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Your Guide to Talking With Kids of All Ages About Climate Change

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Your Guide to Talking With Kids of All Ages About Climate Change
A child runs through trees left by Extinction Rebellion demonstrators in Westminster on Oct. 8, 2019 in London, England. Peter Summers / Getty Images News / Getty Images

By Lora Shinn

Sex. Drugs. Global extinction. When difficult subjects come up, it's not easy being a parent — especially when that subject is climate change.


But a parent, teacher, or caregiver is often the first and best source of trusted information for children. These are also the people who can help them cope with the Big Feelings that inevitably ensue upon realizing future climate change–related difficulties.

How do you do so without creating an anxious — or perhaps worse, despondent — child?

"Similar to other tough topics like sex and drugs, approach climate change in a developmentally sensitive way," said Wendy Greenspun, a New York–based clinical psychologist engaged in climate issues. By doing so, you set up a baseline for kids to take in more complex information as they grow and become ready to exercise their own voices on behalf of their generation's future.

Introducing the Concepts to Young Children (Ages 0–6)

Inspire environmental wonder in little ones.

Since younger children won't easily understand concepts such as greenhouse gases and ocean acidification, start out with a more straightforward message: Living things grow and thrive when we care for them. Children learn through doing, so try planting seeds or caring for animals as a way to raise young environmentalists.

Noticing, appreciating and celebrating the seasons builds a good foundation for understanding climate change, suggests Ronnie Citron-Fink, a former schoolteacher and now the editorial director of Moms Clean Air Force. On hikes, note how leaves fall from trees in autumn, then sprout again in spring. Point out migrating birds or butterflies that come and go with the seasons.

Recognize small actions demonstrating respect for the planet.

In the short- and long-term, it's beneficial to instill the idea of cleanup responsibility. "It's thinking about the impact you have — if you make a mess where plants and animals live, it can hurt them, and if you clean up, it helps them," Greenspun said. Additionally, though the idea of "sharing" can be challenging for people of any age, young children should be encouraged to share Earth's space with other living things.

Likewise, praise kids when they take initiative. That could be as simple as saying "Thank you for turning off the lights, that's helping the planet." Many of us forget to take this step, said Robin Gurwitch, a professor and clinical psychologist at Duke University Medical Center and the Center for Child and Family Health. "When people most important to us notice our actions," she said, "we're more likely to do again and carry it forward."

Keep their faith in humanity alive (it might help restore yours, too).

"For most children under age 5 or 6, the world is a good place, with people taking care of it," said Mary DeMocker, author of The Parents' Guide to Climate Revolution: 100 Ways to Build a Fossil-Free Future, Raise Empowered Kids, and Still Get a Good Night's Sleep. Remind kids that so many grownups care about kids' futures and about nature, and they are working to protect both. "They need to know the adults are in charge, and they've got this," DeMocker added.

In the same vein, avoid processing your own anxieties while talking to young kids, who easily pick up on our emotions. While important to be open about your climate change concerns, do it out of your kids' earshot, by talking with other parents or banding together with fellow activists in your community.

Teaching the Basics to School-Age Kids (Ages 6–12)

Explain the science, simply.

First, gauge what your kids may already know. If they're familiar with the term climate change, ask them to tell you what they've heard about it. Kids sometimes overhear strange ideas, as we know from some of the lies circulated by climate change deniers in our own government. Acknowledge these false claims for what they are, explaining that some people care more about making money or hanging onto power than about the health of our planet. This may be a tough discussion, but it will help you recognize and validate the outrage that kids may feel at older generations.

Once you've dispelled the myths, you can explain the more abstract idea of climate change by using the blanket analogy. Gurwitch suggests describing it this way: "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."

Emphasize how we're trying to solve the problem.

Pivot to the positive changes we're making immediately after discussing the challenges. "Children can be frightened if they don't know there are adults who care about climate change and are trying to fix problems," noted Greenspun. "It can help battle the sense of helplessness and powerlessness."

