Behavior & Development • May 23, 2011

A storm alone is scary enough…

At the start of just about every storm, I have a flashback to my childhood.  My little brother was terrified of thunder and lightning – and I mean TERRIFIED.  He’d take a blanket, wrap it tightly around his head, and burrow into the foot of his bed.  When I saw the first pictures come out of Joplin today, I couldn’t help but wonder, how would that have affected my then-five-year-old brother?
“I think with young children, it’s best to turn off the TV and let information come from the adults close to them,” says Gail Bennett, Infant-Child Specialist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital Child Development Center.  “Talk to them. Listen to their fears, and answer them honestly.”
“At the same time, parents need to keep their emotions in check,” adds child psychologist Dr. Cathy Hutter.  “Children will take emotional cues from their parents.”
Bad storms are by no means foreign to us this Spring.  We saw destruction here in St. Louis just a few weeks ago – but we were rewarded with reports that no one died.  Then came Tuscaloosa. As horrible as that devastation was, we could reassure children it was far away.  Now, we’re faced with the combination: a storm nearby that has claimed over 100 lives.  Add to that the continued threat of storms over the next couple of days, and it’s not unreasonable to expect some anxiety at the next rumble of thunder or flash of lightning.

Fear of Storms

“Children often fear storms.  The noise, especially the thunder, is scary for them.  So sometimes people make up stories about what that sound is,” Bennett says.  “But it’s best to be honest with them.  You don’t need to go into scientific detail, but you also don’t want to make up stories.”
She suggests explaining what causes thunder: it’s hot and cold air colliding.   And offer reassurance, “It’s not going to hurt you, the adults around you will make sure you’re safe.”
Also, create an action plan, “When there’s lightning, tell them what you will do to keep them safe, and how they can protect themselves.  I won’t let you go outside and play when it’s lightning.  If the tornado sirens go off, you need to go to the basement. That helps make it real to them.”
My little brother is now well into his twenties, and his horrible fear of thunderstorms has long since faded.  But when I got up this morning, guess whose name was at the top of my inbox, accompanied by the subject line “ARE YOU OKAY???”?  It doesn’t matter how old we are, the images are horrifying.  We’re going to see heartbreaking stories come out of Joplin for days, even weeks to come.  The best we can do is offer the reassurance– especially to young children – that this kind of devastation is unusual.  The adults around them will protect them and keep them safe… from storms – and information they’re just not ready to process.