Helping Fearful Kids Stay Calm in the Storm

Here are eight tips for helping anxious children get through the storm.
10/29/2012 11:12 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2012

As unnerving as it is for parents who find themselves in Hurricane Sandy's path, it can be terrifying for kids. When faced with a stressful experience, one of the ways children (and adults, for that matter) cope is to bring to mind to prior times when they got through similar experiences. For example, a child might think, I was scared when I had to go through basketball tryouts last year, or when I went to Julia's birthday party and didn't know any of the other kids, but I got through it and it turned out to be fun. But when the frightening event is something they've never encountered before, they have no resources to help them deal with it other than the calm, reassuring comfort of their caregivers.

Here are some tips for helping anxious children get through the storm:

• Undoubtedly -- and understandably -- you're glued to the news for updates. Try to be aware that your children may have trouble integrating bits and pieces of information as they hear it from broadcasters, so do your best to offer a simple (age-appropriate) narrative that helps them get a sense of what the storm is doing. If at all possible, get your news online, so the TV isn't running non-stop in the background with alarming information that can be overwhelming to a youngster.

• Lean on rituals and routines. Do your best to weave in the familiar, whether it's Sunday night spelling practice or Daddy's special smoothies. The more life feels normal, the less children will feel things are spinning out of control.

• Try to manage your own anxiety. Kids are highly attuned to their parents moods, especially in the midst of chaos. You may be understandably worried, but lean on adults for support, rather than revealing each and every fearful thought to your kids. The more you come across as confident Captains of the ship, the more your children will feel safe.

• Check in with your kids to let them offload their fears. If they ask things like, "Does anyone die in a big storm?", you can say something like, "The good thing is that we now have lots of warning to prepare and stay safe. In the past, when people didn't know a hurricane was coming or didn't make sure they were in a safe place, there were times when people died. But we know the storm is coming and know how to keep us safe, so we're OK." Depending, of course, on the child's age, you may adjust this response, but only offer small units of information to a child's question (sort of the way you might answer, Where do babies come from?) before flooding your child with facts he didn't really want or need to know to be reassured.

• Offer physical contact. For many kids, Mommy or Daddy's lap makes scary things go away. Cuddling or snuggling with a good book can do wonders for helping quell a child's anxiety.

• Help your kids get their ya-ya's out. Even if you're housebound, you can create opportunities for physically releasing nervous energy. Have a dance contest to some good old fashioned disco or rock and roll. Let your kids lead an "exercise class." Play Simon Says, or Follow the Leader around the house. Physical movement is a vital element in discharging anxiety.

• Give your kids a job. Let them find the candles, load the flashlights with fresh batteries or help you cook up something non-perishable to have on hand if the power does go out. Giving them a role or task helps empower them, and lessens their sense of being out of control.

• If kids ask questions about what's going to happen, be honest but brief. Don't elaborate unnecessarily, but be frank so they have some idea of what to expect if you are without power or the ordinary comforts of life for a period of time so they're a bit prepared.

Show your children that you are in charge, stay calm and offer reassurance. Safe wishes to all!

This post originally appeared on August 27, 2011 and has been updated for Hurricane Sandy.

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Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and credentialed teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.