Fear of Thunderstorms

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

The winds had picked up and the sky had darkened quickly. In the distance, lightning bolts could be seen crackling across the sky. Then a loud BOOM followed by a low rumble filled the house as the splat of raindrops hitting the window could be heard. The little girl looked around in a panic.

“The storm is coming. We need to hide!” shrieked the little girl as she frantically looked for her mother and a safe place to go.

The mother knew her daughter was going to take a while before she would finally start to calm down. She wished her daughter would be able to deal with storms a better. After all, she was going into 2nd grade in a month.

The little girl’s fear of thunderstorms is a common one for children. Whether the thunderstorm hits while they are playing outside or begins in the middle of the night, it can be quite scary for children. Most children’s reaction to a scary thunderstorm is to seek a place of safety and comfort which is most likely a parent. When children come for comfort from their parent, it is important for parents to be warm and encouraging and not punish or mock them for being afraid.

While parents can offer the feeling of safety to children during thunderstorms, it is important for them to ease their children into being able to cope with their fears on their own. In order to do this, some advanced planning is necessary.

One of the reasons thunderstorms are so scary for children is that they are often unexpected and unknown. Educating children about the science behind thunderstorms can erase some of the unknown. Children should learn that lightning occurs due to a combination of water and electricity passing through it and that thunder results when the lightning heats up the atmosphere. Once children understand the process, lightning and thunder cease to be a scary unknown.

Children can also track the progress of lightning with some simple math. They should count in seconds the difference between when they saw the lightning and then heard the thunder. Parents can help them divide the seconds by 5 to get how many miles away the lightning is which can help children track the progress of the storm.

Another way to ease children’s fear of thunderstorms is to teach them how to stay safe. This means that when lightning is flashing, children should always get out of any water they are in such as a swimming pool. If they are outside, they should try to seek shelter in a house or building. Finally, children need to stay away from large objects like trees as lightning if they are unable to get inside as lightning is more likely to hit something that is tall.

Once children are knowledgeable about thunderstorms and know the safety plan, they are ready to learn how to calm themselves when a thunderstorm occurs. One way is to engage in self-talk where children remind themselves that thunderstorms pass and that they are safe. Another way is to engage in some distraction like listening to music, playing video games, or reading a book. Before children realize it, the storm has passed and there is nothing more to worry about.

There are some cases where children develop significant anxiety related to thunderstorms. They focus on weather forecasts and are preoccupied with getting caught in a storm. The anxiety can often expand so that children are reluctant to go outside for fear of a storm coming. If a child’s fears build and get worse, parents should contact a psychologist to help the child face her fear.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on July 26, 2015

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