February 9, 1971, 6 a.m. It was a chilly morning in southern California, and I was sound asleep. My older sister was getting ready for school. Suddenly, my bed start to shake and I woke up, immediately assuming my sister was shaking my bed. Once she explained to me that it was “just an earthquake,” I was excited. I had learned about earthquakes in elementary school, so I knew what to expect. I was just barely 8 years old then, and it was my first earthquake that I can remember. That earthquake was 6.6Mw, with an epicenter in the San Fernando-Sylmar region—and it lasted 60 seconds. Though many homes and buildings close to the epicenter sustained major damage, all I recall is being shaken awake. Spending most of my life in southern California, I have been through several earthquakes since then – but I know I will never forget my first earthquake.
Some emergencies give little or no warning – like the earthquakes common in southern California. Other emergencies can be predicted ahead and residents given warnings to evacuate – like the recent horrific tornados in Oklahoma, or the wildfires that plague many areas during the hot summer and autumn. Whether we have warning ahead about a natural disaster or not, we need to do what we can to prepare. Because we know southern California has been expecting “the big quake” for several years, we keep that in mind as we prepare for an emergency there. Emergencies can be traumatic and scary for children, and they require some preparation ahead in order to not be traumatized by the experience. In California, the public schools all have earthquake drills in addition to fire drills (and now, lockdown drills) to help children feel more prepared for an emergency of any type. In other areas of the world, tornado drills, hurricane drills, or even tsunami drills are the norm.
When we are adults, natural disaster types of emergencies are something we can think about ahead and do what we can ahead to plan for them. Of course, we will do our preparations for the family as a unit, but have you thought about what preparations you should be making in addition if you have children?
A Family Plan—Make a plan and go over it with the kids. Our kids need to know that there is a plan in place, and that the adults in the family have thought things through. This can help them feel empowered and better able to cope with whatever happens. Depending on the age of your child, they should even be able to remember things from the plan if the need arises – especially if you’ve practiced ahead. For example, what should you do if the smoke alarm in the house goes off? (Possible Answer: meet on the front lawn as quickly as you can, don’t bring any of your stuff with you.) When you do your family drills, see how fast you can get out of the house, then work to improve your time. Everyone should know where to meet outside the home or who to call if they are away from home when disaster strikes.
Talk it Through—Beyond having a family plan, it is important to help your child know what to expect in an emergency. As they say, “knowledge is power.” There are educational materials available through many agencies designed to help children cope with various potential emergencies. There are also numerous children’s books geared toward helping children prepare for an emergency (both fiction and non-fiction). Talking to kids realistically can give them an honest picture of what dangers are justifiable things to fear. When I learned about earthquakes in my youth, I learned where the safest places are to be in an earthquake, as well as that aftershocks are normal.
Empower Them–Some children, especially young children, feel comforted by a favorite blanket or toy. If that is the case with your child, you might even consider having a second of the item in your emergency preparedness supply. A teddy bear can work wonders at comforting a child during a stressful time. If your child is old enough, consider having them take first aid and emergency preparedness training. There are often classes offered through boy scouts, girl scouts, or other local groups.
Holding Their Own– Many children like having a “job” during an emergency, because it helps them feel useful and empowered. It is a great idea to have a backpack for your child, one that they can carry in an emergency, especially if you need to bug-out. Ideally, it can hold all the things specific to your child: current sized clothing, some food and water, a book or game to pass the time, first aid kit, etc.
After the Worst—talk with your children about their experience. Letting them share their story can go a long ways towards helping them heal. And hearing what is uppermost in their mind can help you know what fears to discuss and find a way to alleviate.
I’ll never forget my first earthquake that cold February morning. But my other most memorable earthquake happened when I was a young mother with several children at home. It happened during the day, and I remember sitting on the floor in one of the hallways of our home with them as we waited out the aftershocks. I spoke reassuringly to them and we sang some songs and read children’s books to calm our nerves while we waited. Thankfully, the only damage we had were a few crooked pictures and a few dishes that fell in the kitchen. Many areas sustained terrible damage in that quake.
Children rely on adults in an emergency, as they should. But they will do better if they are helped to prepare ahead. When your earthquake hits (or whatever the emergency is), the more your child feels empowered, the sooner they can feel like life is “back to normal.”
Give your children the gift of being emotionally prepared for an emergency, and they (and you) will be glad you did.