Plan with your children what to do in case of a hurricane, flood, tornado, wildfire or blizzard or an earthquake
It’s a conversation you might hesitate to have with your kids: what they should do if a hurricane, tornado or wildfire was headed toward your house. Or where they should go if a big earthquake hit while they were at school or soccer practice. But if you live in an area where a natural disaster is a possibility — and many of us do — it’s a talk you should have.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be traumatic. Here are tips on how to discuss the topic with your kids, along with ideas for helping them stay safe. Now is a good time to start the conversation and get organized.
How to Talk With Children About Natural Disasters
Though parents might think that talking with their kids about a family disaster plan would create worry, child psychology and emergency preparedness experts say it can have the opposite effect. Knowing that their family has an emergency plan increases children’s confidence and gives them a sense of control, experts say. Knowing what to do also can help kids stay safe if disaster strikes.
But how do you raise the subject without scaring them? Your approach should vary with the age of the child, but, in general, the nonprofit Save the Children group and other emergency responders say you should:
Listen. Find out what children know about disasters and let them express their feelings.
Be honest. Tell the truth in an age-appropriate way. Don’t overwhelm them with too much information. If you don’t know something, let them know you’ll find the answer.
Be reassuring. Acknowledge that disasters can be scary. Let them know you’re taking safety precautions and that you’ll show them what they should do.
Limit graphic images. Don’t show children frightening pictures of disasters when talking about safety. Be aware of imagery in news coverage and turn off the TV when necessary.
Make it a learning experience. Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of disasters, play to children’s curiosity and make the topic educational. Use games and cartoons to help them learn.
Talk about helpers. Highlight the people who often serve others in daily life and during disasters, and talk about the ways your children also can help.
Empower them. Invite children to participate in the family’s emergency preparations.
Stick to the Basics With Preschool and Kindergarten Kids
Explain to young children that an emergency is when something happens that you don’t expect and you have to act quickly to stay safe. Tell them that you can get ready for emergencies together.
Sesame Street’s Let’s Get Ready Family Guide suggests pointing out things that happen during emergencies: A smoke alarm beeps, an exit sign tells you where to go, fire trucks and ambulances flash their lights and sound a siren. Tell children that these vehicles have helpers in them — firefighters and emergency responders.
Let them know that your neighborhood has people such as police officers, firefighters, teachers, doctors, and utility workers ready to help your family. You can show them pictures of emergency workers in uniform to help them recognize them when they see them.
Other things to do with children 5 and under:
Teach them their first and last names. If your children get separated from you in a disaster, helpers will find it easier to reunite you if the children know their full names. They should learn your names too. Sesame Street has a song about learning whole names to help them remember.
Talk about 911. Tell them how and when to call 911, and what they should say. Practice making a call with them.
Pack their emergency backpacks with them. Let them choose a second-favorite stuffed animal or blanket to include for comfort in an evacuation. In their “go packs,” also include their contact and medical info, recent photos of them, comfort food and treats and activity items like books and travel-size toys and games. If you have children with special needs, also pack their medications, devices and health information.
Bring Elementary School Kids Into the Communications Loop
Make sure children in this age group understand the ideas discussed earlier. Talk about the disasters most likely to happen in your area and tell them about your family’s plans for them. Ask if they have any questions, listen to their concerns and reassure them when needed.
Find out if they know what their school would have them do during an emergency. Talk about how they should contact you and what they should do if they’re away from home during a natural disaster.
You also can give your children things to do to assist in your family’s preparations. They can help assemble your emergency supplies and first aid kit, for example. FEMA offers educational online games to make the process more fun. Have them choose games, coloring books, and a stuffed animal or other comfort items to keep in their emergency backpacks.
To help children ages 6 to 11 prepare for an evacuation or a family separation, also:
Review the basics. Make sure they know their address and phone number, in addition to their first and last names (and yours), and how and when to dial 911.
Put them in touch. Have them memorize the name and number of an out-of-town relative or friend who wouldn’t be affected by the disaster and whom you would all contact.
Give them exit plans. Look for and practice two ways to get out of every room in your house.
Coordinate a meet-up. Discuss where in front of your house you would gather if you had to get out fast.
Travel a little farther. Make sure they know your family’s designated safe neighborhood meeting place, such as a coffee shop, library or landmark tree, if you need to evacuate farther away and are separated.
Go the distance. Review another safe meeting place farther away, such as a school or shelter, if you need to meet outside your neighborhood.
Enlist the Help of Middle School and High School Kids
In addition to taking the steps listed previously, invite tweens and teens to share their feelings and ideas. Involve them even more in your family’s emergency planning. Talk about the importance of following orders and acting with caution during a natural disaster. Make sure they know the names of the neighbors they could turn to for help.
Other things you can do with kids ages 11 to 18:
Give them tools. Show them where the fire extinguishers are and how to use them and where you keep the first aid and emergency kits.
Stay in touch. Have them write down your family’s emergency info and keep it in their wallets or backpacks.
Be mobile. Help them program emergency contacts in their cellphones and tell them to text you rather than call during a natural disaster.
Create a Safety Net for College Students and Young Adults
Young people living on their own for the first time may not think about disaster planning, so raise the topic and discuss what they would do to stay safe. Also:
Focus their thinking. Talk with them about the most common natural disasters they would encounter at their locale. Map out possible scenarios and where they would seek shelter.
Make the connection. Agree on a communication plan both of you will follow to stay in touch during an emergency.
Give them a hand. Pack an emergency kit for their dorm room, apartment or car. Include a flashlight, a first aid kit, extra batteries, bottled water, blankets, non-perishable food, a cellphone, and a charger.
Put together disaster kits for your home and cars. Collect items you would need at home if you lost power or water and had to shelter in place. This can include flashlights and batteries, nonperishable food, bottled water, a battery-operated radio, and medical supplies. Also assemble backpacks with things to take with you if you have to evacuate: first aid kit, medications, diapers, emergency contact list, food items, pet supplies, emergency blanket, cash, maps, chargers, extra keys.
Plan and practice for evacuation. Make sure everyone knows how to get out of the house quickly. Check that windows can be opened and are clear below if they need to be used as an exit. Talk with your kids about emergency signals they might hear and what they should grab or do if they have to leave immediately, have five minutes to get out or can take 15 minutes or more. Decide on meeting spots outside the house, in your neighborhood and outside the neighborhood.
Agree on what you’ll do if you’re away from home. Set up a family communication plan that includes a contact outside the area whom everyone could call or text in an emergency. In case electronics fail, write out lists of emergency and family numbers for everyone to keep with them. Know the emergency plan and contact info for each family member’s school or workplace. Discuss how and where you would meet up.
Set up safe spaces at home. If you may need to shelter at home during a tornado, winter storm or other disasters, make sure everyone knows the safe places and where to find emergency and first aid kits. Have materials on hand for boarding up windows and know the locations of utility shutoffs. Keep your basement or shelter stocked with supplies.
Your turn: Do you have any preparedness tips to share? Please post them in the comments.