Childhood trauma counselor offers guidance for helping children cope with natural disasters


It’s not surprising when people who experience life-threatening disasters have trouble letting go of the fear.

Children are often particularly vulnerable to lingering anxiety after events such as tornados, floods and storms.

The key for parents and other influential adults is to validate children’s fears, be patient with their need to “talk it out,” and limit their exposure to media coverage.

“Talking about trauma really helps both kids and adults process and work through it,” said Nancy Hoey, a Catholic mother, licensed professional counselor and certified clinical trauma professional, who is a member of Cathedral of St. Joseph parish in Jefferson City.

“The more they talk about it, the less emotion is tied to the event,” she said. “So a child will naturally want to discuss it over and over again.”

Adults might find that annoying and be tempted to say, “I don’t want to hear about that again because it’s too upsetting.”

“But when an adult does that, it may shut down the process,” she cautioned.

Mrs. Hoey suggested letting children lead the way in discussing, but never push them when they don’t want to talk about something traumatic.

She said adults should be aware of the conversations they’re having around children as well as what they’re watching on TV or online.

“You have to be careful not to put kids in situations that will trigger fear,” she said, “and we have to also protect them from images and conversations that their young brains cannot process.”

While adults might be interested in seeing photos and videos of buildings that have been torn apart by a tornado or inundated by floodwaters, “a child’s brain cannot handle that in the same way as adults,” she said.

She emphasized the importance of giving credence to children’s fears.

“If a child says, ‘I’m really scared that a tornado is going to come tonight,’ don’t tell them they have nothing to be afraid of,” she said. “Always validate a fear.”

It’s better to say, “It makes sense that you are scared,” or “that is really scary.”

“Give them an example when you were scared as a child,” she said.

But after validating the fear, be sure to remind the child that he or she is safe.

“Ask them if they want to talk about a safety plan,” she said. “For instance, you can say ‘Look, I have this warning on my phone that goes off when a tornado is nearby. Then we look at the radar to see what is happening. We head to the basement where we are safe.’”

Mrs. Hoey noted that her own daughter was terrified of storms around the age of 10.

“A spike in anxiety at that age is quite common, especially for girls, and often that anxiety plays out as a fear of storms,” said Mrs. Hoey.

Validation and reassurance helped the situation.

“What didn’t help was people telling her that she had nothing to be afraid of,” said Mrs. Hoey. “That made it worse.”

Instead, “I would hold her and reassure her that we were safe and nothing bad was going to happen,” she said.

Was Mrs. Hoey 100-percent sure of that herself?

“Absolutely not,” she said, “but that’s what she needed to hear at the time.”