Back-to-School Emergencies

Back-to-School Mini Series: Teaching Kids about Emergencies

I shutter to think about having to teach my daughter emergency situations. I know it is 100% necessary, but I legitimately worry I’m going to scare the sh*t out of her.

I shutter to think about having to teach my daughter emergency situations. I know it is 100% necessary, but I legitimately worry I’m going to scare the sh*t out of her. Just thinking about it, my silly mom-brain envisions the most god-awful scenarios she might get herself into. For example, shortly after DD was born we experienced our first Earthquake. It was so small it didn’t even wake my husband, but in my mind I could picture the house splitting in half with the nursery on one side and me on the other. Ridiculous, I know; but I definitely do not want to transfer that fear to her when we teach her about emergencies. I want her to be confident in her abilities to get herself out of danger and to a safe place.

Below is an approach from Dr. Sanam Hafeez  – New York City based Neuro-psychologist and School Psychologist – on emergency preparedness that won’t freak your children out.

First, you’ll want to explain the difference between an emergency and a problem to your children. An emergency is a situation that requires immediate assistance from the police or fire department, or requires immediate medical assistance through paramedics or EMTs. A problem is something that they need help with, but does not require emergency services. When your child experiences a problem, and they are home alone, he or she should decide whether to call you immediately, call a neighbor, or whether the problem can wait until you get home.

You’d probably want your child to call you if he or she:

  • Felt scared
  • Had trouble getting into the house
  • Got home and found that the electricity was off

The following issues would warrant an immediate call to 9-1-1:

  • A fire
  • Evidence of a break-in
  • A medical emergency, such as someone being unresponsive or bleeding profusely

To alleviate anxiety, be clear with your children that an emergency is something unusual that happens sometimes resulting in injury or causing damage to things like houses and cars. Explain to them that, every now and then, nature provides ‘too much of something’ like, rain, wind, or snow. Talk about effects of an emergency that children can relate to, such as loss of electricity, water, and telephone service; flooded roads and uprooted trees.  Explain that everyone is better able to take care of themselves in emergencies when they know what to do.

Dr. Hafeez points out that, “For younger children, it might also help to talk about who the emergency workers are in your community — police officers, firefighters, paramedics, doctors, nurses, and so on — and what kinds of things they do to help people who are in trouble.” This will clarify not only what types of emergencies can occur, but also who can

When to Call 911

Dr. Hafeez explains that, “Part of understanding what an emergency is, is knowing what it is not. A fire, an intruder in the home, an unconscious family member — these are all things that would require a call to 911. A skinned knee, a stolen bicycle, or an argument with a school mate would not. Still, teach your child that if ever in doubt and there’s no adult around to ask, make the call. It’s much better to be safe than sorry”.

Make sure your kids understand that calling 911 as a joke is a crime in many places. In some cities, officials estimate that as much as 75% of the calls made to 911 are non-emergency calls. These are not all pranks. Some people accidentally push the emergency button on their cell phones. Others don’t realize that 911 is for true emergencies only (not for such things as a flat tire or even about a theft that occurred the week before).

Create a Plan with your Child

  1. Teach your child one parent’s cell-phone number or a good contact number. **I remember my mom teaching me our phone number and home address as a song. She even taught me to show the numbers on my hands along with the words.
  2. Choose a location other than your home where your family can meet. You’ll need to go there in case of a fire or an earthquake, for example. Your meeting place might be a local park, school, or shelter. Walk to the site with your child so he/she knows exactly how to get there.
  3. Designate a trusted friend or family member who can pick up your kid at child care or school if you are unable to get there in a disaster situation. Be sure that you give official permission to release your child to that person. **When I was a kid we had a family password. If someone different picked me up from Daycare, that I was not expecting, I was supposed to ask them for the password. If one of my parents had sent them, they would have told them our secret family word.
  4. Make a card with your plan for each adult’s wallet. Include contact names, your emergency location, and designated friend/family member. Put a copy in your school-age child’s backpack.
    • Inform caregivers and nearby relatives of your plan. Be sure to give a copy of your plan to your child’s teacher too.

If you’re not good at texting, improve your skills. When cell- phone signal strength goes down, texting often still works because it uses less bandwidth and network capacity.


Discuss Region-Specific Natural Disasters

You probably won’t need to waste much time on teaching a child that lives in the Midwest how to manage a hurricane, but he/she will need to know what to do in the event of a tornado. Talking about the natural disasters that are most likely to occur in your area and making a specific plan to deal with them is imperative, especially if you live in a region that’s particularly prone to environmental emergencies.

Photo courtesy of Modern Survival Blog

Work Out a Home Evacuation Plan

In the event of a fire, home invasion, or a natural disaster, your entire family will need to have a coordinated evacuation plan to ensure that everyone makes it out of the house safely. Dr. Hafeez stresses that, it is important to explain to your child that all material possessions, even favorite ones, can be replaced and that it’s far more important for them to exit the house than it is to save their belongings. Make sure that he/she knows how to get out of the house if you’re not able to reach her, to make her way to a pre-arranged family meeting place and what she should do when he/she arrives there first.


Role Play Specific Scenarios

Netflix’s Stranger Things – fantasy role-playing D&D

Dr. Hafeez explains that, one of the best ways to determine how much your child knows and what she still needs to learn about emergency preparedness is to role play specific scenarios that she could potentially encounter. There’s a reason why public schools practice routine fire drills: they help kids prepare in a relatively low-stress environment for an emergency so that, in a high-pressure situation they know how to react. Role playing serious injury situations, weather emergencies, a house fire, and even potential intruder situations gives you an idea about what your child knows and helps you teach them more detailed information so that they’re prepared to handle any emergency.

Sanam Hafeez Psy.D

New York State Licensed Neuropsychologist and School Psychologist

Dr. Sanam Hafeez is a New York City based Neuro-psychologist and School Psychologist.  She is also the founder and director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services, P.C.  She is currently a teaching faculty member at Columbia University.

Dr. Hafeez graduated from Queens College, CUNY with a BA in psychology.  She then went on to earn her Master of Science in Psychology at Hofstra University.  Following that she stayed at Hofstra to receive her Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) She later completed her post-doctoral training in Neuropsychology and Developmental Pediatrics at Coney Island Hospital.

Dr. Hafeez’s provides neuropsychological educational and developmental evaluations in her practice.  She also works with children and adults who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), learning disabilities, autism, attention and memory problems, trauma and brain injury, abuse, childhood development and psychopathology (bipolar, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, etc…) In addition, Dr. Hafeez serves as a medical expert and expert witness by providing full evaluations and witness testimony to law firms and courts.

Dr. Hafeez immigrated to the United States from Pakistan when she was twelve years old.  She is fluent in English, Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi (Pakistani and Indian languages.) She resides in Queens, New York with her husband and twin boys.



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