Does your child become anxious if the sky becomes overcast or if they notice a little rain? Do they start to panic if they hear the familiar weather alert sounding from your phone? Do they cry and shake uncontrollably when they hear thunder, lightening, and strong winds? If this sounds familiar, your child may have a weather fear or phobia. At Brittani Persha Counseling, we work with parents and children to help manage these fears.
Since our city experienced the devastation of Harvey two years ago, we have experienced a significant increase in the amount of children and families struggling to cope with weather related triggers and fears. In a previous blog, Hope After Harvey: Managing Storm Fears, Phobias and Trauma, we explain how adults typically experience weather-related fears. The blog also explains how we help adults process these experiences and move towards the healing and relief they so desperately need.
So how has the experience of Harvey impacted our children? And what can you do to help them? To understand what your child needs, it is helpful to first get clear about what they are feeling?
Fear vs. Phobia
A phobia is an anxiety disorder characterized by intense and often irrational fear of a specific object or situation. Phobias generally develop following a traumatic experience that is then generalized to all similar experiences. It’s important to distinguish a phobia from a fear. Symptoms of a phobia include:
- Unreasonable, excessive fear
- Anxiety is out of proportion to the actual danger posed by the situation
- Extreme distress or avoidance
- The phobia significantly impacts the person’s functioning
- Must have been present for 6 or more months
If you don’t notice these symptoms in your child, they may have weather-related fear or anxiety, but wouldn’t be diagnosed with a phobia. Both fear and phobias can be debilitating, but can be treated and overcome with therapy.
Fight or Flight
Our bodies are biologically primed to react in a variety of ways to real or perceived threats. When our ancestors were confronted by lions, they didn’t have time to think through their best course of action. Their bodies reacted immediately to get them away from the thing that was threatening their lives. Today, we aren’t often faced with vicious predators in our daily lives, but our bodies still react in similar ways.
If someone has a phobia or severe fear, they may have this “fight or flight” response when confronted with their fear. Some of these physical responses can be:
- Quick, shallow breathing
Weather fears and phobias can be especially troubling because weather is unpredictable and uncontrollable. You may find that you or your child begin to obsessively monitor the weather in the hopes of anticipating the next big thunderstorm, but as much as we try we can’t predict or change its course.
Helping Your Child Manage Storm Fears
Fear of severe weather is common in young children and, at BPC, we have definitely seen weather-related fears become more common after Harvey.
Here are a few tips for parents of children who become anxious during storms:
- Help your child to decrease obsessive behaviors such as checking the weather forecast. Weather is unpredictable and we have to help children learn to manage uncertainty.
- Talk to your child about their fears when they, and the weather, are in a calm state
- Teach your child as much as you can about weather. What is thunder? What causes lightening? How does a hurricane form? Removing the mystery and clearing up their misconceptions can make weather less scary. See below for some helpful educational resources.
- Acknowledge your child’s feelings, but don’t overreact to them
- Practice grounding exercises. Your child can return to the present moment if they are “lost” in their anxiety or panic by using grounding exercises. A common grounding exercise is to help your child notice 5 things with each of their 5 senses. Ask them to notice 5 things they can see, smell, hear, touch, and taste in the present.
- Replace scary memories with positive ones. Make storms a time to do something fun together such as play games or watch a movie as a family. This may give storms a more positive association
- Practice coping skills together such as deep breathing or meditation, that they can use when they get anxious
- Don’t let kids watch news coverage of storms or hurricanes. News coverage of weather events is often scary because they tend to show the very worst parts of storms. Information about big storms is best coming from you.
- Avoid scary words such as “hurricane” and “flood”. Instead use more developmentally appropriate words with young kids like “strong winds” and “too much water”.
- Most importantly, remind them that they are safe. Talk to your child about safety measures you have in place for big storms and bad weather and that you will keep them safe.
Signs Your Child May Benefit From Play Therapy
If your child’s anxiety about the weather does not improve and if it is getting in the way of their daily functioning, they may benefit from play therapy. If your child is unable to go to school, avoids going outside when it’s raining, has bad nightmares or trouble sleeping, or if you’re noticing new temper outbursts, it may be time to reach out for help from a play therapist.
Play therapy is very effective in treating children who have experienced a trauma. For children it may be difficult or impossible to talk about a traumatic experience but, through play, they are able to communicate with their therapist and heal.
After Harvey, Houston area play therapists provided therapy to children traumatized by the storm. Many therapists noticed that children were communicating their experiences during the hurricane through their play. The play can take numerous forms but some common themes we have observed are children pretending to walk through water, placing toys up high, and acting out hearing the beeping of an alarm and sirens. Through play therapy, children are able to:
- Express and gain greater awareness of their feelings
- Identify coping tools
- Process their stuck points and began to experience healing and relief
Visit our Play Therapy page to learn more about play therapy and find out if it’s a good fit for your child.
At BPC, we work with children and families struggling with weather-related fears and phobias. We would love to talk to you about how we can support you. Schedule a free, 20 minute phone consultation to learn more about our services and therapists.
Children’s Books for Weather Fears & Anxiety
A resource for older kids wanting to learn more about weather and weather safety.
A website for kids to learn about weather and weather preparedness.