Let them know that there are, in fact, millions of adults who are working to protect kids, to answer our own questions about climate change, and to figure out the steps we will take to get to where we need to be, together.

DeMocker suggests offering kid-friendly examples of innovations and solutions, too, including Chinese solar farms designed in the shape of pandas and playgrounds that create energy. Some of these solutions will be relatable to your child — like the Turn It Off campaign students have championed to decrease emissions produced by idling drivers, and the Meatless Mondays initiative sweeping school cafeterias to lessen the climate impact of weekday lunches.

Discuss the power of personal action.

In grade school, children understand cause and effect, so it's a good time to talk about what kids can do to decrease carbon emissions, with your help. Maybe this is biking or carpooling to school, switching out incandescent light bulbs for energy-efficient LEDs, or setting up a home composting system. One note of caution, though: Kids of all ages notice adult inconsistencies. If we talk about the importance of recycling but don't cut single-use items out of our daily routine, we may face some tough questions.

Holding Open Discussions with Preteens (Ages 12–14)

Encourage climate change questions — even if you can't always answer them.

Tweens are driven by scientific curiosity, awareness, and a sense of civic responsibility. When they're seeking answers to big questions, you can embark with them on the hunt. Start teaching children about how to find trusted resources for climate science information — and what disinformation is out there. However, there's no need to follow every web link. "If we're not careful, the information can become overwhelming and swamp us," Gurwitch said, and can lead to a sense of futility or unrealistic expectations.

Engage children's personal strengths in expressing their concerns.

Maybe your middle-schooler loves polar bears or is worried about air pollution. Communicate that small acts to spread awareness can have ripple effects and encourage them to speak out. Some children feel comfortable giving presentations to other kids, others will prefer to work on poster campaigns and group art projects, and others might perform spoken-word poetry. Invite outgoing kids to join a rally with you. DeMocker, whose family lives in Eugene, Oregon, began attending climate protests with her children at this age, joining symbolic kayak blockades of the Columbia River to protest fossil fuel exports. "We modeled simple living, but also civic engagement," she said.

Branching Out With Teens (Ages 15–18)

Don't be afraid to let your teen educate you on climate change.

After all, when it comes to climate change, your teen may be more aware of the latest research on fossil fuels and lighting alternatives than you are."We can all learn from our children and listen to them," Greenspun said. Many of us might react defensively, due to guilt or frustration over not doing more. "We all need to have the humility to step back and look at parts of ourselves we don't necessarily like to look at," she said.

So if your vegetarian teen confronts you over burgers, ask questions and reflect back their thoughts: How did you decide to become a vegetarian? How do you feel to live in a family with meat-eaters? Can you think of some solutions or compromises?

Share news articles with your teens about their peers making a difference.

The Youth Climate Movement is flourishing, and there are many inspiring examples you can point to spotlighting young people standing up for their generation's future. "It's empowering for teens to see that the government and people are taking them seriously," said Citron-Fink. "It shows them that their voices matter."

This will also help encourage teens to channel climate outrage and worry into action and to focus on the things they can have control over. That's important for their mental health, since as Greenspun pointed out, "Obsessing over all the things we don't know and can't do anything about often contributes to stress and anxiety."

Discuss coping strategies — what to do when you feel scared, angry, and overwhelmed.

It might be a breathing practice, talking to a friend or grandparent, or going for a walk. "Review with kids what they've found helpful in the past, when they've gone through something hard," Greenspun said.

On the other hand, some teens might act as if they don't care about climate change. "There might need to be a little more digging to find out what that's really about," Greenspun said. "Underneath the bravado of not caring, there's often a lot of fear and sadness."

It's also important to focus on the good news: If humans are to blame for getting into this crisis, humans can also get us back on track. And the latest reports on climate change all emphasize that we do have solutions in reach. "Reassure kids that the scientists say we still have time to avoid the worst climate impacts," DeMocker said. "Scientists are telling us how to turn this around," she added — and many of us are listening.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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