As environmentally aware parents, we want to educate our children about environmental issues, and bring them up to consider their own impact on the environment. We want our children to learn to behave in a responsible fashion, making decisions based not only on their own needs and wants but also considering the impact on the natural world around them.
However, it is important to be careful about how you communicate with your children regarding environmental issues. It can be terrifying for a young child to learn about global warming, for example. Children’s vivid imaginations can overwhelm them, and they can easily translate, for example, an increased risk of flooding to the thought that there is an imminent risk that their own home may be swept away and their whole family killed. That kind of terrorized thinking can be extremely damaging for a young child’s emotional development, and is certainly not conducive to raising a happy, responsible child.
Psychologists have coined a new term, “eco-anxiety” to describe excessive anxiety and distress due to worries over environmental problems. Some adults experience panic attacks, sleeplessness and other anxiety related symptoms due to their belief of impending world wide doom. This is neither helpful nor conducive to an attitude that fosters positive action. Imagine how much more frightening this kind of thinking can be for a young child.
In times of war, children can be traumatized by the constant presence of danger, brought home to them in the form of attack drills or bomb scares. However, at least during wartime children are never led to believe that they themselves are somehow responsible for the possibility of enemy attacks. This is why in some ways the threat of environmental catastrophe is worse: children may easily internalize the idea that not only is their world in danger of imminent destruction but this may be their own fault!
Letting children know that they can help the environment by taking simple measures such as switching lights off when they leave a room, not creating unnecessary waste and walking or cycling instead of being driven is a good idea – but always be careful to phrase such suggestions positively. Don’t ever threaten a child by saying that he’s contributing to global warming if he forgets to do one of these things.
Keep Environmental Issues Discussions Age Appropriate
When you talk to your children about environmental issues, bear in mind their age, maturity and sensitivity. For children under the age of about seven, you should be especially careful not to share too much detailed information about the potential effects of environmental problems. For example, if your child loves animals, he could be very traumatized by the knowledge that polar bears are losing their habitat and even drowning because of global warming. Be aware of this and provide reassurance to counter levels of fear and guilt that could be too disturbing.
School Age Children
At school age, many children want more detailed information on environmental issues. Be sure to share this information in a positive way, emphasizing what your child and your family can do to help. Do not dwell excessively on potential global catastrophes, and if your child becomes alarmed or anxious provide plenty of reassurance. It is important to tell your child that the government, authorities and adults are tackling these issues and that they can help, but are not responsible for “doing it all”. A child should never feel that the fate of the world rests on his shoulders!
Teenagers and the Environment
Teenagers can be vociferous and effective spokespeople for the environment. At this age, you should be able to communicate openly and honestly with your teenager regarding environmental issues. Encourage them to investigate issues for themselves and start to develop their own viewpoints and ideas.
At this age your child may also start to have political opinions, and have a broader appreciation of the role of government and corporations in providing solutions to environmental issues. You can encourage such wider thinking by sourcing information from local corporations and “green” political parties.
Your Child, Your Family, Your World
Talking with your child about environmental issues can be a very positive thing to do; just be sure that you are doing so with due consideration for how much information they are able to emotionally cope with at any particular age.
Remember to focus on the positive steps that your child can realistically take to help. Keep your instructions and suggestions simple for young children, and never let them think that environmental problems are their fault.
Tackling global warming and other important environmental issues can only be done by cooperative efforts, so don’t let your child feel responsible for more than he can do. Most importantly of all, be sure that the adults in your family are setting a positive example.