Sometimes, we forget how much our kiddos are like little sponges, soaking up everything around them. Whether that's news podcast, you have running in the background on the drive home, or adults in their lives are talking about current events. Severe weather like tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, or hurricanes may not have been an experience in their lives but are still something that gives them fear. These events bring uncertainty and vulnerability to our lives, and a massive rush of emotions: fear, disbelief, sadness, even anger.
Events such as these can test us as parents, keeping our children emotionally safe, and raising them to be enlightened and empathetic adults. Children learn from what we do or do not say about the world and use it to determine their place in it. More importantly, they learn from our actions.
Children experiencing a catastrophe or hearing about a disaster may have questions:
- Will I be OK?
- Will you be OK?
- Will everyone be OK?
Children who see or hear the aftermath of the recent severe weather may be thinking, "That could have been my family and me," or "What if it happens where I live next time.". For older children, it may not be emotional or traumatic and more intellectual. "Why is this happening? How can this happen? What do we do?" It might be necessary, or perhaps just interesting, and they want to know more.
As adults, we set the emotional landscape for our children. Our children's sense of safety stems from us. We need to stay mindful of that when educating and responding to severe weather.
Responding to Severe Weather
Suppose severe weather is the only thing talked about by adults around our children and the news. In that case, it shouldn't be a surprise that young children expressing their concern or interest in their questions, play, or art.
Our responsibility as parents is to:
- Limit exposure to unsettling images by reducing access to the media.
- Reassure our children of their security and safety.
- Help children talk through their feelings and help them to gain understanding.
- Help children participate in ways that are meaningful to them.
Answering Children's Questions
If our children are interested in discussing earthquakes or hurricanes, be prepared with the facts and critical information. It's important when talking to any child to:
- Tailor your response to the individual, keep in mind the child's age, personality, and interest level.
- Ask the child what they may know and what they are thinking about; answer their questions without over explaining.
- If older children are interested, use it as a learning experience to teach them more about the process and science behind these events.
- Make sure to reassure younger children that you will keep them safe.
Specific Questions and Sample Answers
What's a flood?
For preschool children: A flood is when water covers an entire area of land, like a park or the zoo.
For school-age children: A flood is when a lot of water runs into an area. Too much rain can cause creeks, rivers, or lakes to overflow creating a flood in surrounding areas. Elevated ocean levels and high waves can also create floods. Occasionally structures meant to prevent floods like levees, dams, or floodwalls break. When that happens the water released will flood area. Flash floods happen quickly after a sudden rain, whereas standard floods take time to develop, and locations can be predicted and planned for. Floods happen because water flows downhill because of gravity. Many people who live in areas where flooding is frequent can be careful and plan to escape when floods are likely.
What is a tornado?
For preschool children: Tornadoes are powerful storms with winds that can knock anything down. Sometimes they are called twisters because the wind twists and twirls. When there are tornado warnings, everyone goes to a place that keeps them safe like their a basement or a room with no windows.
For school-age children: Tornadoes form from thunderclouds and are the most powerful storm for their size. They are swirling, twisting funnel clouds of up to 300 miles an hour (almost as fast as a jet). The opposite of hurricanes which swirl outward, tornadoes or twisters swirl inward and rotate around a funnel of low pressure. They look like an upside-down cone. Tornadoes usually move along above the surface at 35 to 50 miles per hour (mph) but can go up to 70 mph. When they touch down, they can suck up and destroy everything in their path: trees, trucks, bridges, houses, and even cows. Their path can be a mile or two wide or hundreds of miles. Most tornadoes strike in the United States in April, May, and June. Tornadoes are created suddenly out of a storm, and sometimes there is little warning that a storm has developed twisters. But people can be safe by listening for sirens and having a radio or television on, and having a safe place to go if tornadoes are in the area.
Why do we sometimes have to "take shelter"?
For preschoolers and school-agers: Once in a while, if it sounds like awful weather is coming, we might be told to go to a shelter to be safe. For tornadoes, the adults you are with might ask you to go to a place without windows like a bathroom or basement. You will probably have to go quickly with very little time to get ready. For a flood, the adults you are with might tell you to "evacuate" (which means leave and go somewhere safer) to a place where the floodwaters won't go. Usually, with a flood, you have more time to get ready. Taking shelter or evacuating are things we do to help keep ourselves and others safe. If you are away from your parents, for example, at school or childcare, your teachers will know what to do and help you evacuate or take shelter.
There is no right or wrong way to respond to a child struggling to understand severe weather. It's important to know and respect the child's way of coping, even if it's different from our own.