Storm anxiety in humans is nothing new. Wild weather has been around since the beginning of time, and it’s natural to fear something big and loud that’s out of our control.
Children and adults alike suffer from weather anxiety, but it doesn’t have to cause trauma every time there’s a distant thundery rumble. But before we dive into ways parents and carers can help, it might be useful to look at the signs of anxiety in children.
Anxiety in kids: Surprising signs
Children often don’t display anxiety in the same ways that adults do. They are unable to identify and verbalize their inner discomfort the way an adult can, and the signs of anxiety often look like something else. They can include:
- Mysterious aches and pains such as headaches or stomachaches
- Poor focus
- Having overly high expectations of their own performance
- Difficulty with transitioning between activities
- Problems with going to sleep
These signs can apply to specific forms of anxiety such as weather anxiety, as well as more general anxiety.
So what is this weather-specific form of anxiety?
What is storm anxiety?
Storm anxiety, also known as astraphobia is a severe, uncontrollable reaction to the threat of a storm. The fear is crippling, even for adults, and can impact daily life during the storm season. Panic attacks are common, as is avoidance of outdoor activities because of the fear of being struck by lightning.
In children, the symptoms can include:
- Uncontrollable crying
- Hiding in closets or under beds
- Clinging to a parent or carer for protection
- An obsessive urge to monitor the weather
- All-over body shaking
- Persistent nightmares
It’s important to realize that a child with this phobia is unable to control it, as are any affected adults. It’s not possible to rationalize, shame or talk them out of it, but some strategies can help them to manage it.
Storm anxiety in children is not unusual
Storm or weather anxiety is especially problematic for kids who are on the autism spectrum or have sensory processing disorders. The sights and sounds of a thunderstorm are overwhelming for these kids and cause severe anxiety which manifests itself as many of the symptoms listed above.
However, storm anxiety is an affliction that anyone can suffer from, so it’s important to recognize it in other children, too.
5 ways to help your child cope during storm season
1. Manage triggers
People with weather anxiety can be triggered even when there’s no storm around. Triggers can include conversations about storms, weather forecasts that include the possibility of storms, loud noises that resemble thunder, and cloudy or rainy weather.
You can manage your child’s exposure to triggers by not listening to weather reports or discussing possible weather events, but if a trigger does occur, it’s important to remain calm, don’t judge or belittle your child’s fear, and use distraction techniques to help them focus on something positive instead of the fear.
A good distraction technique is to play a family game such as charades or a card game during the storm
2. Write down your storm plan
Write down your family’s storm plan. Note what you will do in different scenarios, such as when you’re at home or if you’re outside at the beach or having a picnic. Keep a copy of your storm plan where your child can see it.
You can also make a small card-sized copy of your plan and laminate it. Your child can take it when you go out, and when anxiety strikes, the card will be there as a reminder that there is a plan and that everything will be all right.
3. Help kids conquer fear by decreasing safety behaviours
In some instances, it’s appropriate to help kids conquer their fear by gently leading them to confront it rather than engaging in behaviours that make them feel better but don’t actually do anything to help.
Helping your kids to face their fears might include settling down to read a story about storms while the storm is on, watching a documentary about the weather, reading books about how weather works or watching the rain with an adult.
The important principle here is that children learn to manage uncertainty, so parents and carers need to be supportive and encouraging as children face their fears.
4. Use noise-cancelling headphones
For children who are sensitive to noise or light, it can be helpful to provide a dark “safe place” where they can go, along with a set of noise-cancelling headphones. Encourage your child to take a favourite book or toy to wait out the storm, and be prepared to sit nearby for reassurance.
5. Create a safe environment to talk about it
Often an honest discussion about storms and the fear surrounding them will help kids to face their fears. Make sure that the discussion takes place quietly and calmly without shame or judgment. Be
open and honest about the risks associated with a storm; transparency is important. Avoid telling them that nothing bad will happen as you cannot be sure it won’t.
Give your child the opportunity to ask questions and do your best to answer honestly. Be reassuring but real; children can readily spot a falsehood and it will make it more difficult to trust you in the future.
Storm anxiety need not cripple a child or an adult. If you would like to know more about helping children to manage their anxiety, you can check out my book Teaching Kids to Manage Anxiety: Superstar Practical Strategies
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