Here's how to talk to kids about extreme weather

Experts share how to have conversations about wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes and more.

Extreme weather is increasing in frequency and intensity — and can be scary, especially for young people. Experts explain how to talk to kids about heat waves, wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes and more. (Illustration by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo/Photo: Getty Images)
Extreme weather is increasing in frequency and intensity — and can be scary, especially for young people. Experts explain how to talk to kids about heat waves, wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes and more. (Illustration by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo/Photo: Getty Images)

There's a growing conversation about how the climate is impacting the health and well-being of families. Extreme weather events have been increasing in frequency and severity over the last few decades — and, according to experts, will continue on this trajectory. Whether it's wildfires, hurricanes high temperatures, extreme heat, tornadoes, flooding or some other natural disaster, kids will usually notice when something is off.

Some children may ask questions, but others won't and they can end up stressing about something that you didn't even realize they were aware of, Dr. Gina Posner, a board-certified pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., tells Yahoo Life.

If extreme weather is impacting your family or if it's big enough to make the news, experts say you should talk to your kids about it. But how can you do it in a way that won't completely freak them out? Here's what doctors recommend.

Why should you talk to kids about extreme weather?

If your child is young (think: 2 to 3), you really only need to talk to them about extreme weather if it's impacting them, Posner says. "With little ones, you can talk to them about how extreme weather will affect them, like, There are going to be some days where we need to stay inside because of fires. If we can't, we'll wear a mask so we don't feel sick." In the case of extreme heat, it could mean explaining that it's too hot to play at the park, or stressing the importance of wearing sunscreen and drinking water.

But if they're a little older, the odds are high that they'll be aware that extreme weather is happening, whether it's local or not. "They're going to hear about it from the news or friends," Dr. Daniel Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life.

Kids also may not understand details about the extreme weather situation, including its direct impact on them. "Oftentimes, what we are imagining about a situation can be worse than what is actually happening," Kelly Maynes, a pediatric psychologist at Connecticut Children’s, tells Yahoo Life. "This is especially true for children." She cites the ongoing Canada wildfires, which have dramatically impacted air quality in the United States. "[When] we are actually witnessing the effects in our own backyards, children may believe the threat of the fire and other dangers are much closer than they actually are."

Maynes says it's "tempting" to avoid discussing something that doesn't have an immediate threat. But, she adds, "some basic and transparent information could actually serve to reduce the anxiety of others, especially children."

How should you approach this conversation?

It depends. "If the extreme weather is directly impacting the area where you reside, it may be beneficial to start the conversation with a question," Hillary Ammon, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety & Women's Emotional Wellness, tells Yahoo Life. If there are wildfires near you, for example, she says you can say something like "Have you noticed that it looks a bit hazy outside today?" or "Have you noticed that it smelled like smoke outside?" 

"This can prompt your children to share what they already know about the extreme weather event so that you have a gauge of how to address it," she says.

If your child is unaware that extreme weather is happening, it may be helpful to ask them if they have questions about it or if they want to talk about it, Ammon says. "If they say no, it is OK to give them space. Remind them that you are ready to chat when they are," she says.

How to talk to your kids about extreme weather without raising their anxiety

Extreme weather is often unpredictable and that can be scary even for adults. But Maynes says there is a way to discuss it without making your child feel more anxious.

"By keeping the discussion an actual conversation where questions are encouraged, the opportunities to limit heightened anxiety are greater," she says. "If a question is asked that you don't have the answer to or you don't feel prepared to answer, a response such as I'm not sure about that, but maybe we can figure it out together? is fair."

It can also be helpful to have information ready in advance about how different community helpers are aiding extreme weather victims, as well as your family's own plan for communicating during storms or other events. But you also don't need to brush off your child's concerns. "Allowing some opportunity to recognize feelings like concern, fear, or worry can be helpful," Maynes says. "It's fair to feel a bit scared, and we can also identify all the people trying to help."

You'll also want to keep your child's age in mind when talking about extreme weather. "It’s important to discuss the extreme weather in a way that is age-appropriate and stick to the facts," Ammon says. She also notes that it's important to limit their exposure to the news or images of the extreme weather to avoid raising their anxiety about the event.

Signs your child is stressed about extreme weather

Maynes says there are a few signs that can indicate your child is stressed or anxious about extreme weather. Those include:

  • Asking repetitive questions about the weather and how it may impact their own safety and the safety of loved ones

  • Questions about the safety of their home

  • Changes in sleep or appetite

  • New physical complaints, including muscle aches, headaches or belly pain

"While it is not helpful to provide certainty related to extreme weather such as We won’t ever experience a forest fire where we live, you can help them understand that these extreme weather events are often not frequent occurrences," Ammon says. "It can be helpful to show them how you can have some control in your response to extreme weather." That can include things like staying indoors when it's smoky out or there's a heat wave and wearing a face mask outdoors when the air quality is poor, along with safety measures people who live in high-risk hurricane and tornado areas can take.

Maynes suggests letting your child know that you're there to answer questions and validating their concerns while offering some reassurance.

"If fears come up during school or at other times, having a brief sentence they can repeat — 'I know I'm safe' — or a small item that provides comfort can be helpful," Maynes says.

This story was originally published on June 9, 2023 and has been updated.