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I had an awful fear of tornadoes as a child. It started when I was around 6, and continued for about a decade.

I believe this may have been an actual phobia.

  • Thunder storms gave me anxiety
  • Hail or sleet storms frightened me so much that I couldn't focus on anything else
  • I was told by my mother once, around the time the phobia started, that tornadoes sounded like trains. From then on I had terrible anxiety whenever I heard trains (even the horns!) and couldn't see them that it often kept me awake or woke me up in terror. This was awful because I always lived near enough to active tracks for it to be a daily problem.
  • When I first saw the movie Twister it pretty much ruined my summer, as I was hypersensitive to foul weather afterwards. After that I could only watch it in the winter, when tornadoes don't occur.

Eventually I grew out of it, in a way. But it took quite a while for me to train my body to stop responding to train horns at night with fear responses, even though I logically knew there was no connection to the horn and tornadoes.

I did tell my mother about this fear a few times over the years, but she didn't really know what to do about it (or maybe understand the severity).

So, I ask, what could a parent do to help a child with a long-standing irrational fear of bad weather?

I ask specifically about weather, and not general phobias, because I think there is a real threat of weather that acts as a rational basis for the irrational aspects. Not all phobias are grounded in things that have tangible, realistic threats. (I grew up in Tornado Valley, and have been through some very bad tornado weather. The earliest occurence I can remember was terrifying for me and the cause of my phobia).

Although I understand counseling would likely be appropriate, I'd prefer a response dealing with what a parent can actively do in the home, between and during storm episodes.

  • I'll add here that I think my mother did give me some ways to cope, such as putting on weather bulletins. This helped me manage specific incidents by giving me a time frame (storm warning ends at X time) and more realistic expectation of the storm's nature (such and such results expected, or storm quickly moving to other area) . – user11394 Jul 14 '15 at 5:23
  • Ironically, my hometown is under a tornado watch at this moment, with a growing funnel. Always nerve-wracking. – user11394 Jul 16 '15 at 22:31
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I think this is fairly common to some degree; weather is about as unpredictable as you can get, and also has incredible destructive potential.

Both my sons have a strong dislike of thunderstorms; although perhaps not as strong as a phobia, they are visibly anxious and tense as soon as there's a rumble of thunder. Rain on car windows, even gentle drizzle, also inspires a lot of comments that a storm is coming and we should get home right now.

  • We acknowledge that it's scary. There's loud rumbling for no apparent reason, and there isn't always warning that it's coming (and even when lightning is visible, there's an irregular time lapse between that and the thunder clap). "Don't be silly, it's just thunder!" isn't a useful response for them, but "It's scary, isn't it?" or "It's OK to be scared!" can be.
  • We allow more snuggle time, hugs, nightlights, and general delay tactics when there's an evening thunderstorm that's going to be growling through bedtime. They're scared about something out of my control, I'll be more lenient about unrelated things.
  • We talk about the science behind the weather. This can be tough with younger kids, but even the toddler will listen to an explanation about the delay between light and sound or about how hailstones form — I think it may be just hearing a calm conversation instead of panicking, so things are probably OK right now. But I also emphasize that the weather can't get in our house. We have a roof, windows, doors, so we stay dry and safe.
  • We (gently) push opportunities to safely observe. My son and I sat in the garage with the door open during a hailstorm. We were well back from the door, but the wind, hail, and thunder were still very obvious. I talked to him about why it's important to be inside when there's bad weather (imagine those hailstones hitting you!), discussed a bit of weather science, and when the storm had largely passed we went outside to look at the hailstones close up. That was a very unusual case: more often it's simply sitting by the window during a thunderstorm, but I still like this because it's a demonstration that this can't actually hurt us while we're inside. Neither has had such severe anxiety that they couldn't be coaxed to come look as long as I was there too, but this may not work as well for a child who's really significantly afraid of the storm.
  • You mentioned in a comment that your mother had you listen to storm bulletins: this is another great idea for a couple of reasons. This applies some predictability to the situation as well as a time window (we can stop worrying at 7:30!). It also can incorporate geographic distance (a tornado warning two counties away, or even on the other side of my county, is a less immediate threat) and direction, which can be reinforced with a weather map (see, it's moving away from us now!).

More extreme weather events can't necessarily be dealt with calmly at home. Tornadoes or hurricanes, for example, require going to a safe room or even evacuating to a different city. The key in that case is to have a plan, communicate it to the kids, and carry it out as calmly as possible when necessary.

