can fall into those holes too— but we need to put the oxygen masks on ourselves first by saying, this is a crisis, requiring systemic change, but I’m going to get educated, get mobilized and focus on what I can control and do, vs. what I can’t. This is the best role model for kids: Seeing the big picture and knowing that doing something is better than nothing, seeing that change is a process, and all of us can do our part.

The climate conversation is really about how we use our resources on our great planet, a world community. How we solve problems and make sure that our solutions take care of everyone—countries abundant with resources, and countries without— because ultimately, we are all connected. It is with this mindset of planning and taking care of each other that I suggest that parents go into the conversation with their kids. The fact is, that kids are already thinking about this. Some kids with great fears that keep them up at night—ask questions like:  are we going to die from the heat? Will we run out of water? Other kids, perhaps older and better equipped to grapple with the relationships between countries, governments and business, may feel discouraged that more positive outcomes have not been pursued.  

Refer back to the “Big Picture”

Climate action and resilience are about momentum. Focus on small actions that your family can take and help your child see them connected to the big picture. Ask your child: “Why do we walk to your friend’s house or bike instead of drive the car? Why do we have reusable water bottles instead of plastic ones? Children can begin to see the connection of their actions to the ‘big picture,’ which can become a shorthand answer in your house for a lot of decisions you make, e.g., “Is that going to help ‘the big picture’?” In this way you build in—even for young kids—a sense of connection and agency: they have a say and a hand in what happens in the big picture.

Eco-Anxiety Meets Eco-resilience: Turning Worry into Action

Listening to the news reports pushes the “yikes button” as I call it with kids, and we could be kept up at night thinking of dire outcomes. But that’s one of the jobs of eco-resilience. It’s kind of a double-life endeavor. We go to that place of yikes, we can’t help it, but then we decide how long we stay there. Asking ourselves (and this is what parents can say to kids) is it helping to entertain these worry thoughts? Is it doing me or anyone else any good? No. Because we don’t solve problems in yikes mode. We solve problems in thinking and doing mode. This is the heart of eco-resilience. We have to keep clear that these matters are urgent, visit the place of dire outcomes because that’s what our big brains can do— spiral with catastrophes, but then unplug the cord, do a re-set and refocus on the present and what we can do. Being in anxious spin doesn’t feel good and doesn’t get work done. So you can be a visitor to that frightening place, but don’t move in. This maneuver, learning to “re-set” out of panic mode is an important skill for life in general, and certainly here. We need to practice this ourselves so we can teach our kids how to do that re-set too.

When anxiety leaves us paralyzed with fear and helplessness, the best antidote is to take action wherever we can. Resilience is having flexibility and perseverance in response to challenges and the challenges with the climate crisis are a two-parter: One the climate factors themselves—we have to change the way we use resources and power our world, and two—the challenge of the lack of responsiveness of leadership to recognize the urgency to make laws that support these changes.  

There are always things we can do to not just keep our spirits up, but have an impact, so whether this is participating in climate marches, being the one walking around unplugging computers or toasters when not in use, carpooling or using public transportation, being the electronics recycler for your neighborhood, writing to members of congress, or supporting businesses who support clean energy, take action wherever you can. As Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “it takes as much time to worry as it does to plan” and certainly we know planning is more impactful. When we are spinning out into existential dread, we need to do a re-set. This is a time for level headedness so you can be more impactful as part of the solution. Our job is not to let that worry go in overdrive and catastrophize further, we have the information, now we need to get to work.

So we are going to have to change and adapt in response to urgent needs, but we’re going to work on doing that constructively in three ways: 1) by learning how to take back control over our feelings of helplessness and fear 2) have our clear game plan as individuals for the lifestyle changes that we are going to make 3) Join larger groups (whether by contributing time or money or both) to advocate with our government officials and businesses to get on board, because bigger changes make faster changes and—critically—faster changes are needed. We will need to review those decisions periodically to keep in line with the changing needs.

Three things to do before you talk to your kids about the climate crisis:       

Put limits on your own imagination and worry No matter how real or important a topic is, your child will watch your face more than your words for the message you are delivering, so even in pressing situations, gather yourself first, explore and manage your own fears and worries, so that you can deliver the mindset that you want your child to adopt. In this case, the resilient mindset is one that is educated, mobilized, and importantly connected to others who are doing the same thing.

Set realistic expectations: This is not one conversation Change is inevitable, we want to be part of the change. So approach this as a new awareness, that is not a one conversation phenomenon, this is an ongoing conversation, a new way of life.

