When the sirens sound: Talking with children about severe weather

Recently severe storms have rumbled across Michigan. These unpredictable storms, loud thunder and flashes of lightening can be scary to children! Take time when the skies are clear to talk with your children about severe weather.

Children should see their parents, calm and confident, preparing for impending weather but not looking alarmed or scared. Photo credit: Pixabay.

Children should see their parents, calm and confident, preparing for impending weather but not looking alarmed or scared. Photo credit: Pixabay.

Severe weather can be very alarming to young children. It is unpredictable, loud and violent. Media splashes graphic images of storm damaged homes, approaching fires and severe flooding. Children are unsure of what could happen to them, how their homes or lives could be disrupted. Michigan State University Extension stresses the importance in taking time to plan ahead to help children feel prepared and have a realistic outlook on what potential threats exist in their community. Being too protective, or overreacting, without signs of approaching danger can make children believe that they are constantly at risk.

A good starting point is to talk with children about what they recall about natural disasters in their area. What do they remember having happen? What images have they seen in the media? Are the children aware of what could happen in your area (tornado, floods, etc.) and what is not likely to happen (hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.). Review what might happen prior to a weather emergency and then what should happen during the emergency. If your family does not have a disaster plan, this is a good time to create one. Engage your children in making a list of supplies that need to be purchased, like water and canned goods, and helping to create a list of emergency phone numbers. Assigning developmentally appropriate tasks can help children feel empowered to handle a potentially scary situation. Visit the Red Cross for more information about disaster planning or Ready.gov to find out how to build your disaster preparation kit.

Make sure you end your conversation on a positive note- “Your Dad and I are very confident that if there ever was a disaster, we are prepared. You will know what to do and how to follow our plan! We have taken every step to be as safe as possible; in the unlikely event there ever is an emergency.”

When bad weather is approaching, it is important to maintain normal routines as much as possible, as well as to appropriately manage your own emotions. Routines convey a sense of normalcy to children. They make the world orderly and predictable, and when scary things are approaching, that is especially important. Children are better able to cope with stressful situations when the adults in their lives are also coping well. Children should see their parents, calm and confident, preparing for the impending weather but not looking alarmed or scared. When an adult acts scared or anxious without evidence that there is really something to worry about, it makes children perceive the world as a dangerous, scary and unpredictable place.

When talking with children about weather emergencies, as with all situations in life, it is important to help them express their feelings. Beginning at a young age parents and caregivers can teach children appropriate language for their emotions, and how to express them.  Share your own feelings about bad weather, situations where you had to deal with a storm, or another emergency and how you felt. When you see children beginning to show emotion, help them identify what they are feeling, “I notice you looking at the dark clouds. Tell me more about how you’re feeling?”  When children are feeling anxious about the weather, it is important to help them learn what to do and how to know if they are right to be concerned. Remind them about your disaster plan and what they know about staying safe in storms.

Bad weather, and other natural disasters, are an ongoing risk. Children will experience a storm warning, a flood or an earthquake and need to know what to do in the event that they are negatively impacted by an emergency. However, it is important to help children be realistic as they assess the risks. It is an important life skill of all people to be realistic thinkers. People, adults and children alike, who are realistic thinkers are able to analyze the given information and figure out what is worth worrying about. Feeling prepared, should an event actually occur,  helps children understand there are going to be things that cannot be controlled or changed. Parents should model realistic thinking for their children, and not be overly optimistic or pessimistic. Avoid telling them, for instance, that they have nothing to worry about. Instead, remind them that for most severe weather events, there is plenty of warning for people to get to a safe situation before hand and that you have done everything you can to be prepared. Limit your children’s exposure to media saturation of graphic images. These sorts of stories are very frightening to kids. When they do have a media exposure, use that experience to talk about the ways people were safe. “Yes, their house was flooded, but the police knew the river was going to flood and everyone was evacuated ahead of time. No one was hurt and people were able to take their special things with them.”

Take time when having these conversations to listen to children and answer their questions. Be sure to give children your full attention during these difficult conversations. Answer what they are actually asking, but avoid adding too much additional information. Be truthful, even if it is hard. If you do not know the answer, offer to look it up. Make sure to emphasize your family plan and their safety.

Children learn a tremendous amount about the world around them from their parents. You can help grow and nurture realistic thinkers, with a good plan in the event of an emergency by being thoughtful with your approach. Avoid encouraging kids to talk too much about their worries, fears, dwelling on the negatives and not moving on. Encourage children to face some fears, for instance, do not skip soccer just because of a storm watch, but explain what you are doing to ensure their safety. Help children learn to express their feelings appropriately without being overly reassuring. Most importantly, develop a disaster safety plan and be prepared. By working with your children and maintaining open communication, you can help support them in these potentially hazardous situations.

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