“We’re going to be a family forever,” my daughter observed with delight, holding my hand and my fiance’s hand together. She thought for a moment and then added, “The world– is it going to be here forever?” It was a sobering question from a four-year-old, but one that deserved an answer. Our family does not believe in a Biblical apocalypse, so I felt that it was important to give my daughter straight, rational responses to her question– no matter how unpleasant.
Here are some tips for discussing the end of the world with your children from a non-religious perspective.
1. Be sensitive. This conversation is likely to be one of the most formative conversations you will have with your child– right along with your discussions about death, love, and morality. A cold discussion about the world’s end could cause the situation to be far scarier to your child, and a complete “don’t worry about it” comes across as flippant. Stop what you’re doing and look your child in the eye to discuss this sensitive and serious issue.
2. Be rational. Unless you believe in an apocalypse predicted by religious prophecy– which is an entirely different discussion that I’m not qualified to guide– turn to science for the answers your child seeks. Discuss the many hypotheses about how the world might end, including a “big freeze,” asteroid collision, supervolcano eruptions, significant global warming, and nuclear holocaust. Explain them from a scientific perspective rather than a position of panicked fear. The discussion will be both educational and very enlightening.
3. Let your child know that the end of the world is a long, long way away. My daughter asked if it will hurt when the world ends, and if I’ll be there to hold her when it happens. I gently explained that the end of the world won’t come until she has had a very long, happy life, and that she won’t feel it when the world ends, because she’ll already be dead. It is true that there’s a possibility that the world might end in my daughter’s lifetime, but children can’t grasp probability. To ease your kids’ anxiety, tell them with certainty that the end of the world is in the unimaginably distant future.
4. Encourage your kids to be proactive. A talk about an apocalypse fueled by anthropogenic global warming spurred another important discussion: the role of an individual in “saving the world.” I talked to my daughter about why we strive to make responsible choices with regard to the environment, and explained that she can help push the end of the world even further into the future by doing her part. The idea, to her, was exhilarating and amazing. Use this discussion as a time to talk about how your kids themselves can help to prevent the end of the world.
5. Be hopeful. “But will there be flowers left anywhere in the universe? Or butterflies, or love?” my daughter asked, her lower lip protruding. I took the time to tell her about dreams for the future of life itself: of people terraforming other planets, or of life developing independently elsewhere. I used words to paint a vivid image of a terraformed Mars, where the descendants of humanity lived in harmony with a futuristic natural world. I also talked about how endless the universe is, and the extremely high probability that we are not alone in it. Even a discussion about the end of the world can prove itself to be uplifting and encouraging for your child.
If your child develops an intense preoccupation with the idea of the end of the world, continue to provide compassionate, loving comfort from this fear. If it continues to the point that it becomes disruptive or disabling for your child’s social life, academic success, or emotional well-being, it could be advantageous to consult a therapist about your child’s anxiety. Otherwise, consider your child’s curiosity about the end of the world to be a normal and natural part of his development.