Prof: Tornado safety lessons for young children can be too scary

March 18, 2013  


Glenn Sparks

Glenn Sparks
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - In order to avoid the risk of unnecessarily scaring children, elementary schools emphasizing tornado safety this spring should focus more on simple safety steps and less on a tornado's potential for devastation, says a Purdue University expert.

"Sometimes this safety information is not developmentally sensitive, and children can end up being terrified or obsessing about the threat of an unlikely event," says Glenn Sparks, a professor of communication who studies mass media and childhood fear and anxiety. "My concern about schools' tornado awareness weeks is that young children hear about it daily, and it fuels fears and concerns that are way out of proportion to the actual risk. Even for people living in tornado alley, the odds of being killed by a tornado are less than being killed in an auto accident."

Parents, educators, safety officials and child development specialists should always review how information is presented to children to help prevent needless fear and anxiety, Sparks says. For example, most messages for young children should emphasize how well prepared the school and community are to deal with any severe weather rather than highlighting the disaster that such weather can bring.

"While the balance is delicate, we need to be careful to avoid churning up anxiety in our kids," he says.

Children around 6 are at the age where they can differentiate between reality and fantasy, but they don't really understand the likelihood or probability of threats like a natural disaster, Sparks says. At the same time, their emotional coping skills for dealing with disasters are not well developed. Children around age 11 begin to understand that tornadoes are relatively rare, which can help in reducing anxiety.

"I've heard from parents that during and after tornado and fire prevention awareness weeks, their children become afraid of any storm that develops or can't sleep because they're worrying about their house catching on fire," Sparks says. "While the schools and safety officials have the community's best interest in mind in sensitizing people to risk, they need to also be mindful of the stress and anxiety these warnings can cause in young children."

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Glenn Sparks, sparks@purdue.edu

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