How to Prepare Your Children for Emergencies, Disasters, and SHTF

The scariest thing you’ll ever face as a parent is the moment you first realize you cannot protect your children from every danger in this world.

Sure, you can have some control over their safety when you are with them but as they get older, the likelihood increases that they won’t be with you when things go horribly wrong.

But as a parent or grandparent, it’s your job and your responsibility to make sure your kids can handle themselves in this world, right?

toddlers cooking

Kids are Tough

A child can be useful in helping himself stay safe. The biggest mistake that adults make is underestimating a child’s abilities.

Think of it this way. Two hundred years ago, twelve-year olds were tending farms or their siblings alone while Dad and Mom went to town on a three-day trip.

They held responsibilities equal to that of adults, because the amount of work that needed to be finished could not be done by parents alone. Kids today are still pretty tough.

They handle a lot of new information, technology, changes and constant bombardment from their too-fast-paced world being thrown at them every day. The best way to judge what a child can handle is to give him a chance to find out.

Try things out slowly, like seeing what information is retained, and then continuing on if he absorbs it well. If he doesn’t, back up and go slower. What he can handle will be obvious.

So, knowing that your kids might not be with you when something happens, how do you prepare your children for emergencies, disasters, and SHTF?

Assessing Your Child

The first thing to do is to assess your child’s readiness for information about emergencies, disasters, and a SHTF event. Things to assess include:

  • Amount of time spent apart from parents or away from home
  • Maturity level
  • Developmental level
  • Previous experience with emergency situations and survival tasks

It’s important to assess the readiness of your child for this type of information and training so you can avoid creating too much fear and anxiety for your child.

Focus on building confidence in their ability to handle emergencies, disasters, and even a SHTF event.

Teach skills in small age appropriate steps, through routine activities over a period of years, rather than trying to prepare them all at once within a couple of months.

If your child is growing up on a farm and learns about the dangers of mother nature from a very early age, they may be ready for more information and gear than kids who grow up in a more urban environment.

Talking to Your Child

Practicing emergency preparedness with a child is simply a matter of breaking down the discussion into parts that he can understand. Make the discussions short and to the point, keeping in mind the length of his attention span.

Be prepared to explain in detail AND answer any questions that he has. When demonstrating skills, like knot tying, have a length of rope for him to practice with, as well.

If tools are being used, make sure that the lesson takes place in a proper setting, like the garage, so that he can practice using them.

To act out preparedness plans like escape routes, describe what might happen, matter-of-factly exploring the dangers, while making it seem more like an adventure.

Even a three-year old can learn from these tactics and be of help (or at least not hindrance!) in real situations.

Everyday Emergencies Preparedness

Emergencies are typically the short-term events that can happen when you least expect them. When your child experiences a fall during a hike, a motor vehicle accident, witnesses a tractor accident, or a boating accident, and you aren’t there, they need to know what to do.

If they are home alone or at a friend’s house without an adult and they suspect an intruder, experience a power outage, or even a house fire, knowing how to respond quickly can be a life or death difference for your child.

For emergencies perpetrated by other people, such as a home invasion, a potential kidnapping situation, a violent crowd, or something like a school shooting, how to get to safety quickly should be the priority.

Talk to your children about what kinds of emergencies can occur, how to be alert, and what they should do if something happens while they are at school or even at home without your parental supervision.

Explain to your child about 9-1-1 and give them specific examples of when it’s appropriate to call emergency services for help. Make sure they know any cell phone even if not “in service” can be used to dial 9-1-1.

If anyone in the family has a medical illness that may result in them losing consciousness or being disoriented unexpectedly, children should be taught the behaviors that signal a problem.

They should know what they can do to help (if anything), and when to simply call 9-1-1. Practice these scenarios several times with your young children.

Teach them how to give their name, the type of emergency, and their address to the 9-1-1 dispatcher. For emergencies that don’t require a 9-1-1 call, make sure they have printed contact information for nearby relatives or trusted neighbors to call.

Types of Emergencies that could occur where roleplay is helpful:

  • You find someone (mom, dad, sister) lying on the floor. Talk about what to do if they are conscious but can’t move, as well as if the person is confused, unconscious, or bleeding heavily.
  • Door to the home is open when they arrive after school.
  • Playing outside with friends and someone falls (minor injury like a scraped knee or bloody nose) that doesn’t need 9-1-1 but needs an adult.
  • Smell smoke when home alone after school or in middle of night.
  • Someone knocks on the door after school and insists you open it.
  • School shooter (or they see another student with a knife or gun or someone talks about bringing one to school).
  • An adult follows them as they walk home or to a friend’s house.
  • They are confronted by a growling dog, a snake, bear, skunk, or another animal common in your area.
  • What to do if they find or a friend finds a gun while playing.
  • An adult or friend they are riding with appears sleepy, intoxicated, or loses consciousness.
  • Dad falls from the tractor and is unconscious and bleeding.

It’s important when preparing your child to handle emergencies that you teach them to know when to call for or go get help first versus when to attempt first aid and then go for help. This is especially important for locations or situations where help may not be readily available or may take a long time to arrive.

