Talking About Climate Change: in conversation with Caroline Hickman

Education and communication go hand in hand. So when it comes to the changing climate and the environment crisis, let’s not leave our children and young people to struggle with these issues on their own. Let’s talk to them openly, open up debate, and allow them to grow into informed individuals who will feel in charge of their own futures and will have the ability to keep governments accountable. Emma Clegg talks to climate pscychotherapist Caroline Hickman about why eco needs to be at the heart of conversations with our children.

Caroline Hickman does not mince words. “Talking to me is not always comfortable, so I apologise for that,” she says. “But even if we went to zero carbon emissions tomorrow, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere means that sea levels will continue to rise, glaciers will melt, and we will get increased heat and wildfires. It’s too late for Bangladesh, too late for the Maldives, too late for the low-lying Pacific nations. They will go underwater. We can’t reverse what we’ve done. That is the reality.”

This reality feels too much. And as adults we seem to be able to wriggle out of its stark glare. “Adults manage to avoid thinking about these truths as a natural defence mechanism, but children do not have that ability. They cannot shut that down in the way that adults can,” says Caroline. Out-and-out climate deniers use a heightened form of this defence, running out phrases like, ‘There’s no consensus among scientists that climate change is real.’ And this is a defence, because there is nearly 100% agreement among scientists about the long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. And the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) says that global warming is accelerating, and will reach 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels around 2030, a full decade earlier than previously forecast.

Above image: Greta Thunberg speaking in Berlin in September 2021 | | Photograph by Stefan Müller

For other adults who typically engage regularly with the news, are environmentally and ecologically aware, do their recycling, and understand that climate change is a threat, it can be all too easy to bury the urgency of this knowledge, not to think about it too much. And more often than not, this results in adults avoiding talking to their children about climate change and the threats it poses to our life on Earth and our children’s futures – we don’t want to stress them out, after all. It protects us from the uncomfortable reality.

But, despite this, the reverse is happening. Children and young people are anxious about climate change. “People accuse me of being doom-mongering and scaring people, but I don’t think explaining the reality is scaring people. I think scaring people is saying ‘it will be alright’ and ‘technology will save us’. That is scary because it’s a lie,” says Caroline. “I’m working with children, teenagers and adults who are so enraged by this lying that it is causing them to feel despair. Because they are online, informed and knowledgeable. A 19-year-old said to me recently, ‘Why are people not running round the streets screaming? Tell me how to live in this world that tells me not to worry’.”

Caroline, who trained as a psychotherapist, specialises in climate psychotherapy. Her individual psychotherapy work is focused on adults and young people, helping them deal with eco-anxiety. A PhD candidate in Education at the University of Bath, she also researches children and young people’s relationships with nature and feelings about the climate and ecological crisis, and is on the Executive Committee of the Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA), a group contributing specialist psychological knowledge to the area of the climate and ecological crisis.

Caroline recently undertook research with Dr Liz Marks based on a survey published in December 2021. This was a large-scale investigation of climate anxiety in children and young people globally and its relationship with perceived government response. This saw 10,000 children and young people (aged 16–25 years) surveyed in 10 countries (Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, the UK and the USA) with 1000 participants per country. Respondents across all countries were worried about climate change (59% were very or extremely worried and 84% were at least moderately worried). Many reported a high number of negative thoughts about climate change, with 75% saying they think the future is frightening and 83% saying they think people have failed to take care of the planet. Respondents rated governmental responses and reported greater feelings of betrayal than of reassurance.

“Children need to have these issues included in everyday conversations. When we don’t talk to children, we leave them with their fantasies”

So what is Caroline’s direct experience of climate anxiety when talking to children and young people? She tells me about one visit she made to a father and nine-year old son. “I just got the child talking about the world and how he thinks about his future. Within minutes this child was saying to me, ‘Oh, climate change is like a crocodile crawling across the face of the earth, and it’s destroying everything.’

“This father has a good relationship with his son. The father was in the room, and he was totally shocked. And he said to the child afterwards, ‘How long have you thought about this?’ and he said, ‘Oh, two years’.”

Caroline explains, “What I say to children is, ‘Look, you are feeling the climate anxiety because you care, and you shouldn’t feel embarrassed about that, you should feel proud’. It is an emotionally healthy response to feel despair, rage, hopelessness, even to feel suicidal, but what is causing the trauma and distress is not the environmental problems. It’s adults and people in power failing to act; it’s governments failing to act, oil companies lying to us. That’s what causes the distress. That is a betrayal. This is not a mental illness that has struck our young population – it’s a moral injury. It’s people failing to do what is right.”

Greta Thunberg has become a defiant spokesperson for young people and climate change, challenging world leaders to take immediate action for climate change mitigation. Caroline says, “Greta speaks with clarity and she is a brilliant role model for engaging other young people. She can be very difficult for adults, and there have been some awful backlashes against her. But that’s because adults don’t like the clarity. They don’t like the feelings of shame and guilt that they can feel when she speaks.”

Inspired by Greta, children and young people are mobilising around justice and unfairness in the world. “They see the systemic nature of this and they feel the pain and the loss on behalf of the child in Africa or Australia, and the koala bears and the polar bears. They are connected emotionally with the unfairness.”

Caroline believes that children’s awareness of the climate crisis is an awakening process. “Children see it in school, they hear about it from their peers, they watch it on television with programmes like Planet Earth II, and they wake up to the issues. Sometimes individuals can go back to sleep and sometimes they can’t. It depends on how developed your moral conscience is. It depends how much you care.”

