Emily Buckley, editor-in-chief

Have you ever wondered how your children would cope if there was an accident in your home and you weren’t present or able to walk them through the response? I have thought about this often, and wondered how I can effectively prepare my young children for emergencies without causing unnecessary worry or anxiety.

I’ve resolved that since natural and man-made disasters and medical emergencies do occur, my kids need to know what qualifies as an emergency and what does not, and what the appropriate response is, just in case.

Here are four tips I believe can help prepare, but not scare, children.

“Emergency” is a relative term.

Child psychologist Maurice Saunders, PhD, said, “Your child could be in a true emergency situation and not realize it.” He explained that kids don’t always realize the magnitude of a real emergency. “When I was 7 years old, my house caught fire, and I was in my room playing G.I. Joes. I did not realize what was happening,” he said. “My brother came and got me, and I still didn’t grasp the magnitude of the situation — no one had ever really spoken to us about an emergency. So I said, ‘Oh, I think I should get my skateboard.’ I was a bright kid and my parents were attentive, but it goes to show kids don’t instinctively understand the devastation something like a fire can cause.”

It is important to give kids a range of scenarios about what is an emergency and what is not to help them understand that an emergency is something very serious or dangerous, like if Mom or Dad is hurt and can’t get to the phone, they smell or see smoke inside or if there are bad people in the house. Remember, the scenarios should be designed to teach, not frighten. Keeping examples light can help get the point across with out scaring them. (For example, Barbie’s head popped off: Not an emergency. Your head popped off: Emergency!)

911 isn’t a joke.

Now your kids understand what an emergency is, the next step is to make sure they know where the phone (mobile and/or landline) is and how to dial 9-1-1. Does your child know how to use the phone? If you don’t have a landline, is your cell phone password protected? You may want to practice on a toy phone and rehearse the information they may be asked to provide in an emergency situation (where they are, who they are with and what is happening). Also, remind them it is important to follow the instructions the operator or paramedic gives them — ‘stranger danger’ does not apply in this kind of situation. It may be wise to introduce your children to firefighters or police officers so they understand these are people who can help them in emergencies.

Give specific direction.

Covering your eyes with your hands may seem like a good plan to a 6-year-old, so you may need to specifically tell your child what action to take in emergency situations. At school, the correct response may be to go to a teacher or hide under a desk. At home, they should know never to hide under a bed in case of a fire or near a bookcase in case of an earthquake. They should know safe exit routes, the location of the emergency kit and the meeting place.

Role play scenarios.

Again, acting out emergency situations and challenging kids to problem solve their way through them will help make them more comfortable and confident in actual emergencies. Practice things like, ‘If there was a fire in this room, what door would you exit from?’ or ‘If you can’t find mom, which neighbor could you go to for help?’