Disaster Preparedness

It’s important to consider the age and maturity level of your child when it comes to natural disasters. Giving a child too much detailed information about the widespread impact of a natural disaster can be harmful if they aren’t ready emotionally and developmentally to understand.

Focus first on the natural disasters most likely to occur in your local area. When talking to children, teach them the disaster safety procedures and how to get to a safe area with a goal of riding out the disaster until help arrives. Teach your child multiple ways to signal for help in different scenarios.

Prepare your child’s version of an everyday carry (EDC) that includes items appropriate for their age and experience. We give you some basic suggestions below. Make sure they know how and when to use any items that are part of their EDC and increase the items as they get older, mature, and gain experience.

Types of Disasters You May Want to Prepare Your Kids for Include:

  • Hurricanes
  • Tornadoes
  • Wildfires
  • Earthquake
  • Avalanche
  • Mudslide

Take time to talk with your children about the importance of routinely following safety procedures, how to get to safety in a disaster, and what to do after the immediate danger is over. Talk with older children about what they should do if the adult in charge seems scared or confused, is bleeding heavily, or is unconscious.

Kids need to know whether you will come for them at school or if they should try to get to a meeting location and wait for you. It’s important to know what your school’s disaster plan is. If you don’t know the plan, ask your school administration questions now so you can prepare your child. Kids who aren’t confident their parents will come for them may try to leave the school and go home which could put them in more danger and result in a longer delay for you to be reunited.

SHTF Preparedness

When it comes to a SHTF event, it’s difficult to tell your kids exactly what to do because there’s no end to the dangers they may face.

As long as you are with them, you can guide them of course. It’s always good practice to start teaching your kids to do things for themselves.

You can include certain activities in their routine chores that will prepare them to take care of themselves and to cook their own food, build a fire or use a grill or rocket stove if needed.

But when it comes to a SHTF situation, you want to prepare your kids, so they know what to do to survive, if god forbid, you aren’t around to tell them what to do.

Prepare Your Kids for SHTF by Teaching Ways to:

  • Pay attention to changes in the weather and the importance of dressing appropriately for the weather.
  • Ways to avoid danger and confrontations
  • Get to your designated safe room or family meeting place.
  • Find, collect, and purify water.
  • Keep any information about prepping and supplies they have to themselves.
  • Forage for wild edibles and how to determine what things are safe to eat.
  • Start a fire or use other methods stay warm
  • Build a shelter from things they find around them.
  • Ways to defend themselves or assist you in defending your home and property.
  • How to hunt or grow food, how to preserve and stockpile food, rotate it, and why it’s important

When SHTF the world will be in chaos. It will be important for your kids to understand that if you tell them to be quiet during this chaos, they must obey.

With young children, you can make it a little more fun by practicing the “quiet game”, to avoid scaring them too much. With older children you can stress the importance of staying quiet when told or when they hear someone outside.

The more activities and tasks you practice with your kids during “normal times”, the more likely they will be prepared to react and get to safety post-SHTF, even if you aren’t there to tell them what to do.

General Things to Teach to Prepare Your Children for Emergencies, Disasters, and SHTF include:

  • Their first and last name, their full address, telephone number, and the names of their parents.
  • The name and telephone number of at least one other nearby relative and one relative or trusted friend outside of the local area.
  • How to make a sling for an injured arm with a t-shirt, bandana, or small blanket.
  • What first aid kits look like and where they are located in your home, at school, etc.
  • How to use a fire extinguisher and other ways to put out small fires and what to use for a grease fire, chemical fire, etc. (age appropriate). For younger children the focus should be on getting out to safety and notifying an adult.
  • Where to find flashlights and extra batteries and how to replace them (age appropriate)
  • Ways to signal for help (using a whistle, bright clothing, sticks or rocks in a clearing, smoke signals as appropriate for their age)
  • How to use some or all of the items in a first aid kit if needed (age appropriate)

Instill a “Check In” plan even during normal times. When your child is ready, they can have their own cell phone to communicate with you via text when they are at a friend’s or within range of public Wi-Fi.

Have an agreed time period for your child to “check in” with you by text or in person when they are playing in the yard, in the neighborhood or at a friend’s house. It can be every 30 to 90 minutes for younger children, every 4 to 6 hours for older children who you know are in a safe location.

Once they are old enough to have cell phone service, have them practice calling you and other trusted adults to check in by phone so that you are comfortable with their ability to call for help if needed.

Children should be taught to check in with you any time they want to change locations. This means before going from Bobby’s house to Sam’s house to play, they must check in and get a response from you first.

This is important because in an unexpected emergency, especially if communications systems are down, you need to know exactly where they are, so you can get to them quickly.

Have an agreed plan of action if they forget to check in or if they attempt to check in and you don’t respond. For example, “check in with me every 90 minutes.

If you don’t check in, I will try to text or call you twice and if you don’t answer then I’m coming to get you.” Or “check in with me every 90 minutes.

