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When tornado sirens howl, thunder crashes, and lightening forks from dark clouds, we naturally feel a mixture of unease and awe during nature’s dramatic displays. Many families, however, would prefer to skip the show given the emotional havoc storms can wreak on their kids.
DeTonya Childress says her daughter Alexia, 9, becomes frantic during severe weather. Alexia’s fear manifests as tears and quickly progresses to pleas for an immediate retreat to the basement.
“Tornadoes and thunderstorms are the worst,” Childress says. “When Alexia was 3, she decided to sleep in her own bed during a storm. The first crack of thunder led her back to my bedroom, crying all the way. (Now) once in my room, she begins to pray.”
If stormy weather sparks a wave of panic in your child, calm storm preparation, soothing relaxation techniques, and a dash of Weather 101 may help ease her fears.
Create calm before the storm. “The most important thing parents can do is prepare their children for severe weather before it happens,” says Dr. Edward Christophersen, pediatric psychologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. “Parents need to be cognizant that their behavior directly influences their child’s behavior. So, parents should very calmly practice their threatening weather procedures.”
Draw up a severe weather plan for your family. Designate a safe area in your home, preferably a basement, or a bathroom or closet in the middle of the house on the lowest level. Store a storm safety kit in your safe area that includes a battery-powered weather radio, flashlight, blankets, a pair of leather gloves, and safety whistles.
Periodically conduct storm drills. Set up a small table in your safe place for family members to engage in a familiar, relaxing activities such as board or card games. When threatening weather happens, stay calm and follow your safety plan.
Practice relaxation techniques. Play weather sounds for your child while relaxing together, playing a game, eating dinner, or doing homework. Begin with very gentle sounds like a light rain and slowly progress to heavier rain and thunderstorms.
“The rationale here is to get the child to pair or associate weather sounds with frequently occurring activities that are not anxiety provoking,” Christophersen says.
Teach Weather 101. FOX13’s Meteorologist Joey Sulipeck speaks regularly to school groups about the weather, “Most kids are just scared in general of storms. I have found educating them helps allay those fears.”
Sulipeck’s message to kids is simple: Knowledge is power. “The key is making good decisions when tornado warnings take place. That’s really the pinnacle of safety.” So the issue then becomes: what is safe? One of the major threats when a tornado is in the area is high wind speed. That is why most of the advice about tornado safety centers on getting away from windows, and into an interior part of the home, says Sulipeck. Basements are ideal, but since few Mid-Southerners have those, the next best thing is an interior closet or bathroom, one not adjacent to an outside wall. Insulate yourself against the dangers of flying debris that might break through a window or wall.
Another trick is to track the movement of a storm. After lightning flashes, kids can count 1-1-1000, 2-1-1000, and so on until you hear thunder. Every five seconds is one mile since sound travels more slower than light.
When to seek help. Young children commonly experience fears or phobias, but most generally wane as kids grow older. If your child’s phobia lasts more than six months and impairs her ability to participate in daily activities, find an experienced anxiety disorder therapist with supervised clinical experience in treating phobias. The therapist can conduct a standardized anxiety screening. Avoid those who want to start therapy by giving your child an IQ test.