Chapter 10: Talking to Students About Climate Emotions

THIS PAGE DEALS WITH THE QUESTION: HOW DO WE TALK TO OUR STUDENTS ABOUT THE EMOTIONS THAT COME WITH A CHANGING CLIMATE? There has been research by child psychologists, public communications specialists, researchers who study the nature of anxiety and emotional well-being, and educational researchers. While they have learned a great deal about emotions and coping, there is still no definitive list of best practices for how we talk with children under our care in schools or informal educational settings. The recommendations below are based on the most credible sources available and translated for use in the places we work.

First of all, what age group will you be working with?

Talking with children explicitly about climate change is very important, whether you are a parent or teacher, so let’s break up this responsibility into manageable chunks. First, a bit about developmental differences in how children think about the environment (ideas and selected text from Talk Climate Group, Emma Pattee, Leslie Davenport, see below)

Under 6 Years Old This is too young to directly understand climate change, but many of us are already doing the most important thing for pre-schoolers, which is building an understanding of how we see and treat each other and our world in a just and equitable society. As they develop their sense of self and notice differences, we can nurture a culture of care by supporting them with practicing consent and acknowledging, honoring, and valuing human and cultural diversity. We can help them cultivate a love of nature through learning about seasons, plant cycles, beauty, play, and teaching the basic responsibility of caring for life. De-center the human being and help them understand they are connected to the web of life. This sets the stage for children to grow into good environmental stewards.

Sample phrases:

  • “The planet is our home, so we have to take care of it so that it’s a safe place to live.”
  • “People make pollution that goes into the air and can act like a blanket, and that blanket heats the planet and that causes problems.”
  • “Climate change is a big problem, but there’s a lot of people working together to solve it.”

Ages 7-12 Around age eight, children become natural scientists, and curious about how and why things happen in the world. This is a great time to introduce concepts and ideas, give space to experiment, be in nature, and learn about cause and effect. Elementary-aged and middle school students also begin to understand the bigger climate picture as they gain information, and come to recognize fairness in relationship to people, places, and things. So before you start talking with them about climate change ideas, ask what your kids already know.

Start naming feelings and practicing emotional resilience. It’s normal to feel big emotions when you learn about the world being in crisis, but children are not equipped to process those feelings. Elementary-aged youth are sensitive to and focused on fairness and injustice. They notice and question the disconnect between what people say and what they do; and, between their experiences and others in their communities. We get to support young people with space and language to name the differences they see, how and why they are, as well as, supporting them with what they can do about fairness and injustices. It helps to toggle back and forth between distressing climate news (including about injustice) and using strategies for self-regulating emotional reactions, especially by considering what solutions are out there and what action we can take.

Starting in early elementary school, focus on opportunities to engage in shared action and highlight stories of climate justice and recovery. Tell stories of change makers, especially those who speak truth to power and embody a culture of care. Invite creativity and natural problem solving abilities into identifying actions to take at home, school, and in community. Use movement, art, music, play, and storytelling to help imagine and create a healthier and more just world together.

Sample Phrases:

  • “What have you been hearing about climate change? Do your friends talk about it?”
  • “What kind of emotions are you feeling? Can you name them? Can I share with you some ways to soothe yourself when you’re feeling really overwhelmed with emotion?”
  • “Would you be interested in getting involved with me to take some action—we can explore options together?”

Ages 13+ Conversations with students around the climate crisis may shift dramatically. High school is a natural time to think about the future. There is a sense that their futures have been hijacked by the destruction happening now.

Children at this age have easy access to their own information, so you might want to focus more on listening and asking questions, being honest about your own feelings and making a commitment to keeping the conversation going with trustworthy, reliable sources of information.

They are developing their moral clarity about systemic social, economic, and political injustice, and many are demanding a just, equitable, and livable world. We can help build on teens’ desire to take action and to become independent leaders who are driving their own climate actions. As adults our job is to say ‘yes’ and find ways to support their ideas.Young people are motivated by peer social interactions and often find satisfaction engaging in projects and actions where they can make a difference together. Support them in envisioning the future they want and bringing climate action into their existing groups and activities such as community centers, sports, arts, music, youth faith groups, or academic clubs.

