What You Should Know About Tornadoes

A tornado is a rapidly rotating column of air that extends from the cloud base to the ground. Tornadoes generally travel from west/southwest to east/northeast, but they can travel in any direction and can change their course suddenly. Sometimes tornadoes are preceded by heavy rain, wind, and hail; other times they seem to arise out of relatively clear conditions. Sometimes people hear a loud roar or trainlike sound when a tornado approaches. While tornadoes have occurred in all fifty states, the Midwestern and Southern states have the greatest number. The most violent tornadoes tend to be in the spring, but they can occur any time of the year.

Advances in weather prediction have resulted in fewer tornado-related injuries and fatalities. Unfortunately, these advances have led to a false sense of security. If a tornado watch (when atmospheric conditions are favorable for forming a tornado) should become a tornado warning (when a tornado has formed), families should seek shelter quickly. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Center has a Tornado FAQ with more information about tornadoes.


Impact on Children and Families

A tornado threatens the usual assumptions of safety. The winds and flying debris can disrupt telephone lines and other utilities, breaking down communication. A powerful storm can blow off the roofs of houses, break windows, blow open doors, split trees in two, and destroy entire homes. Leaving shelter is dangerous, as windblown items such as shards of glass, parts of houses, and uprooted trees can cause sudden injury or death.

Tornadoes are unusual storms, as their path is often erratic. In the same neighborhood, some houses may be leveled completely while others sustain little damage. While scattered destruction can be easier on the community than that of a flood or a hurricane—in that not all community resources may be used up—the inconsistent pattern of damage can cause feelings of guilt in those spared or unfairness in those recovering. Children may develop unusual ideas or myths about why a tornado did or did not hit their home.

Children may see anxiety and fear in parents and caregivers who are usually confident. They may lose their homes and cherished pets, memorabilia, and toys. They may see collapsed or damaged buildings—including their schools or familiar community landmarks. They may encounter rubble, debris, or other wreckage, and experience the horror of seeing severely injured people or dead bodies.

As with other natural disasters, there may be a spectrum of psychological casualties. Individuals with preexisting emotional and behavioral problems may get worse if their support systems fail, they run out of medications, and/or their routine destabilizes. Others may develop chronic emotional and behavioral problems following exposure to pervasive stresses, such as the loss of community infrastructure, home or employment, or family or friends. In addition, emotional and physical exhaustion may affect individuals or families' ability to recover.

Children and adults frequently experience traumatic reminders, during which they suddenly relive and reexperience the emotions, fears, thoughts, and perceptions, they experienced at the time of the tornado. Typical traumatic reminders include tornado watches and warnings, thunderstorms, dark clouds, high winds, and hail.

Common emotional reactions of children and family members exposed to a tornado include:

  • Feelings of insecurity, unfairness, anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, despair, and worries about the future
  • Fear that another tornado will occur
  • Believing myths or folklore as to the cause of the tornado
  • Disruptive behaviors, irritability, temper tantrums, agitation, or hyperactivity
  • Clinging/dependent behaviors or avoidant and phobic symptoms
  • Physical symptoms, such as stomachaches, headaches, loss of appetite, nightmares, or sleep problems
  • Increased concerns regarding the safety of family members, friends, and loved ones
  • School-based problems, with decreased motivation and school performance


Adolescents may differ from younger children in how they respond to a tornado or other natural disaster. Some believe they will not live long and may exhibit:
  • Socially withdrawn, angry, or irritable
  • Risky behavior
  • Conflict with authority


Additional Information

To see other helpful materials on tornadoes, click on the Readiness, Response, and Recovery tabs at the top of the page. 


Readiness: Before a Tornado

The best was to help children and other family members to recover after a tornado is to be well prepared. For parents, preparedness means (1) talking to our children about a possible disaster, and (2) taking the following steps to plan for such an occurrence:
  • Develop a Family Preparedness Plan (PDF) so that all family members will know what to do in the case of a tornado. [Also available in Armenian, Korean, Russian, Spanish , and Vietnamese.]
  • Have a plan for your pets. Most emergency shelters cannot take in animals.
  • Make and carry a Family Preparedness Wallet Card (PDF) . [Also available in Armenia, Korean, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese.]
  • Give children factual information about tornadoes in simple terms:
    • The FEMA for Kids website contains kid-friendly tornado information presented in an engaging manner.
    • The National Severe Storms Laboratory website has free tornado safety coloring books for young children that can be downloaded.
  • During a tornado watch—when tornadoes are possible—prepare a safe location for the family, such as a basement, or a center hallway or bathroom on the lowest floor.  Keep this place free of clutter.  In a high-rise, pick a hallway in the center of the building.




