Children and the Tornado: Helping Kids Cope

Annie Hauser
Published: May 21, 2013

Rebekah Stuck hugs her son, Aiden Stuck, 7, after she found him in front of the destroyed Briarwood Elementary after a tornado struck south Oklahoma City and Moore, Okla., Monday, May 20, 2013. Aiden Stuck was inside the school when it was hit. (AP Photo/ The Oklahoman, Nate Billings)

  • Moore, Okla.
  • Moore, Okla.: 1999 and 2013
  • Near Shawnee, Okla.
  • Near Shawnee, Okla.
  • Near Shawnee, Okla.
  • Edmond, Okla.
  • Dale, Okla.
  • Dale, Okla.
  • Dale, Okla.
  • Edmond, Okla.
  • Edmond, Okla.

Any time children are involved in a catastrophe, emotional reactions among survivors – and across the nation – are particularly strong.

At least seven children are among the 24 dead in the aftermath of Monday’s devastating tornado, which ravaged an Oklahoma suburb, the Oklahoma Medical Examiner's Office told The Associated Press.

(MORE: The Latest | Recap of Severe Weather)

For the surviving children, their health and safety should be the first priority, grief and trauma expert David Kessler. Then, Kessler said parents should expect to explain to their children what happened and why and provide access to professional counseling resources if at all possible.

Children are likely to have trouble sleeping following the storm, Nina Thomas, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating trauma survivors, said. Developmental progress, such as toilet training and language development, is likely to be temporarily affected as well.

The severe thunderstorms containing hail, damaging wind gusts and tornadoes that are forecast to roll from Texas all the way up into the Great Lakes Tuesday and Wednesday will likely cause an emotional response in the children who survived Monday’s storm, Thomas said.

“Certain sounds and a certain quality to the air will likely trigger a response in children, as they fear the storm is happening all over again,” she said. “Even if severe weather events are happening somewhere else, storms can make children intensely anxious.”

What Parents and Caregivers Can Do

Following a disaster, children are most afraid that it will happen again, someone close to them will be killed or injured or they will be left alone or separated from their family, according to the Red Cross.

(More: Find out how to help Oklahoma storm victims here.)  

Parents can help by explaining risks and dangers and how the family is prepared for another disaster. They can also limit a child’s exposure to media coverage surrounding the storms, as violent images can trigger fear and anxiety.

If a young child asks questions about the event, answer them simply without the elaboration needed for an older child or adult. Children vary in the amount of information they need and can use. If a child has difficulty expressing his or her thoughts and feelings, then allowing them to draw a picture or tell a story of what happened may help, Red Cross experts say.

When children are involved, it’s common for people not directly affected by the tragedy to feel a sense of grieving, fear and loss as well, Kessler said. One of the best ways to ease your emotional reaction to the storm is to be active in some way, he said. “Help the Red Cross, help some other agency,” Kessler said. “Also, think about what you can do to make your world a little safer from the natural disasters likely to strike your region.”

Preparing for natural disasters and extreme weather events will help everyone in the family accept that disasters do happen. Across the nation, families should work together to identify and collect the resources needed to meet basic needs during and after disaster. Helping children feel like they are prepared for the next extreme weather event will help them cope, according to the Red Cross.

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