Do a practice run: Get comfortable and get feedback Like talking about any complex topic with your child: sex, drugs, a family’s member cancer diagnosis, you may feel uneasy and your uneasiness is what your child will register more than any information you are sharing. Run a conversation by another adult or a teen who is well-versed in these topics, and be open to feedback.

What’s a conversation about climate sound like? Start where they are

Kids express anxiety in different ways. Some children will flat out say something like— “The world is ending!” “We are all going to die” “There’s going to be no more water.”  

Maybe your kids are asking pointed questions like, “What happens if all the animals go extinct, what if the planet heats up so much that we’re going to die?”—or maybe they are not, but climate change needs to be on the list of difficult topics that parents broach with their kids, because like other difficult topics— death, illness, school shootings, job loss— through those difficulties there is connection, learning, and emotional growth.

When kids are distressed, parents do what they always need to do when their kids are upset— help them to center and slow down, reassure them that you are there to keep them safe, that there is nothing they need to do right now, that they are there to help. Once your child has settled down, then and only then you can begin a conversation by first finding out what their child has heard and from where, parents can say, “I’m wondering if you’ve heard people talking about the climate strike or about climate change or global warming and what you’re thinking about that.”

In response to what they say, you may add, “That sounds frightening,  sounds really scary, there are some hard things going on that adults are working hard to figure out how to fix.”

Then you’re in a position to get more technical. You can say, “let’s learn some things about how our great planet works. It’s normal for the sun to heat up the planet—and that’s good, it helps things grow. The thing is that in addition to the sun, things like cars and power plants are producing gas—carbon dioxide—that is like a blanket over the earth. It traps that heat and when there’s too much heat it stirs things up—so even though the earth has ways of absorbing those gases—like plants and trees and the ocean—it can’t keep up with all the extra gas from cars and power plants, so now we have too much carbon dioxide than is good for the planet. The good news is that we can change that. We can make important changes at home, and businesses need to make bigger changes (faster) and government needs to make sure those changes happen.” Check out this excellent short video for school age kids and teens for an inspiring synopsis featuring Greta Thunberg. 

Here are some additional ideas:

Be concrete, not complete You don’t have to overwhelm your child talking about everything at once. You could have a weekly climate night where you watch an informative and inspiring video about climate work, you can offer to talk about this as needed. Create a simple narrative that you can build on and return to…. And focus on specific actions they can take—be collaborative and ask your child what they want to focus on—recycling? Activism? Being the family climate news updater?

Be reassuring: Identify the helpers Always in a crisis it is reassuring to state what may seem obvious: Millions and millions of people care like you do and want to help make changes to address the effects of climate instability. As Fred (Mr.) Rogers’ mother would always tell him-- no matter what crisis is happening—look for the helpers. They are always there. Show your children pictures of the millions of people striking for climate change across the globe. Then they will know they are not alone. Talk about leaders who have made the climate crisis their priority. Remember when you were a child and your parents told you about a war—you may remember feeling scared, but also thinking—how do I stop it? Kids have trouble understanding their place in the universe—remind them of the layers and layers of people working on the climate crisis: in governments, in science, in business, private individuals like them. The goal is to build momentum for real change. They are now a part of that wave. Lots of waves working together makes it happen.

Model living with uncertainty and ambiguity: Thinking in parts Your child may ask you honestly what is going to happen in the future. A cold sweat washes over you and a rush of bad news races through your mind. That’s a whoosh of the fight or flight system, but it is important to stick with what you know. What you know is that we don’t need to have all of the answers to have some. There are things we need to do and millions of people who know that, and other people who know but aren’t doing anything or enough about it. Let your child know that there is always some uncertainty in life, but we can’t let that wait or let that limit us. We can be, as Gandhi said, the change we want to see in the world. At the same time, the climate picture has both good and bad news. Some parts of this we understand, other parts we don’t understand-- yet. Some parts are being addressed, some parts are not being addressed yet. Often in life this is the situation that things aren’t just one way or another, all good or all bad. This is hard, but we can do things that are hard.