While taking climate action is often a protective factor for mental well-being, adolescents appear to be more vulnerable to climate related anxiety, depression, substance use, and suicidal thinking than younger children. Building a healthy, adaptive relationship with the facts of our changing climate is a required skill for adulthood in this era. It’s important that we model for and support the next generation as they embrace the uncertainty of our possible futures. Adults should help connect teens who are exhibiting concerning changes in mood, behavior, or functioning to mental health supports.

Sample Phrases:

  • “I know this is big and overwhelming, but I also really believe there’s so much we can do to rise to the challenge and make a difference.”
  • “I don’t have all the answers, and I’m learning about this the same as you are, but I know it’s important that we keep talking, and I’m really open to whatever you’re feeling or thinking.”
  • “What would feel supportive? Do you want help learning more, or help getting involved, or just having me be a person you can share your feelings with and know I won’t judge you or try to fix it?

It’s easy to feel like you have to have all the answers or be able to make your child feel better when they’re upset. That’s why talking about the climate crisis can be especially difficult for parents (and teachers), and it can be tempting to change the subject or avoid talking about it altogether. But keep this in mind: children don’t need you to have answers or solve their feelings. They just need you to show up, ask questions, and listen to the answers.

I draw the ideas and suggestions above from Climate Conversations: Connecting with Young People by the Talk Climate Group and from an article in Wired by Emma Pattee, Oct. 31, 2021—How to Talk to Children About Climate Change. Her recommendations are based on research from: Leslie Davenport, a therapist and the author of a workbook to help kids process climate change, called All the Feelings Under the Sun: How to Deal With Climate Change.

Conversation and action resources for 3 different situations

Option 1. ONE CONVERSATION. If you are seeking to have one conversation about coping with emotions at the start of the school year or at the start of a unit on climate change, here’s a PowerPoint to support discussions about climate emotions and well-being. It leaves the door open for you to follow up with further conversations (as described in next option below).

Option 2. SERIES OF CONVERSATIONS. If you want a more complete series of discussions about climate emotions, here’s an excellent resource from Force of Nature—a four module set of teacher and student materials, along with videos [recommended for ages 12 and up, but could be modified for younger students]. The videos also can be used as part of the “one conversation” strategy described above. The modules are consistent with research on what kinds of conversations to have and how to support them; they are: 1) What is Climate Anxiety? 2) Can we “fix” Climate Anxiety? How do we cope with it? 3) How can we channel our Climate Anxiety into action? 4) Can we envision a better future?

Option 3. TALK + TRUST-BUILDING + ACTION. If you want a variety of talk, trust-building and action strategies that are more comprehensive and take place over the course of the school year, below is a graphic that describes the many support strategies (on lower half of graphic). Click on it for a hi-res version. Here are some of the suggestions:

Listen (all year). Teachers need to listen to young people, to not be afraid of having them express their worries.

Name emotions (during day 1 or day 2 as you frame course/unit, with “check-ins” throughout year or unit). Teachers should help students express and unpack their emotions articulately. Provide options that name components of anxiety like grief, helplessness, anger, even hope. There are tools out these for this purpose—read more before trying this.

Focus on solutions and a desirable future (big theme, emphasize throughout year and regularly). Students think that adults mainly talk about the future in a ‘gloom and doom’ way, as educators, we can turn that framing on its head and focus as much on solutions—strategies for regeneration and resilience—as we do on the challenges. Related to this is helping student imagine a desirable future—what would that look like? As they learn more about solutions, you can do this imaginative work together, sometimes using climate fiction writing for some support.

Deal with uncertainty (when the opportunity arises for you, figure out what those may be). Educators can challenge tendencies towards black-and-white thinking (about the reality of climate change, the efficacy of doing small scale action to fight it, whether we know what the future will be like) by presenting alternative, more constructive, ways of dealing with uncertainty. Start with something concrete like predictions for sea level rise. Why is there such a range that could come to pass as opposed to a single number (50 millimeters)? Then try dealing with questions like “What will the year 2050 look like? Why might our images in this classroom be quite different from one another?”

