National Weather Service has confirmed that the DC metro area experienced two weak tornadoes yesterday – one near Herndon and one near Anacostia. The entire region experienced some very significant thunderstorms. I want to offer some tips for you about talking to your children about severe weather. How can you reassure your children and provide them with tools to respond appropriately and safely to hazardous weather conditions?

During yesterday’s storms, I was shopping alone in Target. You could hear everyone’s cell phones go off when the warnings came out, and in that store there were some nervous adults and a few very frightened children. Strong thunderstorms are a fact of life in the spring, but many of us in our region are unaccustomed to the threat of tornadoes. Here are some ways to help yourself and your child in a severe weather situation.

  1. Have a family disaster plan in place. If you don’t have one yet, now is a good time to create one. Together, decide what you will do in various possible severe weather situations and how you will communicate. See details of how to create a family emergency plan at ready.gov (https://www.ready.gov/make-a-plan); tailor it to your family’s particular needs. Knowledge is power in this case; your children will feel more confident if they know that you have a plan in place. Consider emergency protocols for times when your child is away from you – when they are with a babysitter, on a playdate, at soccer or dance class.
  2. Teach your child how to be safe. Teach your child the safest place in your house during a tornado, as well as simple safety tips like going inside when thunder and lightning are present or not standing underneath a tree in a thunderstorm.
  3. Be realistic rather than overly optimistic or pessimistic. We live in a place that can experience some severe weather events, and that is the simple truth. You could tell your child: “It would be very, very unlikely that we would ever have a tornado, but it’s good to know what to do just in case.” You may wish to limit children’s media exposure and avoid pictures of disasters if possible; for many children these images create more questions than reassurance. At the same time, you may need to use weather radio to understand the situation and you can reassure your child that the weatherman’s job is to tell us how to stay safe.
  4. Ask your child what will help him or her feel calmer. This might be a hug, a prayer, a special stuffed animal, building a fort with the couch cushions, whatever makes your child feel better. You may wish to help your child name his or her feelings – but you may wish to then move on from that conversation and not dwell too deeply in the fear, instead focusing on taking what action you can to help stay safe.
  5. Understand your child’s school’s emergency plan. TPK was outside the tornado warning zone and watched the situation carefully, but numerous area schools were within the zone and implemented tornado protocol. Often this means sheltering in an interior, ground floor hallway away from windows and doors. Schools practice tornado drills, but many schools were in tornado protocol for 30-45 minutes yesterday, and some children found it to be scary indeed when faced with the real situation. Fear is a normal emotion when faced with situations that are unknown and out of your control. Know what your child’s school will do (it’s OK to ask us!) and how they will communicate an emergency situation with you. You could tell your child: “You can trust that the adults at your school know how to keep you as safe as possible, and in an emergency the safest thing is to do exactly what they tell you to do. You might feel frightened, but following your teacher’s instructions will help keep you safe.”
  6. In a serious situation: don’t panic. Your child will learn from your response. In Target yesterday, I listened to a mom and a store employee reassure a very frightened preschool-aged child: “It’s okay, honey. We are safe inside, and we’re just keeping an eye on what’s going on outside. I have flashlights in case we lose power and if we all need to go into another room and wait there, I’ll go with you and make sure you have one. I’m here to help keep everyone safe.” Children are perceptive and can pick up on the seriousness of these situations, and it is reassuring to them to know that the adults around them are calm, prepared, and in charge.

Your child wants to know that he or she will be safe, that Mom and Dad will be safe, and that important places and people in his world will be safe. You can’t control the weather, but you can make a plan and you can control your response – and these are important factors in helping to stay safe and helping to reassure your child.