These kinds of events bring a sense of uncertainty and vulnerability to our lives and a huge rush of emotions: disbelief, sadness, fear, and perhaps even anger. They also raise questions and emotions in our children.
Extraordinary events like these test us as parents, both as guardians of children trying to keep them emotionally safe, and trying to raise them to become enlightened and empathetic adults. Children learn from what we say and don't say about the world and their place in it, and they also learn from our actions.
As children grow older and their understanding of the world outside their home grows, they not only need us to be calm and reassuring, they need our knowledge and ideas about the larger issues. Life is unpredictable—natural and man-made disasters regularly create catastrophe and tragedy.
The most important thing we can do for our children is to be there to respond to their emotional and educational needs, to listen, and to be our most thoughtful selves. The family can be a safe haven where children express their ideas and fears, and be assured that parents will do their best to protect them. It can be a place to teach them about the world that they will inherit.
Children close to a catastrophe or hearing about a catastrophe may have the following questions:
- Will I be OK?
- Will you be OK?
- Will everyone I love be OK?
Many children who see or hear bits of the aftermath of the recent severe weather may be thinking, "That could have been me, or my friend, or my relatives, or someone I love," or "That could be me or someone I love next time."
But it's not just about worries about weather. It is important to remember that for older children, the impact may be less emotional and traumatic, and more intellectual. "Why did this happen? How did this happen? What do we do now?" To them it might be very important, or perhaps just interesting, and they want to know more.
Adults largely set the emotional landscape for children. Children depend on us to be strong and solid, to know what is happening and to guide them through the shoals of troubled waters. Their sense of safety stems from us—the big, strong adults who protect them from misfortunes that they never imagined.
Responding to Severe Weather
Some preschool and school-age children will react to reports of severe weather with anxiety and questions—others with little anxiety, but lots of interest. Still other children may experience little anxiety and little interest.
Our responsibility as parents is to:
- Recognize that every child is an individual.
- Reassure children of their own safety and security.
- Help children play and talk through their feelings and understandings.
- Limit their exposure to scary images by reducing exposure to the media.
- Help children participate in global events in ways that are meaningful to them.
It is natural for children to reflect events around them. If severe weather is dominating the talk of adults and the news, you may find young children expressing their concern or interest in their questions, play, or art.
Answering Children's Questions about Severe Weather
If our children are interested in discussing floods or tornadoes, be prepared with the facts of the situation and the appropriate language. The key points for talking to any child are to:
- Tailor your response to the individual child, keeping in mind the child's age, personality, and level of interest.
- Ask what the child knows and is thinking about; answer their questions without over-explaining and providing more details than necessary.
- If older children are interested in how tornadoes or floods happen, help them find out more about the process.
- Parents can use children's questions and statements as "teachable moments" to impart their political and religious thinking and values about basic issues.
- Younger children can be reassured simply that we will keep them safe. Older children may want to know a little more about how their situation is different from the conditions they are seeing in the media.
Some Specific Questions Children Might Ask
What is a flood?
For preschool children: Floods are when there is so much water that water covers everything.
For school-age children: A flood is when lots of water flows into a dry area. Too much rain causes rivers, streams, or lakes to overflow their banks and flood surrounding areas. High ocean levels and high waves can also cause a flood. Sometimes the structures used to control flooding such as dams, levees, or floodwalls break and the water released floods an area. A flash flood happens all of a sudden after a sudden rain.
Floods usually take time to develop, and the location can be predicted and planned for. Floods happen because water flows downhill due to gravity. People who live in areas where flooding is common can be careful and plan to escape when floods are likely.
What is a tornado?
For preschool children: Tornadoes are very strong storms with wind that can knock down anything. They are called twisters because the wind twists and twirls around. When there are tornado warnings, everyone needs to go to the place that keeps them safe—usually a basement or a room of the house with no windows.
For school-age children: Tornadoes form from thunderclouds and are the most powerful storm for their size. They are very fast 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 other buildings, even cows. Their path may 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 all of sudden 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 quickly if tornadoes are in the area.
Why do we sometimes have to "take shelter"?
For preschoolers and school-agers: Once in awhile, if it sounds like really bad weather is coming, we might be told to go to a shelter to be safe. For tornadoes, the adults you are with might tell 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 flood waters 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 child care), your teachers will know what to do and will help you evacuate or take shelter.
There is no magic formula or right way to respond to a child struggling to understand severe weather. It is important to know and respect the child's way of being and coping, even when it is different from our own.
- FEMA's Tornadoes Webpage for Children gives information about what tornadoes are, offer some real stories told by children and tells how to prepare for them.
- ADT's Map of Natural Disasters offers information on the past history and future prediction of natural disasters in any part of the United States.
- What Happened to MY World? is a Bright Horizons resource for parents to help children cope during turbulent times.