Discussing possible emergency scenarios with one’s children is never a pleasant topic. Parents do not want to frighten them or create new anxieties. Dr. Sanam Hafeez is a New York City based Neuro-psychologist and School Psychologist who has an approach to emergency preparedness that won’t freak your children out.
Tell children an emergency is something unusual that happens which could hurt people, or cause damage to things like houses and cars. Explain to them that nature sometimes provides ‘too much of something’ like, rain, wind or snow. Talk about effects of an emergency that children can relate to, such as loss of electricity, water, and telephone service; flooded roads and uprooted trees. Explain that everyone is better able to take care of themselves in emergencies when they know what to do.
First, teach your children the difference between a problem and an emergency. A problem is something that they need help with, but does not require emergency services. An emergency is a situation that requires immediate assistance from the police or fire department, or requires immediate medical assistance through paramedics or EMTs. When your child experiences a problem, he or she should decide whether to call you immediately, call a neighbor, or whether the problem can wait until you get home. For example, you’d probably want your child to call you if he or she:
- Felt scared
- Had trouble getting into the house
- Got home and found that the electricity was off
The following issues would warrant an immediate call to 9-1-1:
- A fire
- Evidence of a break-in
- A medical emergency, such as someone being unresponsive or bleeding profusely
Step One: Create a Communication Plan
Teach your child one parent’s cell-phone number or a good contact number. Dr. Hafeez says that, “Starting at around age 5, kids are developmentally ready to memorize a 7- or 10-digit number. Practice with your child and turn the phone number into a song, like a modified version of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”
Designate an out-of-state contact. This will be a resource and point person for your family to call.
Choose a location other than your home where your family can meet. You’ll need to go there in case of a fire or an earthquake, for example. Your meeting place might be a local park, school, or shelter. Walk to the site with your child so he/she knows exactly how to get there.
Designate a trusted friend or family member who can pick up your kid at child care or school if you are unable to get there in a disaster situation. Be sure that you give official permission to release your child to that person.
Make a card with your plan for each adult’s wallet. Include contact names, your emergency location, and the out-of-state contact number. Put a copy in your school-age child’s backpack, and discuss the plan with your kids.
Inform caregivers and nearby relatives of your plan. Be sure to give a copy of your plan to your child’s teacher too.
If you’re not good at texting, improve your skills. When cell- phone signal strength goes down, texting often still works because it uses less bandwidth and network capacity.
Everyone needs to know about calling 911 in an emergency. Dr. Hafeez stresses that, “Kids also need to know the specifics about what an emergency is. Asking them questions like, “What would you do if we had a fire in our house?” or “What would you do if you saw someone trying to break in?” gives you a chance to discuss what constitutes an emergency and what to do if one occurs. Role playing is an especially good way to address various emergency scenarios and give your kids the confidence they’ll need to handle them”
Dr. Hafeez points out that, “For younger children, it might also help to talk about who the emergency workers are in your community — police officers, firefighters, paramedics, doctors, nurses, and so on — and what kinds of things they do to help people who are in trouble. This will clarify not only what types of emergencies can occur, but also who can help.”
When to Call 911
Dr. Hafeez explains that, “Part of understanding what an emergency is, is knowing what is not. A fire, an intruder in the home, an unconscious family member — these are all things that would require a call to 911. A skinned knee, a stolen bicycle, or an agreement with a school mate would not. Still, teach your child that if ever in doubt and there’s no adult around to ask, make the call. It’s much better to be safe than sorry”.
Make sure your kids understand that calling 911 as a joke is a crime in many places. In some cities, officials estimate that as much as 75% of the calls made to 911 are non-emergency calls. These are not all pranks. Some people accidentally push the emergency button on their cell phones. Others don’t realize that 911 is for true emergencies only (not for such things as a flat tire or even about a theft that occurred the week before).
Work Out a Home Evacuation Plan
In the event of a fire or a natural disaster, your entire family will need to have a coordinated evacuation plan to ensure that everyone makes it out of the house safely. Dr. Hafeez stresses that, “It is important to explain to your child that all material possessions, even favorite ones, can be replaced and that it’s far more important for them to exit the house than it is to save their belongings. Make sure that he/she knows how to get out of the house if you’re not able to reach her, to make her way to a pre-arranged family meeting place and what she should do when he/she arrives there first.”
Discuss Region-Specific Natural Disasters
You probably won’t need to waste much time on teaching a child that lives in the Midwest how to manage a hurricane, but he/she will need to know what to do in the event of a tornado. Talking about the natural disasters that are most likely to occur in your area and making a specific plan to deal with them is imperative, especially if you live in a region that’s particularly prone to environmental emergencies.
Role Play Specific Scenarios
Dr. Hafeez explains that, “One of the best ways to determine how much your child knows and what she still needs to learn about emergency preparedness is to role play specific scenarios that she could potentially encounter. There’s a reason why public schools practice routine fire drills: they help kids prepare in a relatively low-stress environment for an emergency so that, in a high-pressure situation, they know how to react. Role playing serious injury situations, weather emergencies, a house fire and even potential intruder situations gives you an idea about what your child knows and helps you teach them more detailed information so that they’re prepared to handle any emergency.
After the Emergency: Time for Recovery
Immediately after the emergency situation, try to reduce your child’s fear and anxiety.
Keep the family together. While you look for housing and assistance, you may want to leave your children with relatives or friends. Instead, keep the family together as much as possible and make children a part of what you are doing to get the family back on its feet. Children get anxious, and they’ll worry that their parents won’t return.
Explain what will happen next. For example, say, “Tonight, we will all stay together in the shelter.” Dr. Hafeez emphasizes to, “Get down to the child’s eye level and talk to them”.
Encourage children to talk. Let children talk about the emergency and ask questions as much as they want. Encourage children to describe what they’re feeling. Listen to what they say. If possible, include the entire family in the discussion.
Include children in recovery activities. Give children chores that are their responsibility. This will help children feel they are part of the recovery. “Having a task will help them understand that everything will be all right.