Talking to Your Kids About Disasters

Talking to Your Kids About Disasters

Emergencies can be frightening. There's no getting around it.

While the last thing you want to do is scare your child, it's important to broach the subject. If you do, you'll help diffuse some of the anxiety that will inevitably occur. Bottomline, when children feel prepared, they cope better.

In my house, disasters come up in conversation A LOT.  After all, my job focuses on emergency preparedness education or as my daughter puts it, "I tweet stuff so people stay safe."

My approach has been to be direct. I keep things high-level and age appropriate, leaving out the really scary details, but I don't sugar coat it either. Most experts agree the worst thing you can do is tell your child a disaster won’t happen.

Below are a few of my tried and true tactics for tackling the topic with my daughter. It's an important discussion, and for a little perspective, it can’t possibly be worse than explaining the “birds & bees" -- the conversation I'm truly dreading!

  • Make it tangible. Talk about local emergency risks in realistic terms – what they might look like and sound like and why it’s important to prepare. I found it useful to focus on the science of potential hazards, helping build curiosity and interest not fear.
  • Involve kids in your emergency planning. The more they take part, the more likely they'll remember what to do. Plus, they may have some good ideas!
  • Review your household emergency plan (PDF, 1.9MB) regularly. Go over where your family will reunite if separated during a disaster. Talk about who their emergency school or daycare pick-ups are and which people in the neighbourhood can be counted on for help. More repetition means more retention.
  • Take a prep tour. Go around the house and show your kids where emergency supplies are kept. Depending on their age, it’s not a bad idea to give them the 101 on using a fire extinguisher.
  • Hold practice drills. It’s like developing preparedness muscle memory. The more familiar kids get with a routine, the less likely they are to panic. This is one situation where you want your child on auto-pilot. I do this with “Drop, Cover, Hold On”. Fire drills are another good example.
  • Role play. This is a fun way to test if your chats are sinking in. Outline a potential scenario and have your child share what they’d do. If necessary, provide gentle reminders and prompts. Repeat the scenario in a few days or until you think the info has stuck.
  • Be adaptable. Living in Victoria, my primary preparedness concern is earthquakes. At first, the concept was pretty abstract to my daughter, but the conversations and questions have gotten more focused with age. Be prepared to up your game as your child gets older.
  • Follow their lead. As most moms know, kids are pretty good at signaling how much information they’re ready to handle. Let them set the pace using their questions as a guide.  
  • Be reassuring. Don’t get so focused on the nuts-and-bolts of preparedness that you forget to remind your children they’re safe and protected. I routinely tell my daughter the hazards we discuss may never happen, but that it's my job to keep her safe and big part of that is teaching her what to expect and do.