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Scary Weather Demystified: How to help your kids cope with their fears

Category: Parents & Kids Magazine June 2011 Issue

 

Parents Kids Family Mississippi Help kids cope with bad weather  

On a recent family trip, several thunderstorms rolled through town, accompanied by loud claps of thunder and strong winds that ripped limbs from trees and caused the power to flicker.

My six-year-old niece, Sally, started to cry. "When will the storm be over?" she whimpered.

In her fear of severe weather, Sally is not alone.

According to Dr. Timothy Culbert, medical director for the integrative medicine program at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, weather anxiety is nearly universal in young children."Studies show fear of personal harm associated with severe weather is quite common in kids, especially grades two through twelve," he notes on his website, "and it makes the top- twenty list of things kids worry about."

Lena Albright, mother of four, has experienced this unease first hand. "Because we live in the Midwest, tornadoes are my kids' biggest fear," she says. Like thousands of parents across the country who deal with weather in all forms, from the simple boom of a thunderstorm to the more devastating winds of a hurricane, Albright is looking for the best way to talk to her children about their concerns. "It would be helpful to know how to talk about it in a non-threatening way."

So how can parents help soothe their children's fears of scary storms?
 

Have a plan in place before the storm

Take steps before severe weather strikes. "Kids can learn to manage weather-related fears," explains Dr. Culbert. By practicing certain self-care skills when things are calm and controlled, children can build their confidence and cope more positively with their feelings. Common self-care skills include relaxation breathing, positive self-talk, and even aromatherapy.

Having a family emergency plan can also help parents talk to their kids about what to do during a natural disaster and is strongly recommended by a number of organizations, such as FEMA and the Red Cross. They suggest that your kids help put together a weather kit to stash in the basement or closet. Include a board game, snacks, scented candles, relaxing music CDs, and some comfy blankets and pillows.

Help children express their fears

Experts also suggest that parents let their kids share their worries. "The more parents encourage their children to talk about what's bothering them, the better children will feel," says Professor John Defrain, a cooperative extension specialist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

He recommends that parents start discussing weather with children right away: when a storm is on the way, after it has passed, and time and time again afterwards. "Talking about a highly charged emotional experience only once is not enough--not for a child or an adult. It takes time to process experiences in life. It's how all of us make sense out of things as human beings."

Defrain points out that it's important to let your children see that severe weather is distressing to adults, too. Parents should talk about their feelings openly and honestly, admitting that storms can be very frightening but promising that they will always do their best to keep their children safe.

Educate kids about the facts

Education can help, as well. Spend an afternoon reading books about weather, invite a local meteorologist to your child's school, or visit a museum that showcases an exhibit about the natural world. Knowledge is power. By researching the facts and helping children understand the reality of how storms work, parents can give them the tools to differentiate between real and perceived threats.

Albright agrees. "I recently took my kids to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago where they had a 'Science Storms' exhibit going on that explains and details extreme storms," she says. "It was really helpful for my younger kids to see the workings of tornadoes since they are terrified of them."

Pay attention, however, if a child just doesn't seem to get over her apprehension. If her concerns significantly interfere with day-to-day activities, or if she exhibits signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), contact your pediatrician for advice. Symptoms of more significant problems include becoming quiet or withdrawn; reverting to earlier developmental behaviors (such as sucking a thumb or wetting the bed); showing signs of illness (such as nausea, headache, vomiting, or fever); and having trouble eating or sleeping.

Fortunately, my niece, Sally, has now adjusted to severe weather and even shows a healthy interest in science and math. In fact, many meteorologists point to childhood experiences as a trigger for their interest in learning about weather, and this should give parents hope that their kids can eventually overcome their fears.


Activities That Can Help Children Cope

• Encourage children to talk to grandparents and tape record or write down their storm-related stories. If adults are afraid, then it's okay for children to be afraid, too.

• Use toys such as fire trucks, ambulances, building blocks, puppets, and dolls that encourage play reenactment of children's experiences and observations. Or let children do a mural on long paper or draw pictures about the storm, focusing on what happened in their house or neighborhood when severe weather hit.

• Read books about severe weather, and answer any questions that come up.  Better yet, have kids help you find the answers online. Good book choices include Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco, Night of the Twisters by Ivy Ruckman, Wild Weather: Lightning by Lorraine Jean Hopping, Winter Thunder by Mari Sandoz, The Schoolchildren's Blizzard by Marty Rhodes Figley, or Storms by Susan Canizares and Betsey Chessen.

• For older kids concerned about weather, visit one of several interactive websites that provide information, activities, and games that teach them about weather. Visit "Web Weather for Kids" athttp://eo.ucar.edu/webweather/thunderhome.html, "Weather Wiz Kids" athttp://www.weatherwizkids.com/weather-clouds.htm, or "NOAA's Playtime for Kids" athttp://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/reachout/kidspage.shtml.

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