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Today’s forecast: Springtime storms and possible anxiety

Mom hugging scared daughter

April showers bring May flowers. But they can also bring bouts of anxiety. It’s normal for storms to be a little scary, but when does that become something to be concerned about? When a child’s reactions to the pending threats of harmful weather are so strong the child feels one or a combination of symptoms such as feeling paralyzed, has a panic attack, is clingy, restless, cries, is scared, runs away, hides, seeks shelter, has a racing heart, shortness of breath or tingly hands, then anxiety is a true concern.

Astraphobia, a fear of thunder and lightning, and Lilapsophobia, a fear of tornadoes or hurricanes, are legitimate phobias; however, they are not currently recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as specific psychiatric diagnoses.  

Anxiety symptoms are normal and developmentally appropriate. However, if they escalate and go beyond a child’s appropriate developmental stage or the child cannot overcome them through self-care and calming efforts, it might be time to seek help from your pediatrician. We also know threatening springtime weather can be especially trying for children living with Autism or sensory processing issues. It’s important for families to continue to work closely with the child’s care teams for guidance.

Preparing for triggers

Preparing and protecting children from harmful weather is necessary just like keeping them safe at home, school and in the car. There are a few triggers you can be aware of to try and help make sure your child is prepared. Things like tornado drills at school, monthly siren testing of a city’s emergency system, weather texts and TV alerts, and of course, the 24/7 news cycle, can all increase feelings of anxiety and fear. It’s important to talk to your kids about these warnings and the important role they play in keeping everyone safe. Reminding your child that these drills are going to take place can help eliminate some of the anxiety.

Tips to weather the storm

We all try to be prepared, but as we all know about weather in the Midwest, it can change fast. Here are some tips to try and help you “weather” the storm:

  • Create calm before, during and after the storm!
  • Always observe your child’s behavior. Try anticipating it and address concerns in the moment.
  • Remain calm, assertive and encouraging. This is a real fear. Your calming presence creates calm.
  • Never tease or belittle a fear.
  • Talk openly. Parents and teachers should speak matter of fact. Explain that thunder and lightning are a part of nature just like sunshine and rain.
  • Empower your child to self-calm, try breathing exercises and stay by their side.
  • Remind them tornado drills and siren testing are good things used to keep us safe!
  • Learn about the weather and make it fun!
  • Have a safety plan–talk about it ahead of time and be sure to include your furry family members in the plan!
  • Limit exposure to weather reports.
  • Incorporate stress management techniques like breathing rituals, yoga and meditation.
  • Let kids know it’s someone’s “job” to tell us about the weather and how to protect ourselves. This can be reassuring that someone is looking out for us.
  • Prepare for fun! Make a “box of distractions” and keep it in the basement. Fill it with fun, easy, age-appropriate activities and snacks to help keep little minds off big scary things. Include items like:
    • Crayons and coloring books
    • Bubbles
    • Music and dance activities
    • Storybooks
    • Card games
    • Flashcards
    • Play-Doh
    • Bead stringing or activities to keep little hands busy
    • Fun flashlights
    • Back-up stuffed animal
    • Cozy blankets and pillows

If you don’t see things improving for your child’s weather-related anxiety, seek help from your family’s medical provider. They may have you explore therapy that incorporates cognitive behavior therapies, exposure therapies or guided imagery techniques.

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Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine; Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Science, University of Kansas School of Medicine