On a family trip out West, several loud thunderstorms rolled through town, with loud claps of thunder and strong winds that ripped limbs from trees and caused the power to flicker. My 6-year-old niece Sally started to cry. “When will the storm be over?” she whimpered.

Even after the storm had passed, she was anxious. Sally didn’t care that thunder couldn’t hurt her, that lightning bolts couldn’t reach her inside the house, or that the storm would end and she would be safe. (Brush up on lightning safety here!)

In her fear of weather, Sally is not alone. Extreme weather, such as the devastating tornadoes in Alabama and Missouri last spring, have made many people aware of the powerful hand of Mother Nature.

According to Dr. Timothy Culbert, medical director for the Integrative Medicine Program at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, weather fears are nearly universal in young children. “Studies show fear of personal harm associated with severe weather is quite common in kids, especially grades two through 12,” he says on his website, “and it makes the top 20 list of things kids worry about.” 

Summer and fall are typically months of strong storms, hurricanes, and scary weather in New Jersey.

How to Help Soothe Your Child's Weather-Related Fears

1. Have a plan ready before the storm

“Kids can learn to manage weather-related fears,” says Culbert. By practicing self-care skills (such as relaxation breathing and positive self-talk) when things are calm and controlled, children can build their confidence and cope better with anxiety.

Having a family emergency plan can also help educate kids about what to do during a natural disaster. Organizations such as FEMA and the Red Cross suggest that your kids help assemble a weather kit and stash it in the basement or a closet. Include a flashlight and extra batteries, a board game, snacks, scented candles, and comfy blankets and pillows. Make some trial runs of gathering the troops and running to the basement or a safe part of the house. “Practice it several times,” Culbert says.

2. Help children express their fears

“The more parents encourage their children to talk about severe weather, the better children will feel,” says Professor John Defrain, a Cooperative Extension Specialist at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

Discuss weather with children when a storm is on the way, after it has passed, and repeatedly afterwards, he says. “Talking about a highly charged emotional experience only once is not enough—not for a child or an adult. It takes time to process experiences in life. It’s how all of us make sense out of things as human beings.”

One way to start the conversation is to ask your child to describe how she feels about the situation and what she saw. Ask if she has questions, and listen carefully.

Defrain says it’s important to let your children see that severe weather can frighten adults, too. “Talk about your feelings openly and honestly, admitting that storms can be very scary. Also tell them what you’re doing to protect them. Hold onto them tight and let them know you are doing everything possible to keep them safe,” Defrain says.

3. Educate kids about the facts

Knowledge is power. Read books about storms, invite a local meteorologist to your child’s school, or visit a museum that showcases an exhibit about weather or natural disasters. The Liberty Science Center, for example, features the movie “Tornado Alley” on its IMAX Dome screen. By helping children understand how storms work, parents give them the tools to differentiate between real and perceived threats.

Pay attention, however, if your child doesn’t seem to master her fears. If her concerns significantly interfere with daily activities, or if she exhibits signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), contact your pediatrician. Symptoms of a more significant anxiety problem include becoming quiet or withdrawn; reverting to earlier developmental behaviors (such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting); physical signs (such as nausea, headache, vomiting, or fever); and trouble eating or sleeping.

Fortunately, my niece has adjusted to severe weather and even shows an interest in science and nature. In fact, many meteorologists cite childhood experiences as a trigger for their career choice. I like to imagine that someday Sally will find scary storms a factor in her decision to study the skies.

Storm-Watching on the Web

Jen Henderson is a journalist and teacher, and has been an avid storm-spotter since 2001.