Thinking and talking about potential worst-case-scenarios often happens when the kids are asleep or at school. We want to protect our children from fears and allow them to “just be kids,” playing and growing, trusting us to keep everything scary at bay.

But as mainstream interest in disaster preparedness grows — partly in response to increasing extreme weather events and future uncertainty — the whole family needs to be in on the plan.

If my child finds herself with an incapacitated caregiver, her own survival may depend on knowing what steps to take. From a young age, kids can learn to call for help and even administer basic first aid: their sharp minds are limited only by their physical strength and emotional state.

As parent, I must feel comfortable and competent in the realm of first aid. When I do, I can naturally integrate some relevant skills into our ordinary adventures without either terrifying my child or boring her with “lessons” that feel like drudgery. Learning first aid is all about the human body, and it’s fascinating!

When we were on vacation with my daughter Alice (5) and her cousin Zoe (8), the two regularly got on one another’s nerves and had trouble playing together peacefully. But during a 3-hour boat trip I witnessed a striking scene. Alice tripped and hit her head on a hard metal railing, causing a big red “goose egg” to appear on her forehead, along with many tears. Zoe immediately dropped her book (which she had been grumpily reading in her own corner) and asked for some ice. Ice was procured, and Zoe carefully wrapped it in a plastic bag covered with a shirt. She gently asked her cousin to sit next to her, and held the ice to Alice’s swollen head for several minutes, checking intermittently to see if her efforts were helping, and kindly asking Alice how she was feeling. A couple of days later, Zoe stubbed her toe painfully: Alice jumped up and ran to the freezer for an ice cube, thrilled with her own opportunity to play nurse. Helping feels good; soothing a real hurt feels important and grown-up. Learning a few first-aid principles does more than prepare kids for the worst: it also helps them develop their compassion, self-esteem, and sense of purpose.

1. The world is your classroom: narrate everyday examples.

This starts when they’re toddlers. Any scrape, nosebleed, or fall from the apple tree is a teaching moment, as you verbally describe every step you’re taking. “First I’m applying pressure to stop the bleeding, then I’m gently washing the dirt out of your cut with clean water, then I’m applying this bandage with a little compression.” Spell out your chain of thought: “After you fell off your bike on the pavement, I’m looking to see if any cars are coming before checking to make sure you are still awake and answering me.”

Perhaps the most important skill you can model for your kids is staying calm when they get hurt. Show them how to take a slow deep breath and release it to help ease panic.

On our boat trip, Zoe perked up and asked for ice because she was remembering a previous teaching moment, when one of her parents explained to her why they were icing her contusion. She had been treated then with matter-of-fact gentleness, and was able to summon that same manner when stepping into her role as first responder with Alice. Notably, the role transformed Zoe’s own mood and allowed her to release any agitation and focus.

2. Keep it light.

Kids learn best when they feel relaxed and playful. Talking seriously about Mom and Dad getting seriously injured in a disaster can bring up anxiety for many children, which they may or may not be able to verbalize. Avoid planting the seeds of recurrent nightmares if it’s only a remote possibility. Instead, engage with their natural love of playing “doctor” by pretending to be their imaginary patient and telling them your symptoms. Ham it up! Use ketchup for blood, white rags for bandages, socks stuffed inside clothing to indicate swelling. Take your time.

Switch roles and let them practice being the calm reassuring caregiver. Even though you use play in your teaching, be explicit about what your child is learning. When they have successfully demonstrated several skills, celebrate their achievement and point out that they now know some useful first aid. Remembering this may give them much needed confidence in an emergency; taking a “real” class on the subject can help even more.

Go through the first aid kit together, and have some extra bits of gauze, tape, and cotton balls on hand so your child can practice with real tools: smaller kids get a special thrill out of these materials. Make sure your family kit is well organized so a child can find recognizable tools quickly, and have illustrated instruction pamphlets on hand. Sitting down and going over these pictures together in a calm curious state will make them seem like familiar picture books if actually needed.

3. Make sure your child knows how to get help, and can describe the situation.

Often, the most important thing a child can do in a crisis is call for assistance. You can’t start too early with 911 training. Let kids touch the buttons on the phone to practice and memorize the sequence, but don’t forget to stress how important it is never to use emergency numbers for play or curiosity. In the cellular age, teaching children emergency calling is more complicated: they will need to recite your address and phone number from memory, as many cellular calls are difficult to trace to an exact location. Get creative: set the numbers and address to a catchy tune and sing it together often.

When to call?

