Prof: How to help children cope with tornado season fears

May 22, 2013  

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - The tornado that hit the Oklahoma City area on Monday (May 20) may be especially frightening for children because of the destruction to schools and the number of children who died, says a Purdue University child development expert.

"Children should be reassured that this was a very unusual storm and adults can tell them that most won't be like this, and we, as a family or class, will do everything we can to stay safe and be there for each other," says Judith Myers-Walls, professor emeritus of child development. "Children are limited in their ability to understand causality and probability, so it's likely their fears will be raised by news stories of this event.

"Remind children about the adults in their lives who are there to take care of them and keep them safe. Fear comes from feeling out of control, so children can feel empowered when they learn safety procedures. But also keep in mind that some procedures can make children anxious if they feel they don't have the resources to complete them. For example, children who don't have a basement to take shelter in may be especially worried, so review the family plan so they are aware of alternate safe home shelter locations."

To help younger children not be so fearful following a tornado siren drill or warning, have a special activity that is just for the safe area, such as a board game.

"Try your best to normalize tornado warnings, and it will help younger children not to panic when it is necessary to move to the shelter - either as practice or in a real emergency," Myers-Walls says. "But, parents know their child best, and while some may need to be reassured, others will need to be reminded of the potential danger and to take the warnings seriously."

Children who are especially concerned about what happened in Oklahoma can be encouraged to help the community by running a lemonade stand to raise money for the Red Cross or visiting the local emergency response organization to see how it helps people, Myers-Walls says. Children also can deal with fears by expressing themselves through telling stories or drawing pictures.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723,

Source: Judith Myers-Walls, 

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