Trust (started on day 1, and repeated periodically throughout year). The importance of trust implies that we should openly share our own commitments as professionals to fighting climate change. Involve other social actors (a few times during the year). The importance of trust also implies that we should invite students to meet with adults who work in different ways with climate change, such as scientists, environmental specialists, politicians and business people. In this way, the common cynical view of the adult world can be challenged.

Collective action and well-being (could be a conversation held during every unit). It is important to help young people find ways to influence the climate dilemma both as consumers and citizens, in everyday life and especially through collective, larger-scale action.

Below is a graphic that describes the many of the support strategies described above (on lower half of graphic). Click on it for a hi-res version.

Option 4. ACTION STRATEGIES LINKED TO GOALS. If you want another way to look at action strategies as they are linked to specific goals for your students, the graphic below describes the many such recommendations. Click on it for a hi-res version.

Important differences in how children cope

Young people deal with climate emotions actively by using various coping strategies. Because these coping strategies differ with respect to whether or not they promote well-being and engagement, those of us involved in supporting youth and their development as earth stewards need to shift our focus from young people’s worries to the ways that young people cope with these worries. Doing so will help prevent the use of less constructive coping strategies and promote the use of more constructive ones (Maria Ojala, Eco-Anxiety, RSA Journal, 164, #4, 2019, pp. 10-15).

Three less productive ways of coping

Coping strategy #1: De-emphasizing. Student denies the existence of the problem or use a kind of ‘here and now’ thinking; not saying that the problem does not exist, but perceiving it as one that does not concern them, instead viewing it as an issue that only affects people in faraway countries and future generations.

Coping strategy #2: Emotion-based. Student tries to get rid of or alleviate these emotions by distancing themselves from negative emotions via distraction, busying themselves with other activities, or through avoidance, evading hearing about climate change by, for instance, not listening when teachers talk about the topic. Less common is to seek social support; for example, talking with parents and friends about their worries. This attitude could lead to a spiral of silence, with people thinking that nobody cares because so few give voice to their worries, which makes people even more reluctant to talk about their own emotions.

Coping strategy #3: Problem-focused strategies. Students search for information about what they can do, talk to others, make plans and take concrete steps. For example, they may stop eating meat, or encourage others to care about climate issues. These strategies are linked to a feeling that the individual can have a positive influence on the problem. However, in some studies, these ways of coping were associated with low well-being. This is perhaps because these strategies are about what the individual can do, not about collective engagement, and thus put a heavy burden on a young person’s shoulders. When stressors are relatively uncontrollable, as societal problems often are for the individual, problem-focused coping can create more distress.

A more productive fourth alternative, linked to well-being

Coping strategy #4: Meaning-focused strategies. Young people use two main meaning-focused strategies when confronting climate change. One is positive re- appraisal, which is about acknowledging the seriousness of the climate problem, but also being able to switch perspectives and see positive trends, no matter how small. These could be that our knowledge about climate change problems and solutions has grown a lot, or that when the negative consequences become more visible in the West we will finally take this problem seriously. Another meaning-focused strategy involves trust. Many young people still trust particular societal actors, such as scientists, workers in environmental organizations, and teachers. To have faith that these other, more powerful actors will also do their part can help young people feel that their own engagement matters. Research shows that, more broadly, meaning-focused coping is associated with engagement and well-being.

This poster is from adds important recommendations that combine emotions with how you might address the history of climate change and the roles of racism and colonization.

For more about dealing with students’ emotions and climate anxiety in particular. I recommend these: The #TalkingClimate Handbook comes out Climate KIC, supported by the European Union. The Let’s Talk Climate document comes from the Nature Conservancy. One of the most widely-read researchers has published this synthesis on climate anxiety: Anxiety, Worry, and Grief in a Time of Environmental and Climate Crisis: A Narrative Review. The Secret of Talking About Climate Change is an animated video is about how to talk with others, it comes from the United Nations.

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