Storms can be scary. Tornadoes can be terrifying. During this time of year, remember to be sensitive to children’s perceptions of and reactions to the weather. Here are a few tips to guide adults who live with young residents of tornado alley through its busiest season.
1. Knowledge is power. Cultivate in your children age-appropriate understandings of weather and the science behind storms. Check out children’s books or DVDs about weather or Google fun facts about weather. Listen to your children’s questions and invite them to talk about their fears and worries about storms. Explain that some worries are normal. Ask your children what helps them feel better when they are scared or worried and be prepared to offer that during a storm. For example, your children may find comfort in snuggling with you, a stuffed animal or pet; or they may take comfort in listening to music, drawing or reading. Know what helps your child feel safe and calm.
2. Unpredictability creates anxiety. The unknown can be very upsetting. Before severe weather hits, talk about tornado safety and develop a tornado safety plan. Plans create predictability so be sure to detail where your family will go when you hear tornado sirens or when severe weather develops.
3. Be prepared. Put together a disaster supply kit that stays in your designated shelter area at home. Prepare a separate kit for the car because you may be on-the-go when severe weather hits. This can be a family project so everyone knows what supplies are in the kits should you need anything, from bandages, water and snacks, to radio, flashlight and extra batteries. Invite each child to add one small item to the kit, such as a book, stuffed animal or pillow.
4. Practice. Practice. Practice. Simulate sirens and get to your family’s safe place. Set a time limit to make sure everyone moves to your designated shelter quickly. Surprise your family with occasional drills so you’ll know how they respond during various activities. Tornadoes are particularly frightening when you’re in public and away from your safe place or when children are separated from you. When you’re out and about, identify areas that would be good places to take shelter in the event of a tornado. Remember, you’re not trying to scare your kids; you simply want them to be prepared and equipped to respond.
5. Take weather warnings seriously. Be a good role model and take the sirens and weather warnings seriously so your kids will too. Get in a safe place each time you’re warned of severe weather. Teach kids to do the same. Encourage older children to check weather forecasts when they are hanging out with friends or home alone.
6. Remain calm. Children often follow their parents’ lead. If they see you worry, they may worry. Tell them, “I feel safe. I know what to do. I’m going to keep you safe.” Engage children in activities to shift their focus from the storm. Practice stress-relieving breathing exercises or sing songs. Listen to music, play games, read a book out loud or build a fort for an indoor camping experience. Share a snack from the supply kit. These can all be fun distractions.
7. Limit exposure to media coverage. Turn off the television. Children should avoid watching news coverage of bad storms. Often the most severe damage is shown, and a child’s exposure to it can contribute to increased anxiety. Children can develop fears based on repeated exposure to media coverage of natural disasters or other distressing content.
8. Know how to respond to storm aftermath. Severity of a child’s reactions to a natural disaster will vary, depending on the child and his/her risk factors, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. Risk factors can include exposure to the actual event, personal injury or loss of a loved one, level of parental support, dislocation from their home or community, the level of physical destruction, and pre-existing risks, such as a previous traumatic experience or mental illness.
If children or teens exhibit significant changes in behavior over an extended period of time, it’s time to contact a mental health professional. Prairie View has specialists in child and youth therapy. Phone (800) 992-6292.