  • There are online resources (such as Ready by the US Government) that provide tips on what sorts of emergency situations you should prepare for, and what preparations are appropriate (e.g. water and shelf-stable food on hand if you expect a power outage, cash and medication in a bag ready to go if you might have to evacuate). There's also a section specifically for kids.
  • Talk about it. Get the kids to participate in planning — this helps give them a sense of control over an inherently unpredictable event, but also ensures they know what to do. If I'm not there I want them to be prepared, but (perhaps more importantly) if I am there, I don't want to waste time arguing about what needs to happen next. Have them suggest what food will be in an emergency kit, or what window they'll climb out if there's a fire, or what their biggest worry is.
  • Discuss realistic warning signs: honestly, the whole "tornado sounds like a train" thing confused the heck out of me as a child, too! Weather alerts are probably a much better tool, not only because there's much more advanced warning but also because they're based on the overall weather pattern that's developing at a given time rather than personal perception. Applying some level of predictability and awareness of how a storm develops can help reduce anxiety.
  • "Tornadoes or hurricanes, for example, require going to a safe room" Don't I know it! There were a few times we forced to stay in the basement. My mom even brought down a mattress for us, because you can use them to cover up and help cushion yourself against possible debris! Thinking of it now, it was probably unnecessary and more to soothe me than anything! – user11394 Jul 14 '15 at 18:49
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    I currently live in a region where very, very few houses have basements, which is completely against all the tornado training I grew up with (in the Midwest US) so I'm always freaked out when there's a severe weather warning — I don't have a basement! :P – Acire Jul 14 '15 at 18:51
  • I feel your pain! We've not had access to decent safe areas for awhile now (apartment living)!. When my phobia started, we lived in a mobile home and the community safe area, the building across the road, had locked their doors. – user11394 Jul 14 '15 at 19:11
  • Our first night after buying our own home (without a basement), there was a tornado warning. We spent much of the night huddled in the closet in the center of the house. – Buzz Jul 14 '15 at 22:12
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My answer is based on personal experience with a child with a clinical-level phobia (related to Tourette Syndrome and OCD), a lot of reading related to his diagnoses, and therapy for his OCD, which started about 3 months ago. My child's phobia is not weather-related, but I'm going to try to apply what I've learned from dealing with his phobia, to your question.

I believe your question is, what can a parent do to support a child who is fearful about weather, to prevent the fear from becoming a full-fledged phobia?

  1. Check films carefully ahead of time, and nix a title if you think there is a strong chance it will make things worse for your child. You can use the parent guide feature of IMDB, Commonsensemedia, and/or screenit.com. Sometimes it is helpful to look at some key scene(s) on youtube, or even preview the film yourself in the theater, discreetly, on a different day.

  2. Help your child find a way to talk back to the fear. Humor may be helpful. Example: one of my children was afraid of the cute little garden snails that graced my mother-in-law's garden in Germany when he was 4 and we visited her for several weeks. Coincidentally, we did a cooking project together early in our stay that involved rolling out some bread dough, spreading butter on it, sprinkling with cinnamon sugar, rolling it up, slicing and then baking the slices. I called them caracoles (snails). So a few days later when I noticed my son tensing up and shrinking whenever we passed a garden snail, I would shake my finger at the snail and say, "Yo como caracoles! I eat snails!" My son loved it and would say it too. The pleasant association with the sweet bread, and the humor, would help him make it through the front garden and into the house in one piece.... There's a scene in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy stands up to the Cowardly Lion right after they've just met, that might be worth reading, rereading and reciting by heart, I think, during thunder storms.

  3. Consider carefully what you say. As the parent, you have a huge influence on your child's thinking. (This is in relation to the train remark.) I don't meant to point a finger at your mother -- some children are more predisposed to have significant problems with fearfulness. That's nobody's fault.

  4. If you live in an area with particular weather threats, and your child is freaking out, you may want to give your child a breather from time to time by taking him or her with you for an extended visit to a friend or relative in a less dangerous area.

  5. Prepare a cozy refuge in the basement, and visit it sometimes with your child when there is no bad weather occurring, or predicted. This is similar to the idea of sometimes putting your cat in the carrier for a little while on a day when you are NOT going to the vet. Having a spare mattress down there to have a nap on is not a bad thing. Just make sure this safe haven really feels like a safe place -- and not an anxiety place.

  6. Freely allow your child to go to the safe haven, and bring you along if desired, when he is feeling fearful. Praise your child for taking good care of himself and you. Let him overhear you telling someone else how responsible he was/is (this one is shamelessly stolen from Faber and Mazlish, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk).

  7. Use low-wattage night lights liberally.

  8. It's okay to acknowledge your own weather fears with your child, but it's best to do so in a neutral tone of voice.

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