For a child: if there is no adult able to help make the assessment, call. A kid should never hesitate to “bother” the emergency operator if something seems very wrong and they are scared. Basic assessment comes hand in hand with calling for help: give them the words to describe potential injuries or illnesses. Kids should get familiar with a basic primary assessment, sometimes abbreviated with the acronym DRAB:

  • Danger. Take a moment to make sure it is safe to approach the injured person: are there any hazards such as electrical wires, damaged structures, moving vehicles, or falling objects? If the surroundings are dangerous, get help right away before trying to assist.
  • Response. Talk to the injured person. Do they answer questions? Do they appear to be awake or unconscious? The emergency operator will need to know how they respond.
  • Airway. If unconscious, gently tip the head back to make sure the tongue is not blocking the airway. If your child is able to practice on you several times, this won’t feel awkward if they ever have to actually do it.
  • Breathing. Practice checking for breathing with role plays: as the “patient”, ask your child to assess you while you either breathe quietly or hold your breath for 10 seconds. The child can then make her “report” to the authorities. 

What if the landline is out, or the cell network is down? Many disaster scenarios can disable the technology we rely upon. In this case, brainstorm with your child some creative ways to find help. This is one compelling reason to avoid instilling an absolute fear of strangers in your children. In a crisis, a stranger can be a lifeline. Talk to your child about which neighbor’s doors he would knock on first. If all else fails, any passerby can be flagged down to go get help.

4. From age four upwards, children can begin to learn basic skills.

Take a first aid course yourself to ensure you are teaching up-to-date recommended protocol. Start with a few of these skills, remembering to use “serious play” to engage your child’s relaxed and receptive learning mind. Begin gently with small children, and trust your instincts to know how much they are ready to take in at each developmental stage. Keep building on the basics with more detail as they seem capable. Children can often practice:

  • Applying pressure to a bleeding wound
  • Icing a swollen injury
  • Applying cold running water or a wet towel to a burn
  • Pinching the nostrils for 10 minutes for a nosebleed
  • Draping a blanket over a person in shock
  • Gently rolling a person into the recovery position

Complex skills such as CPR and responding to choking incidents may need to wait until your child is past the early grades; they should be given formal instruction in these skills by a qualified teacher. While younger children are capable of understanding the basics of CPR, their size and strength may prevent them from being able to effectively administer it. Most 9-year-olds are able to perform it correctly.

Such courses can be tremendously empowering for kids, as they are achieving real-world competencies and facing serious adult-like situations. Unlike some of their academic work, it is easy for them to see how first aid classes apply “in the real world”.

5. Focus on emergencies your family is most likely to encounter.

  • Do you have a family member with epilepsy, a heart condition, or another serious chronic illness? If so, focus on those specific assessments, and make sure your child is aware of the conditions and knows how to name them to emergency personnel.
  • Do you live in a chilly northern region, or spend time near or on the water? Identifying and treating hypothermia is relevant for everyone, but some of us are at greater environmental risk. Next time you go swimming together, have fun with assessing one another’s skin temperature, lip color, rate of breathing, and alertness afterward.
  • Do you live in a sunny dry area where temperatures regularly exceed the 80’s? Heatstroke can also have serious consequences when untreated.
  • Do you live in an area where ticks proliferate? The range of ticks carrying Lyme disease the Alpha-gal meat allergy is spreading. And while the presence of a tick on someone may not be an emergency, one bite can have life-altering consequences. Teach your child what to look for so they can let you know if they find a tick.

6. In the end, a kid is still a kid.

Part of our job is to assure them they never need to be a hero or overstep their abilities. Make sure children know that their first and most important job is to stay safe themselves. At our home, we talk just as much about what a child should never try to do — like jump into deep water to help someone in distress, or run into a burning building — as we do about how they might help. Point out that “First aid” doesn’t mean the child has to “fix” the problem or injury: it’s simply what the first “aider” on the scene does within the limits of their experience. Often, this will be simply trying to summon adult help as quickly as possible.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, earthquakes, oh my! While conditions resulting from extreme exposure to the elements, collapsing structures, flooding, or electrocution are feasible and loom large in our fears, the commonplace often takes us by surprise. Your child is more likely to encounter the more everyday emergencies arising from an aging relative’s acute illness, a car or bike accident, or even the unfortunately widespread phenomenon of improperly secured furniture in a home causing injury.

I don’t talk with Alice about all the scary things that might happen — that’s not her job to worry about. We keep it in the here-and-now, having fun learning kid-appropriate “doctor” skills. Fingers are crossed that she will only need to practice on the harmless bumps and scrapes of growing up.

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