“Climate change is like a crocodile crawling across the face of the earth, and it’s destroying everything”

She continues, “We need to offer a way of shaping a child’s awareness so they learn how to absorb and assimilate the information that is all around them. I always say to children that I’m not going to try and get rid of their climate anxiety, because it’s an emotionally healthy response. I teach them how to navigate it, so it’s neither too much or too little. That’s what we all need – we need to feel the anxiety but we don’t want to be overwhelmed by it.”

Very young children can be affected, too. “I’m a big believer in talking to children young. You wouldn’t dream of not talking to your five-year-old about why mummy and daddy are getting divorced; you wouldn’t let your child’s hamster die and not talk to them about it. Climate change is no different. Children need to have these issues included in ordinary, everyday conversations. When we don’t talk to children, we leave them with their fantasies. It doesn’t need to be made big and scary. In fact it gets bigger and scarier if we don’t talk to them. So we need to have these conversations over the breakfast table. You just make it normal and then it doesn’t overwhelm them.”

Parents shouldn’t feel unqualified, because it’s really just a process of sharing information. “Parents have to be willing to do this, but they don’t have to be skilled. They have to be willing to say, ‘maybe we don’t have all the answers but let’s go and find out together’.” Plastics, recycling, ice melt, temperature rises, the effect on individual animal species, a story in a newspaper, all provide a way of focusing a discussion. “So you don’t have to be an expert, just to regulate your own emotion and be a bit brave. What children need is to be supported and heard and understood. They don’t need parents to have all the answers.

“The way I engage any children around climate change, especially young children, is through stories. So, for example, I’ll ask children to tell me their favourite animal. And then I’ll say ‘Let’s talk about how climate change might be affecting that animal. That’s because asking them how it’s affecting people is too direct and scary. By distancing it slightly, they can think about how climate change is going to affect polar bears. It makes it digestible and tolerable.”

In the school environment, children learn about aspects of the environment and climate change, but it is categorised within certain subjects, rather than as an organic theme that affects everyone and everything. “Schools are required to include climate change and the environment in the curriculum, but it is usually taught in geography or science classes, where what is taught is facts.” A range of new measures in UK schools has been announced, to be in place by 2023, so that children will be taught about the importance of conserving and protecting our planet as well as about nature and their impact on the world around them. But Caroline is looking for more: “Schools are not given guidance on delivering support around the emotions. This needs to be included in art classes and English classes, and across the whole curriculum, so children have the space to emotionally reflect on this.

“Many schools are doing a great job of trying to address this. And they have the opportunity to use the support of organisations and groups like Teach the Future, who are lobbying for resources and for climate change to be embedded in the curriculum. I’ve done creative workshops and research projects in schools with children, so it’s about developing a culture that supports teachers, but also finds ways to have these conversations in school.”

Caroline recently ran a day workshop in a school that was focused on ecological living and mindfulness. “The children took part in wild swimming, growing vegetables, building bug hotels, and they had a one hour talk and workshop with me about climate anxiety. The whole school, with all the teachers and all the pupils, was involved for the whole day.

“It’s always about the practical and the emotional, the internal and external. I know that schools are stretched, but we (the CPA) will run workshops and give talks in schools – schools just have to ask us. I’ve also run a lot of workshops for teachers, and to do that you also have to support teachers about how they feel about the issues. When it comes to climate distress we are all struggling with it – nobody is exempt.”

So don’t hide behind the idea that ‘it will all be okay’; instead, come out, be honest, and talk about what is happening with your children, for their health, and for their futures.

What can I do?

• As a parent, talk regularly to your children about climate change and the environment. Don’t protect them from the reality – involve them.
• Don’t make assumptions. Ask open questions to find out what a child knows.
• If a child expresses an interest in something, such as the health of our rainforests, offer to find out more together.
• Don’t be afraid to explore the serious issues and discuss what they mean. Don’t dismiss a child’s fears and tell them everything will be okay, as this may make them feel you’re not listening.
• Create hope in your conversations, so talk about the politicians, celebrities, individuals, organisations and groups who feel strongly about the issues and the action they are taking. Your children might want to get involved, or go to a local event with you.
• Young children find it easier to explain how they feel if they talk about an animal or a particular part of the world, otherwise it can be overwhelming.
• As a family, make changes to how you travel, what you eat and what you buy to reduce your carbon footprint. Then your children will feel that you are making a difference and they have choices about how they interact with the world.
• As a teacher you can ask the Climate Psychology Alliance team to visit your school for a workshop or a talk. The CPA also run workshops for teachers.

There is an extensive network of support and advice for children, young people, parents and teachers about climate change, dealing with anxiety, and communicating the issues. Here is a small selection:

Teach the Future – an inclusive campaign by secondary and tertiary students to improve education on the climate emergency and ecological crisis;

Green Schools Project – providing resources and support to schools to engage them in environmental projects;

Action for Conservation – bringing nature into the lives of young people and empowering them to protect the natural world;

Force of Nature – encourages young people to turn their eco-anxiety into agency;

Wicked Weather Watch – aims to provide clarity for young people and teachers about climate change and global warming;

People and Planet – a student network campaigning for social and environmental justice; These and other resources can be found on the Climate Psychology Alliance website:

Featured image: School Strike for Climate Action in 2018