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How to weather children's storm anxiety
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How to weather children's storm anxiety

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Experts say it’s important for parents and caregivers to talk with children about severe weather and make a plan to keep their family safe.

It’s common for children to be afraid of storms. Storms can be scary. For children who are particularly sensitive to noise or light, thunder and lightning can be particularly challenging. For some children with a significant fear of storms, the problem comes not so much from a storm itself, but from the anticipation of a storm, resulting in ongoing stress and anxiety.

Kids may be hesitant to leave the house if they think they may get caught in a storm and may try to avoid outdoor activities. This stress can get in the way of other aspects of their lives, such as schoolwork, because the fear makes it hard for them to concentrate. It can be wearing on parents, too, as children look for constant reassurance that there is not going to be a storm.

Storm anxiety

There are several things you can try to ease your child’s fear of bad weather.

Make severe weather plans

For some children, it is comforting to know the plan for staying safe in a storm. Talk to your child about what your family will do during a storm — even if you are outdoors or away from home. Reassure them that you will do whatever you can to keep them safe.

Learn more about storms

Books, websites or other resources that discuss the science of weather are a good place for your child to learn more. Understanding what causes a storm can help ease some children’s anxiety about when a storm may happen. Just be careful that the sources you choose focus on the storms themselves, rather than dwelling on the destruction they may cause.

Reinforce their confidence

Try to help your child decrease their “safety behaviors.” These are the things they do that make them feel a little better but don’t really do anything to keep them safe, including checking the forecast or asking about heading to shelter. When kids rely on these behaviors, it prevents them from learning that they can handle uncertainty. As these behaviors decrease, children come to see that they can manage not knowing exactly what’s going to happen, and things often turn out fine.

As you work through ways to help your child handle their fear, remember that it is important to be supportive and encouraging. Never punish or belittle a child for being afraid.

Visit a therapist

If the fear continues despite your attempts, gets worse or becomes distressing to you as a parent, then it is time to seek professional help.

The therapy used for storm anxiety consists of helping kids face their fear. It may start with simply talking about storms, and transitioning to reading stories about storms and watching videos of tornadoes, hurricanes or other big storms. Eventually, it may include having the child outside in the rain or watching an active storm from a window.

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Absent an actual storm, making a plan and role-playing what children can do to handle a storm allows them to feel confident that they know what to do when a storm comes. Helping kids gradually face their fears in this way has proven to be quite successful in overcoming anxiety and excess worry.

Stephen Whiteside, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist with interests in assessing and treating childhood anxiety disorders. He works at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

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