Almost all children will be occasionally startled by a loud clap of thunder. But some kids grow so terrified during a thunderstorm that they are unable to function. For those cases, the following information will help kids better deal with such fears.
Why children are afraid of thunder and storms
Thunderstorms combine two elements that can rub children the wrong way:
1) A loud, scary boom, and
2) Noises that are unpredictable, which can leave children feeling helpless and out of control.
As children grow older, they may also become more aware of the danger of extreme weather: tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and so on. Therefore a severe thunderstorm can trigger these more rational fears that something bad might happen.
Helping children overcome a fear of thunderstorms
- Change fear into excitement
Psychologists observe that fear and excitement are frequently opposite interpretations of the same sensation. In both instances our heartbeat races, our senses ramp up, and we become hyper-stimulated. Amidst excitement we interpret these things in a positive way (“Oh boy!”) whereas fear arises when we put a negative spin on it (oh, no!). Roller coasters are a perfect example of how the same experience registers either as fear or excitement depending on one’s point of view.
So during a thunderstorm help children reinterpret these startling sensations as excitement rather than fear. When there is a loud boom and flash, look at them with a big smile on your face and say “Wow! That was a big one!” At first they may be annoyed that your reaction so contradicts their own. But if you continue to express intrigue or excitement like this (without belittling your child’s fears), little by little this attitude will start to ware off on them.
- Add a sense of predictability to thunder
Teach them how to time lightning and thunder, counting the seconds between the flash and the sound. (Every 5 seconds between the flash and the sound of thunder is equivalent to around 1 mile.) Not only does this provide something to keep them occupied during a storm, but it turns this loud, scary noise into something reasonably predictable. This predictability alone often helps kids feel empowered enough to manage their fears.
- Make storms fun!
Transform your child’s fear into some quality parent-child time. Grab a blanket and snuggle up together in the corner. Play games with the storm, such as counting the seconds between lightning and thunder, keeping track of the total number of thunderclaps you hear, talking about which one was the loudest, or playing a game to see who can best imitate the sounds of the storm. If you make it fun enough, kids will actually look forward to storms.
- Talk about ways to be safe from a storm
This is a great time to teach kids how to stay safe during a thunderstorm. Talk about how being inside a car or building protects them from lightning, or how to take shelter from a tornado. Such knowledge gives many kids a sense of control and comfort that will help keep their anxiety at a manageable level. (More information on storm safety can be found online in our child safety book.)
- Dispel thunderstorm myths
I remember that when I was a kid, for the longest time I thought that tornadoes had eyes which would look through the windows into buildings and see if anyone is inside. If they found you, then they’d tear the house to shreds. This is a common confusion among kids who hear about the “eye of a hurricane” or “eye of a tornado.” So talk with your kids and ask them what else they understand to dispel any other myths they might have picked up.
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