Tracking and Creating Momentum: Share discoveries on climate awareness duty There is reason for great optimism, as new information and research emerges by the day. Read what comes into your newsfeed and share it with your kids. Things are changing. We are late to the “party” but now momentum is happening. One example on an institutional level, Climate scientist Professor Drew Shindell sees progress in part because cleaner, renewable energy has shifted from being a backyard DIY project to a thriving industry which “almost ‘half the states in the US are aiming for zero carbon.’”  This is significant!  Talk about things you can do and find out about things other people are doing to address the environmental crisis. Follow Greta Thunberg’s social media feed, or subscribe to sites like World Economic Forum to learn about creative problem solving across the globe for addressing environmental issues like trash, water shortages, and share constructive stories with your kids at dinner. Vertical gardening to take up less space, bacteria that absorb excess plastic, roads made from recycled printing cartridges, bicycles made from bamboo—there’s so much to get excited about. 

You notice that Shakeshack has compostable straws. Saving life of seaturtles burdened with plastic. Or that schools are banning single-use plastic. Or how recycling translates to free passes to use public transportation in Istanbul. Roads made from recycled plastic . Schools and towns banning single use water bottles, because it takes 450-1000 years to biodegrade a bottle.

The issue is getting everyone on board.  The human spirit is creative, resourceful, and always focused on our survival, the issue isn’t so much how we are going to solve these problems—much of the solutions are there, more everyday.

Spread the word Social norming is a thing—and it can be used for good, not just for needing to have the right kind of jeans... Kids can be encouraged to talk with their friends about the kinds of changes they’re making and ask their friends to do the same. The fact is that we’re all going to be making lifestyle changes to adapt, we don’t know what those changes will be, we may face a very different day-to-day life, but human beings are excellent at adapting and we will adapt. If your kids are taking re-usable snack bags to school, or water bottles, or joining a postcard campaign writing to elected officials about climate change, others will get on board.

Curate your news sources and get informed together As a family, decide which news sources are the most reliable and credible for updates on climate-related news, watch and read together. Keep a notebook or a computer file of innovations and concerns. Your kids may want to create powerpoint slides and share with school, their house of worship, or even grandma and grandpa so they can learn and understand the importance of these issues. This is how momentum builds.

Activism: Keeping pressure on businesses and government for systemic change Individual change is important to do, but according to author and climate justice activist, Eileen Flanagan, systemic change is necessary. Parents may join an activism group for coordinated long-term impact. Groups may hold rallies, have a phone calling or post-carding campaign to keep the climate crisis on their agenda. Kids can get involved in these actions and bring their friends along. If you get discouraged, remember the “Greta Effect” citizens made more aware of their carbon impact because of her work, have been reducing their air travel and making other important changes. Support businesses that support positive environmental practices.

Focus on positive impact, rather than threat Just as when you want your kids to be safe at the mall, you don’t emphasize risk, kidnapping, the bad things that happen out there, you talk about the smart actions your kids can take to be safe. Similarly, the goal in talking to kids isn’t to focus on what is out of their control, and dire consequences, but it is to foster a sense of seriousness and stewardship for the planet, and the understanding that they can have an impact by joining organizations like the Youth Climate Strike or  The Sierra Club,  or Greenpeace to support positive climate efforts.

Become climate advocates! If you see a business or individual doing something eco-friendly solutions—thank them! If you see a business or individual using solutions that could be improved—talk to them about it. Hey, we actually stopped using plastic bags—we have reusable silicone bags. Or to businesses- do you know that other businesses stopped using plastic straws—and they have bamboo or compostable ones—we’d like to see that here too. Schools not recycling? Encourage your child to talk to administrators or student council about connecting with local recycling centers.

Seek additional help if these measures aren’t working  If you find that despite your efforts, that your child’s anxiety is escalating rather than resolving and interfering with your child’s eating, sleeping, separating from you, or that they can’t re-set out of worry or depressive mode, it’s time to seek professional help. Cognitive behavior therapy is the treatment of choice for anxiety, parents can learn specific strategies to respond to your children’s distress. Go to adaa.org for a qualified professional in your area.

It’s not easy being a parent, holding in one hand your fears, but in the other hand is your unbreakable conviction being the greatest advocate for your child and their potential to advocate for themselves. This is the promise we can make our children: That we will do all that we can for them and believe in their potential to do for themselves. In the words of one young person, the very bright light of sixteen year old Greta Thunberg: “My message to young people who want to have an impact is to be creative and not underestimate yourself. No one is too small to have an impact and change the world.” Here, here. Let’s all be the change we need to see now.

©2019 Tamar E. Chansky, Ph.D. Want more ideas about taking charge of anxiety delivered to your inbox? Sign up here!