Calm after the storm: Talking to your children about deadly weather
What to say and do if your child is worried
One day after Christmas, the tragic news of deadly tornadoes ripping through North Texas overtook the airwaves and overwhelmed many of us with grief.
Eleven people died, including one young child.
Maybe, someone you know was affected by the storm or maybe you had this thought: “That could have been me or my family.”
“This event may raise anxiety because it was so close to home,” Joy Crabtree, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist for Cook Children’s Behavioral Health in Southlake. “It’s important to stress to kids that even though some storms can be devastating. They are rarely deadly or cause such widespread damage.”
Saturday’s tornado outbreak was one of the worst in recent memory. The tornado that touched down in Garland was only the second EF-4 tornado to hit Dallas County since 1950.
Victoria McCain, a licensed psychologist for Cook Children’s, suggests giving young people just enough information that some bad things happened and how people are affected.
“Immediately follow this information with information about how people are helping, where affected people go for help, and how friends and neighbors act to help people affected by storm damage, and maybe how your family plans to help,” McCain said. “Older children may be curious about what happened and watch TV reports. Be sure to talk with your children about what they think and listen for their emotional reactions. Allow them to talk about what they think the people affected may be experiencing, emotionally and physically.”
Young children can be frightened by thunder and lightning and need reassurance during these events. Role model confidence and provide-age appropriate explanations about the day’s weather conditions.
Crabtree encourages a discussion following the aftermath of the storms, but only if your young children knows about the news of the tornadoes. Depending on their age and maturity level, it might be best to shield children from the news entirely.
Teens may have more questions and concerns because they are more aware of what happened. It’s OK to share with your child your own fears and anxieties about the events. Let them know it’s Ok to feel scared or frustrated, but it cannot overtake them.
“Be sure you are in control of your emotions and stress level,” McCain said. “Keep your face and body language pleasant and relaxed and convey confidence. Your kids will pick up on your fears and have trouble letting go of their own. Listen to what your child says about the event, validate his or her feelings by saying that everyone has feelings about what happened; show empathy by using feeling words such as saying, ‘You sound worried, scared, angry, mad, helpless, etc. about what happened.’”
You know your child better than anyone, check in with him or her often to see how they affected. Watch for signs of stress such as trouble sleeping, disturbed appetite, increase in bedwetting, being more clingy to you than before, irritability or wanting the comfort object they haven’t needed for a while. During this time, make sure to be there for your child and comfort with hugs as needed.
If bad weather is on the horizon, use activities to distract kids from the weather or from their own fears. Watch a movie or read books or play a game.
Reassure them that they are safe and if weather becomes severe, you are prepared. Let your child know that bad weather is usually predicted and it will give you time to get to your safe place in the home. Practice going to the safe spot in your home with the things you need such as bicycle helmets, flashlights, shoes, snacks, water and snacks (even for the pet).
Certainly, when severe storms leave behind damage and loss of life, it can raise anxiety levels for everyone. Reassure children about the advance warning systems for such storms and the steps that are taken to keep everyone safe. It may also be beneficial for kids to feel that they can help. That could be a gesture as simple as sending a letter or making a picture for those affected, or it could mean donating time or resources as well. Getting involved can be a great way to take anxious energy and turn it into something positive in order to help others.
“Talking with your children about ways to help those affected by the storm can be a good way to reduce the feeling of helplessness children feel after such an event,” McCain said. “Your child may spontaneously suggest a helpful action, or you may bring up the subject after you and your child have talked about the event and their feelings. Some families have established the way they handle charitable giving after tragic events and can involve their children in age-appropriate ways to participate. Some families are new to the concept and may be unsure of what to do. Contacting disaster relief agencies such as Salvation Army or Red Cross through their respective websites can give ideas that may inspire ways to give.”