Response: In the Event of a Tornado

  • During a tornado warning—when a tornado has been sighted—put your Family Preparedness Plan (PDF) into action and seek shelter.
    • Make sure family members have on sturdy shoes, long pants, and long-sleeved shirts.
    • Have a weather radio on or turn up the volume on a TV to hear updates.
    • Cover your head with your arms while crouching to protect your midsection.
    • Stay in the safe place until weather reports state that the danger has passed.
    • If in your car, getout.  Seek shelter in a ditch.
    • Do not seek shelter under an overpass or bridge.
  • Use flashlights—not candles—to inspect your home for damage to avoid an explosion in case of a broken gas line.
  • After providing any needed medical care, reassure children that the adults will keep them safe and secure.
  • Shield children as much as possible from viewing severe injuries and damage.
  • Give children a small snack or some juice to help reassure them that you will meet their needs.
  • Let children help in age-appropriate ways in order to decrease their feelings of helplessness, distract them from their worries, and increase their ability to cope.
  • Keep pets on leashes or in crates/cages to prevent them from running away or causing injury.
  • Do not underestimate or dismiss the loss that children feel for pets or special toys.
  • Watch for debris and fallen power lines.


Recovery: After a Tornado

After a tornado, most families recover over time, particularly with the support of family, friends, and organizations. The length of recovery depends, in part, on how frightened individuals were and the extent of the damage and loss. Some families will be able to return to their normal routine rather quickly, while others will have to contend with repairing damage to their home and possessions, finding medical care, or facing financial hardship. Some families will have lost a loved one or a pet. Others will need to adjust to school closings or changes in school schedules.

Children's functioning will be influenced by how their parents and other caregivers cope during and after the tornado. Children often turn to adults for information, comfort, and help. Children do best when parents and teachers remain (or at least appear) calm, answer children's questions honestly, and respond as best they can to requests.

 Page Contents:

NCTSN Resources

Psychological First Aid 
     >En Español [Primeros Auxilios Psicológicos - Guía de Operaciones Prácticas]

Psychological First Aid Field Operations Guide for Community Religious Professionals

After the Tornado: Helping Young Children Heal (PDF)
     >En Español [Después de Pasar por La Experiencia de Un Tornado]

Parent Guidelines for Helping Children after a Tornado (PDF)

Questions To Ask Your Children About the Tornado (PDF)

Teacher Guidelines for Helping Students after a Tornado (PDF)

Tornado Response for Kids: Right after a Tornado (PDF)

Tornado Recovery for Kids: Making Things Better (PDF)

Tornado Response for Teens: Right after a Tornado (PDF)

Tornado Recovery for Teens: Making Things Better (PDF)

Tips for Parents on Media Coverage of the Tornadoes (PDF)

Simple Activities for Children and Adolescents
Trinka and Sam and the Swirling Twirling Wind - A Children's Book (English & En Español) (2015) (PDF)
Trinka and Sam and the Swirling Twirling Wind is a story developed to help young children and their families begin to talk about feelings and worries they may have after they haveexperienced a severe tornado. In the story, Trinka and Sam, two small mice, become scared and worried after they experience a tornado and witness damage to their community. The story describes some of their reactions, and talks about how their parents help them express their feelings and feel safer. In the back of the booklet, there is a parent guide that suggests ways that parents can use the story with their children.  


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Children's Reactions

Children will react differently to a tornado and its aftermath depending on their age, developmental level, and prior experiences. Some will withdraw, while others will have angry outbursts. Still others will become agitated or irritable. Parents should be sensitive to each child's coping style. The following are typical reactions children exhibit following a tornado or any natural disaster:

  • Fear and worry about their safety or the safety of others, including pets
  • Fear of separation from family members
  • Clinging to parents, siblings, or teachers
  • Worry that another tornado will come
  • Increase in activity level
  • Decrease in concentration and attention
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Angry outbursts or tantrums
  • Aggression toward parents, siblings, or friends
  • Increase in physical complaints, such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Increased sensitivity to the sounds of wind or things crashing
  • Change in school performance
  • Long-lasting focus on the tornado, such as talking repeatedly about it or acting out the event in play
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Lack of interest in usual activities, even playing with friends
  • Regressive behaviors, such as baby talk, bedwetting, or tantrums
  • Increase in teens' risky behaviors, such as drinking alcohol, using substances, harming themselves, or engaging in dangerous activities


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What Parents Can Do to Help Their Children

Parents should spend time talking to their children, letting them know that it is okay to ask questions and to share their worries. Although it will be hard finding time to have these conversations, parents can use regular family mealtimes or bedtimes to talk. Issues may come up more than once and parents should remain patient and open to answering questions and clarifying the situation. They can let children know, without overwhelming them with information, what is happening in the family, with their school, and in the community. Parents should answer questions briefly and honestly and ask their children for their opinions and ideas. To help younger children feel safe and calm after talking about the tornado, parents might read a favorite story or have a relaxing family activity.

