MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The skies turn gray. The lightning cracks. Thunder booms. For most of us, a fleeting moment of fear is as bad as it gets.

“I was petrified of tornadoes. Would almost pass out when the sirens went off,” said Kathy Lauer on my Facebook page.

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“Even when there’s not a storm, [kids are] checking the weather, they’re feeling nervous if it gets overcast. That’s different,” said Dr. Steven Whiteside, a Mayo Clinic child psychologist who specializes in anxiety.

He added: “When we’re working with anxious kids, we never promise something bad’s not going to happen. We try to get them to accept is that the chances of something bad happening are very low, and are not high enough to be worth worrying about.”

It can be a particular challenge when tornado damage dominates the news, as it has in the aftermath of the Moore, Okla., tornado. Schools were leveled, children were killed.

Should parents talk about it with their kids? Shield their kids from the news?

“It’s challenging, because we know kids talk about these things among themselves,” Whiteside said.

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He suggested following your kids’ lead.

“In general, we encourage parents to let their kids talk about it, find out what they know, and try to respond to that,” he said.

Whiteside recommended that parents set the example.

“Kids pick up from their parents how they should react in a situation,” he said.

Tell children things like: thunder won’t hurt you. Explain that storms are a normal part of nature.

According to Whiteside, the same type of exposure-based behavioral therapy used to defeat many worries and phobias works well with weather-related phobias.
The theory is that parents can gradually help their children face their fears. Specifically, it can help to read stories about storms, research storms, watch videos of tornadoes or other storms. Ultimately you start watching rainstorms together, and even go outside to play in the rain.

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“If we tend to avoid things that make us nervous, we never get the chance to learn that it’s not as bad as we thought they were,” Whiteside said. “That’s what can lead to anxiety getting worse over time.”

Jason DeRusha