Comforting a frightened child in a thunderstorm isn’t as easy as Julie Andrews singing “My Favorite Things” in The Sound of Music.
With an unusual number of severe storms hitting the Abingtons recently, including a tornado last week in Newton Township, local parents have had to spend a lot of time soothing their little ones. Clarks Summit Licensed Professional Counselor Gena Patackas can help them put their children at ease during any storms to come.
Patackas noted that it is fairly common for children to be afraid of storms.
“Fear of thunderstorms is common, normal and usually temporary in young children,” she said.
“Very young children may respond to their caregiver’s actions and seek nurturing and comfort from them,” said Patackas. “Children ages 4-6 can imagine and pretend; however, they may not be able to tell what is real and what is not. Young children may be afraid of loud noises, like thunder. Older children ages 7-12 often have fears that reflect real life circumstances that may happen to them, such as severe storms.”
According to Patackas, thunderstorms often contain unpredictable noises that can leave children feeling helpless and out of control.
“The sound of booming thunder combined with flashes of lightning can be startling. As children grow older, they may also become more aware of the danger of extreme weather, such as tornadoes and floods. A severe thunderstorm can trigger the fear that something bad might happen,” she said.
The therapist said children react to storms in different ways.
“Children may become emotional, withdrawn, or appear hyper, depending on how they cope with fear and uncertainty,” she said. “Children may develop fear and anxiety of alerts and notifications, weather forecasts, storm clouds and even the sight of an oncoming storm.”
Patackas stressed that it is important for parents to remain calm during a storm.
“Parents are in a position to model healthy ways to respond to the events that might occur,” she said. “It can be helpful to begin by validating your child’s feelings while reminding your child that he or she is safe. It is important to note that dismissing or minimizing your child’s fear does not help.
“Talk through safety precautions you have in place as you are waiting out the storm. Ask your child what might make him or her feel better. A favorite comfort object might help. Noise cancelling headphones can provide some relief. It can help your child to know that you have prepared and planned for the storm.
“Distraction can be a useful tool. Playing board games or making a fort can create positive associations for children. A storm might be an opportunity to transform your child’s fear into some quality family time. Playing games with the storm (for example, see who can best imitate the sounds of the storm, or count the seconds between lightning and thunder) has potential to transform fear into excitement.”
Patackas said parents can provide children with opportunities to learn about thunderstorms.
“There are age-appropriate books about thunderstorms designed for children,” she said. “If the storm is calm enough, your child may be open to watching the storm and learning more about it. Teach children how to stay safe during a thunderstorm. Dispel unhelpful myths that may be contributing to unrealistic fear about thunderstorms. For example, a child might hear ‘the eye of the storm’ and literally think that the storm has an eye and is watching him or her. Keep children away from constant news updates and media coverage about destruction caused by thunderstorms.”
Seek a therapist’s help if the child’s anxiety surrounding storms continues for a long time, appears to disrupt his or her daily behavior – such as appetite changes, sleep concerns and difficulty concentrating in school – or has experienced a storm-related traumatic experience, Patackas said.
Teri Lyon is a mom, grandmom and freelance writer who lives in Glenburn Township with her cat.