By Stephen Whiteside
Tribune Media Services
Dear Mayo Clinic: My son, 8, is very afraid of thunderstorms. Even when it’s not raining he’s constantly worried about the next storm. He often asks me for the weather forecast and won’t go outside if it’s cloudy. What can I do to help him overcome his fear?
Answer: Fear of storms is common in children your son’s age. There are several steps you can take that may help ease his anxiety. If you find his fear of storms does not get better, or if the anxiety begins to interfere with daily life, consider having him talk with a therapist or counselor.
Storms can be scary. When a storm is happening, it is reasonable for a child to seek comfort from a parent. For children who have a significant fear of storms, the problem comes not so much from a storm itself, but from the anticipation of a storm. That anticipation can result in ongoing stress and anxiety.
As you describe, many of these kids are hesitant to leave the house if they think they may get caught in a storm. They may try to avoid outdoor activities. This stress can get in the way of other aspects of their lives, such as schoolwork, because the fear makes it hard for them to concentrate. It can be wearing on parents, too, as the children look for constant reassurance that there’s not going to be a storm.
There are several things you can try to help ease your son’s fear. For some children, it’s comforting to know the plan for staying safe in a storm. Talk to your son about what your family can do during a storm, even if you’re outdoors or away from home. Reassure him that you’ll do whatever you can to keep him safe.
Knowledge also may be helpful. If your son is interested, find books, websites or other resources that discuss storms. Understanding what causes a storm can ease some children’s anxiety about when a storm may occur. Just be careful that the sources you choose focus on the storms themselves, rather than dwelling on the destruction they may cause.
Try to help your son decrease his “safety behaviors.” These are the actions he takes – such as checking the forecast – that make him feel a little better, but don’t really do anything to keep him safe. When kids rely on these behaviors, it prevents them from learning that they can handle uncertainty. As these behaviors decrease, children come to see that they can manage not knowing exactly what’s going to happen and things often turn out fine.
As you work through ways to help your son handle his fear, remember that it’s important to be warm and encouraging. Never punish or belittle a child for being afraid.
If the fear continues despite your attempts, if it gets worse, or if it becomes distressing to you as a parent, then it is time to seek help from a professional.
The therapy used for storm anxiety consists of helping kids face their fear. It may start with simply talking about storms. That may transition to reading stories about storms and watching videos of tornadoes, hurricanes or other big storms. Eventually it works up to the child being outside in the rain or standing near a window watching a storm while it happens.
One of the challenges is that a therapist, of course, cannot conjure up a storm for a therapy session. Instead, making a plan and role-playing what children can do to handle a storm allows them to feel confident that they know what to do when a storm comes. Helping kids gradually face their fears in this way has proven to be quite successful in overcoming anxiety and excess worry.