If I am not home when you check in stay home till I arrive, call grandma, go to the neighbor’s, go back to your friend’s house and stay there” or any other action you want them to follow.

Having this plan during “normal times” gets them into the habit of checking in, using various means to communicate with you or other trusted adults, and teaches them what they should do if they can’t contact you right away.

Further Tips

Use teaching methods that encourage faster and more complete comprehension. Help the child by offering correct verbiage.  Discuss the topic completely. This helps him comprehend sooner, and offers him the chance to absorb the information.

Do as much hands-on as possible, so that body memory and kinetic learning are involved in the process.  Simplify it.  Adults tend to over-explain the topic, when the idea does not really need to be that complicated.

Last but definitely not least, make sure that the topics are comfortable. An uncomfortable or worried adult causes an uncomfortable or worried child.

Plan for issues that might arise, like a child going back to a burning house for her favorite doll, or even a teenager attempting to go back and save the dog.

The emotional reactions in this type of a situation can be handled easily with a bit of forethought.

Make plans that take any of these issues into consideration.  Emergency kits, escape routes, and family plans need to be individualized to accommodate everyone and their specific situations. 

Be prepared for children to make mistakes, just the same as adults do.  These need to be addressed in a way that does not shame the child.  The old adage that “practice makes perfect,” though, holds true.

The more experience that a child has with preparedness and the purpose behind it, the more likely that he will come through in shining order at the time when it counts the most.

EDC Product Suggestions for Children

Toddlers aren’t at all ready to be unsupervised. But you can start instilling the habit of EDC even at this young age. It’s developmentally natural for young kids to copy what they see adults doing.

So, if you put on your EDC every morning (keys, phone, wallet, etc.), you can give toddlers and elementary age kids safe items for their own EDC. Items such as a toy flashlight, keys, a pretend phone, etc. As they get older and mature you can replace their “toy” EDC gear with actual working gear.

Flashlights are a great item to allow kids of all ages to have as part of their EDC because many kids have a fear of the dark.

Having their own light teaches them responsibility and also gives them confidence and helps them feel safe whether they are taking the garbage out after dark, reading in their room at night, camping out in the backyard, or during an unexpected power outage.

Preschool kids might enjoy something like the Melissa & Doug Blaze Firefly Flashlight. Batteries can be extremely harmful for young children so make sure whatever you provide, the battery compartment can’t be opened by your child.

The Energizer Flashlight is great for elementary age kids because it is virtually indestructible and doesn’t use batteries at all, it’s rechargeable via a hand crank.

For middle school and high school age kids consider Mini Flashlight Keychain with Micro USB by SDENOW to light their way when darkness falls.

Keys. Whether it’s a set of pretend keys for your infant or toddler or an actual house key on a lanyard or keychain clipped to their backpack, kids of all ages can get used to carrying and being responsible for keys as part of their EDC. It’s an important habit that will serve them well as an adult also.

Cell Phones aren’t age appropriate for infant, toddlers, or young elementary age children of course, but there are plenty of pretend cell phones available that your child can get used to carrying and being responsible for as part of their EDC.

Elementary age children can even carry your old cell phone for emergency calls only. Have them be responsible for checking the battery level periodically and bringing it to you to be recharged.

Even a phone with no cell phone service can be used to dial 9-1-1 in an emergency. They can also practice dialing your number and the numbers of trusted relatives.

For younger children, you may want to consider a walkie talkie for emergency communication and for checking in while playing in the yard or around the neighborhood.

Add items to your child’s EDC kit as you deem appropriate. Some items to consider depending on age, maturity level, and experience include:

Whistles are great items for kids to have as part of their EDC. You can teach them to stay in one spot and use the whistle if they are separated from you during a hike, another outdoor activity, or even in an emergency if someone attempts to grab them while playing in the yard.

The Coghlan’s Four Function Whistle is great for kids that are elementary age and up. It includes the whistle, a compass, magnifying glass, and thermometer.

Bandana or Shemagh is a great item for a child’s EDC because it is lightweight and can be used to protect the nose and mouth against smoke from a fire, to carry kindling, to filter water, carry nuts and berries, or even DIY a sling for an injured arm.

Compass can help kids to find their way if they do get off the beaten path in the woods or while on a hike.

Make sure they know how to use the compass correctly and that you’ve checked the compass for accuracy before they need to use it in a real emergency.

Keyring or Lanyard with a whistle to signal for help and maybe a cache cylinder with space for change or dollars to be used if they need money for the bus or cab fare. Children who are mature enough and experienced can add a fire stryker or waterproof container with matches.

Personal Hygiene Items such as Chapstick or lip balm, anti-itch cream for bug bite relief, and sunscreen.

If your child has a food or other allergy and is mature enough, you may want to include a pill case with a single dose of their allergy medicine or for an EpiPen for life threatening allergies.

Preparing your children for emergencies, disasters, and SHTF is truly a lifelong process. But it can be done without scaring them as part of their routine activities. You can start with small things when they are very young and gradually teach them more over time.

With a little planning and guidance, your child will be better prepared to handle themselves no matter what life may throw at them.

update 04/12/2020

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