Ok, so you’re prepping your kids for emergencies. You’ve put together kid-friendly 72-hour kits. The backpack is little Johnny’s favorite color, he got to choose the kinds of granola bars you put in them, and he watched you pack it. Now what?
Now, the next step is to find a way to explain to little Johnny why he now has this cool kit, what it’s for, and when to use it.
How much information should you give your child about what it is they are preparing for? There are certain facts that are easy to explain and will provide information and alleviate stress:
- Yes, all of the family is going.
- Yes, we are going in the car.
These 2 examples provide just enough information, while not going into detailed instructions that could become confusing and stir up anxiety, but when children don’t have enough information, it can undermine the whole point of the exercise.
My kids are still pretty little, so we have to be careful about what we say and be somewhat guarded in our responses, lest we give them nightmares. Anyone who works with kids knows that this is a delicate balance, and a tough one to achieve. At the root of this difficulty is the fact that there are no hard-and-fast rules about what will be too much information or not enough; you have to make that determination on an individual basis.
In this respect, all information given to children can be divided into two groups:
- Information that should be repeated many, many times to make sure it’s understood
- Information that should be screened.
We can further break it down, in the style of a journalist, with the five Ws: Who, What/ Why, When, Where, and How.
Information To Be Repeated when Prepping Your Kids
Any time we leave the house, my two-year-old wants to know who is making the trip. Is Daddy coming? What about her older brothers? What about the baby? She is always concerned about being left alone in the house by herself, which, by the way, has never happened, but she worries about it all the same. Indeed, the possibility of someone left behind in an emergency is every parent’s nightmare.
Most families are separated geographically during the day, with parents at work or at home, and children at school. Sit down with your family and come up with a plan to reunite everyone. Read more about how to organize your emergency evacuation here. The point is for everyone to know where everyone is so all members of the family are accounted for.
Very small kids will want to know every aspect of the “who,” and it will be helpful to repeat it like a litany. “First, we’ll get brother and sister from school. Then, we’ll get Daddy. We won’t forget anyone.” And, whatever you do, don’t forget pets! Pets are an important part of the family, too, and most children will become completely unhinged if their beloved pet is left behind.
When children are given responsibility, it makes them feel as though they have more control over their lives, which is a huge plus during a stressful event. Therefore, everyone should know what they are responsible for.
Ideally, everyone would be able to get their own shoes and socks, their own 72-hour kit, and any comfort object that they own. Younger kids will probably need more help. If you can get the older kids to help the younger ones after they have taken care of their own things, that is even more ideal.
Having a simple, laminated checklist posted somewhere can be very helpful in this step.
READ MORE: What should be included in an evacuation checklist? See our list here.
At what point will your family evacuate? Is your evacuation urgent, or planned? The answer to this question depends on what kind of disaster you are facing. Thanks to weather-tracking technology, we know when to expect a hurricane within several days. Earthquakes or flash floods, not so much.
No matter which kind of evacuation you are experiencing, keep your children in the loop. This way, they’ll know not only what is happening in the present, but also in the immediate future. I find with my kids that it’s helpful to keep a running commentary when things get a little crazy, so they always know what’s going on. “Now we’re going to lock the door to the house. Now we’re putting extra blankets in the car, and then we’ll buckle you in.”
Pick a specific destination for your evacuation. In fact, have several in mind. It could be the home of a relative or a friend (make sure it’s okay with them, first) or a hotel. When I say “a hotel,” I don’t mean, “some hotel in the general vicinity of Amarillo, Texas.” Make a plan to go to a specific hotel in a specific location. “The Motel 6 off of exit 220.” If you are fleeing a hurricane, you may need to drive several hundred miles inland just to be sure of securing a hotel room. For something like flash flooding, a place just a couple miles away out of the floodplain is sufficient.
And, again, if you have pets, make sure these destinations are pet-friendly. Otherwise, your kids may insist on sleeping in the car with Fido.
Let the kids in on your plans. If you have a long drive, you can have them help you watch for the correct exit. Older kids can keep track on a map or the GPS. If they know what to expect and where they are going, a potentially traumatic event will turn into something exciting to look forward to.
It’s a given that most people will be travelling by car, but I include “How?” because of the series of related questions I often hear from my two kids, ages 4 and 2, when we go anywhere. “Are we taking the car or are we walking? Can I take my bike? Are we going to take the blue car that doesn’t have car seats or will we take the minivan?”
My answers usually sound like, “We’re taking the minivan because it’s too far to walk. No, you can’t take your bike. We’re taking the minivan. No, we’re taking the minivan. The minivan. Yes, the minivan is the vehicle that we will be using for this excursion.” They say that all education happens through repetition. I think I have that part down pat.
If your kids are feeling anxious about the flurry of scary events around them, even this simple reassurance will go a long way.
Information To Be Screened when Prepping Your Kids
When it comes to disasters, the “why” of emergency evacuation is also another “what.” Every geographic area has different possible disasters, and your child needs to be aware which ones are within the realm of possibility and which are not. A kid in Kansas does not need to worry about hurricanes or tsunamis, but should know what to do in the event of a tornado.
My neighborhood in the inter-mountain west is near the railroad tracks. Chemical spills due to earthquake or a simple mechanical malfunction, while not a sure thing, are within the realm of possibility. So when we sat down to talk with our 6-year-old about the possibility of evacuation during this sort of event, we told him that we needed to be aware of the trains by our house and that sometimes they carried stuff that would be harmful to little kids if they spilled. We emphasized that this was not something that he needed to worry about during all his waking hours, especially since Mom and Dad had a plan in place should this event come to pass.
We did not give him an exhaustive list of all the many things that could possibly go wrong or a grotesque description of what chlorine gas does to the human body. In our earthquake drills, we have our young kids practice hiding under the kitchen table, and tell them to stay away from things that could fall down (pictures on the walls, bookshelves, etc) but didn’t talk about the possibility of people actually dying.
NEED MORE TIPS? Read, “Preparedness Drills to Do With Your Kids“.
For our two-year-old, we had to be much more basic. “If we ever have to leave our house really fast, we’ll take this stuff and go to [relative’s] house.”
We chose this level of information based on what we thought our kids could handle at their current social and emotional stage. Once they get older we will give them more information.
The education portion of helping children prepare for an emergency is probably the most difficult part of the whole process, because it involves sitting down with your kids and teaching them stuff. The phrase, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink,” applies here. You can talk to your kids about being prepared and when to use their kits until you are blue in the face, but they won’t internalize it unless you combine information with practice.
Stay tuned for “How to Prep Your Kid For Emergencies: Education”.