Juhl: You must talk with your children about climate change. Here's how

With open communication and modelling positive actions, you can help transform your kid from an eco-worrier into an eco-warrior.

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They’re going to hear about it somewhere. If you don’t have The Talk with your children, someone else will, and that someone might give them misinformation they’ll carry with them for too long.

We’re not talking about sex this time. We’re talking about climate change. Everyone has questions but no one wants to bring it up — just like with the sex talk.

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The Jasmin Roy Sophie Desmarais Foundation has launched two guides, one focused on young children and the other on teenagers, to help broach and continue the conversation about climate change. The guides were developed by child psychiatrist and Yale University researcher Laelia Benoit.

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Benoit says studies around the world reveal the same thing: Around 70 per cent of adults are worried about climate change; among young people, 75 to 80 per cent express climate anxiety. She says those numbers are probably linked to an increasing awareness of environmental issues and that people are worried an appropriate amount.

For parents, modelling sustainable behaviour is not enough. Benoit’s research found that although many people are taking concrete actions to reduce their carbon footprints, their children don’t always realize it. Children told her they didn’t think their parents were interested in climate change, so Benoit dug deeper.

“A kid would say, ‘Oh yeah, my parents turned vegan two years.’ I asked them why. They said, ‘I think it’s just because they like vegetables’.”  She spoke with a child whose parents had purchased an electric vehicle, but “I think it’s because the other car was too old.” Children will always try to bridge the gaps to find the logical answer to their parents’ behaviours.

Those are the moments that teach younger children that small, individual actions like recycling, planting trees or changing their diet can have meaning, especially if parents focus on positive messages.

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“Instead of saying, ‘We don’t use plastic because it’s going to kill all the fish,’ say, ‘We try not to use plastic — to protect the fish.’ Choosing between ‘protect’ or ‘destroy’ can either trigger fear and anxiety or trigger enthusiasm.”

Benoit found that teenagers’ emotions turned to anger, disappointment and frustration when they felt no one around them cared. Talking about climate change will not depress them, Benoit says. The opposite is true: If they don’t ask questions, they can be worried in silence. They need guidance, yet are old enough that they can take on projects that have a greater impact.

“It doesn’t mean they have to be a politician,” Benoit says. “Collective action is something they can work on with the people around them. It could be working with neighbours to insulate an entire building, which is better than only reducing your own heating. It can be going to school and working with everyone to have solar panels installed on the roof. It can be talking with their mayor about adding more bike lanes.

“They get to know people who care, just as they do, and they are not isolated any more. They feel empowered.”

The climate change guides can be found at fondationjasminroy.com.

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