To help children's recovery, parents should:

  • Be a role model. Try to remain calm so that you can teach your child how to handle stressful situations.
  • Monitor adult conversations. Be aware of what adults are saying about the tornado or the damage. Children listen to adults' conversations and may misinterpret what they hear, becoming unnecessarily frightened.
  • Limit media exposure. Protect your child from too many images and descriptions of the tornado, including those on television, on the Internet, on radio, and in the newspaper.
  • Reassure children that they are safe. You may need to repeat this frequently even after the tornado passes. Spend extra time with them, playing games outside, reading together indoors, or just cuddling. Be sure to tell them you love them.
  • Replace lost or damaged toys as soon as you are able.
  • Calm worries about their friends' safety. Even though phones may not be working, reassure your children that their friends' parents are taking care of them, just the way you are taking care of your children.
  • Tell children about community recovery. Reassure them that the government is working hard to restore electricity, phones, water, and gas. Tell them that the town or city will be removing debris and helping families find housing.
  • Take care of your children's health. Help them get enough rest, exercise, and healthy food and water. Give them both quiet and physical activities.
  • Review the family preparedness plan. Some children will fear another tornado, particularly when there are aftershocks, so practicing the plan can help increase their sense of safety.
  • Maintain regular daily life. In the midst of disruption and change, children feel more secure with structure and routine. As much as possible, have regular mealtimes and bedtimes.
  • Maintain expectations. Stick to your family rules about good behavior and respect for others. Continue family chores, but keep in mind that children may need more reminding than usual.
  • Encourage children to help. Children cope better and recover sooner when they help others. Give them small cleanup tasks or other ways to contribute. Afterward, provide activities unrelated to the tornado, such as playing cards or reading.
  • Be extra patient as your children return to school. They may be more distracted and need extra help with homework for a while.
  • Give support at bedtime. Children may be more anxious when separating from parents. Spend a little more time than usual talking, cuddling, or reading. Start the bedtime routine earlier so children get the sleep they need. If younger children need to sleep with you, let them know it is a temporary plan, and that soon they will go back to sleeping in their own beds.
  • Help with boredom. The tornado may have disrupted the family's daily activities (watching television, playing on the computer, and having friends over) or caused the suspension of extracurricular activities (sports, youth groups, dances, or classes). Help children think of alternative activities, such as board games, card games, and arts and crafts. Try to find community programs (at the library, a park program, or a local YMCA) with child-friendly activities.
  • Keep things hopeful. Even in the most difficult situation, your positive outlook on the future will help your children see good things in the world around them, helping them through challenging times.
  • Seek professional help if your child still has difficulties more than six weeks after the tornado.


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Therapy for Children

If children are still having the reactions described above more than six weeks after the tornado, consult a mental health professional for an evaluation. If the clinician recommends counseling, keep in mind that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has the strongest evidence for helping children recover from a disaster. Therapy for children should typically include:

  • Family involvement
  • Awareness of the child's developmental level and cultural/religious differences
  • Assessment of preexisting mental health problems, including prior traumas and loss
  • Explanation and normalization of the child's psychological reactions to the tornado
  • Relaxation exercises and other skills to manage reactions to reminders of the tornado
  • Problem-solving and anger-management skills as needed
  • Helping to maintain normal developmental progression
  • Increasing positive activities and rebuilding social connections


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What Parents Can Do to Help Themselves

Parents have a tendency to neglect their own needs during a crisis. To take good care of their children, parents must take good care of themselves. Here are some things for parents to keep in mind:

  • Take care of yourself physically. Eat healthily, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, and get proper medical care.
  • Support each other. Parents and caregivers should take time to talk together and find ways to meet each other's needs.
  • Put off major decisions. Avoid making any life-altering decisions during this stressful posttornado period.
  • Give yourself a break. Try not to overdo cleanup activities. To reduce injury, avoid lifting heavy items or working for extended periods.


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What Teachers Can Do to Help Their Students

  • In a school with many students affected by an tornado, plan shorter lessons, go at a slower pace, give less homework than usual, and expect a decline in performance for a short time.
  • Identify students who had direct experience with the tornado, particularly those who suffered losses or had to evacuate, as they are at increased risk for distress.
  • Monitor conversations you and your colleagues have about the tornado, as you may share perceptions, feelings, and memories in ways that make children feel more anxious.
  • Encourage distressed students to meet with the school counselors.
  • Stay in touch with your students' parents and/or caregivers about academic performance and behavior.
  • Suggest that your school review its crisis and emergency plans in order to better respond to future events.
  • For those schools heavily affected by an tornado, consider a postdisaster mental health recovery program for students and school personnel. The NCTSN provides information on these programs and other material for educators in the Resources for School Personnel section of this website.


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What Teachers Can Do to Help Themselves

Teachers play an important role in helping their students recover. Simply returning to school promotes the welfare of children and families. Teachers should not neglect themselves as they work with children, adolescents, and families. Here are some self-care suggestions for teachers:

  • Take care of yourself emotionally. You and your family may have had a stressful experience and suffered losses like those of your students. To be able to support them, you must have support yourself.
  • Take care of yourself physically. Eat healthily, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, and get proper medical care.
  • Communicate with others. Make sure that you and your fellow teachers schedule ongoing times to talk together and give each other support. Teachers might consider covering for each other, so that they can address important personal/family issues that arise.
  • Give yourself a break. Try not to overdo cleanup activities. To reduce injury, avoid lifting heavy items or working for extended periods.
  • Put off major decisions. Avoid making any life-altering decisions during this stressful, posttornado period.
  • Take care of your own family. Even though you may be very committed to your students, you also need to spend time with and meet the needs of your own family members or friends.
  • If you have many tornado-related responsibilities, talk with your school administrators about temporarily altering your work schedule.


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