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Preparation Is Half the Battle: Talking to Kids About Emergencies

Trust between a child and a parent is incredibly important, and it depends on open and honest communication. (Read more about this in my PM Behavioral Health colleague’s blog here!) One of the many scenarios in which this trust is tested is the medical emergency – an event that, like it or not, is a realistic possibility with little ones around. Statistically, the emergency department (also known as the ED) visit rate is around 40% for children aged 1 to 17. The more prepared a child is for an emergency, the better they will fare during and after the event. Here are some strategies for parents that I’ve seen work throughout my career to get kids mentally and emotionally ready for a visit to the ED or urgent care.

Talk Through Scenarios 

The more your child knows about a potential crisis situation, the calmer they will be if it occurs. Discuss a few potential injuries or emergency events at a stress-free time (like when we’re in the car on a routine drive together), and talk through what to do if they happen. Learn about standard procedures that might occur in the emergency department and help your child understand them, things like “we’ll check in, and the staff will take your temperature and listen to your heart.” Reviewing these details not only helps your child know how to react, but also lets them know that these things are not as scary as they might seem. It’s a great idea to write up an emergency plan for the whole family, complete with important information, designated meeting places, assigned roles, etc. It is also helpful to identify alternate caregivers in the event that they need to take your child to an urgent care or ED in your absence. You can grant authorization through a notarized letter for temporary guardianship with a form of your ID and keep it in a safe place if it ever needs to be accessed. 

Practice What To Say When Calling 911 

Calling 911 can be an intimidating task because many people have never had to do this. Talking to an adult and a stranger can be especially daunting for a small child. But knowing what to say and how to handle a 911 call can save a life – literally. You should never actually call 911 during these practice sessions, but you can walk children through the process and role-play these calls with them, making this process fun and educational. The 3 main things they will need to tell them are their address, phone number, and tell them the basic details of your emergency. The 911 dispatcher will ask them questions and talk them through the rest of the process. Helping children get comfortable with speaking to emergency dispatchers is a great way to prepare them for emergency situations.  

Make a List 

I’ve covered this in my recent blog on organizing the family’s medical info, and I really encourage you to do this: make a list of all the basic medical information for each child and keep it handy in case you need to dash off to the ED or urgent care. This list should contain every child’s medications (type and dose), allergies, pre-existing conditions, and medical history. Having this information on hand can be very helpful to emergency personnel in charge of care. Familiarize your child with the list and help them understand what each item means. Doing so helps them learn to be in charge of their own body and health. 

Memorize the Crucial Basics 

Speaking of teaching independence, make sure that your kiddo knows as much basic personal information as is developmentally appropriate: full name, address, home (or parents’) phone number. They should know if they’re allergic to something, or if there are other medical precautions they need to adhere to. If you have a trusted emergency contact, your child should also know who this is and how to reach them in case, for some reason, you are not available.  

Learn Calming Techniques 

Staying calm is incredibly important in an emergency, but lots of factors might get in the way of this. Being scared, confused, or in pain could cause anyone to panic – let alone a child. Helping them learn ways to calm down is a great way to prepare them to remain cool in an emergency, making the treatment process a lot easier on everyone. Breathing techniques are a great way to slow down the heart rate and regain control in a tough situation. Focusing on specific items in the room or reciting lines from a poem are also useful distractions from nervous turmoil.  

Take a Class  

This one is a sensible must for all members of the family: take a First Aid/CPR class together! Not only does this teach a slew of valuable life skills, it also opens avenues for conversation about potential emergencies and helps children get accustomed to these situations in a calm and prepared manner. It’s also a great way to spend quality time together while learning new things, and a way to model responsible habits for your children.  

A last note—it’s never a bad idea to avoid eating or drinking anything on the way to emergency/urgent care. On the off chance that your child may need a special test or procedure, having a full stomach can sometimes cause an additional delay. And we all want the process to be as smooth as possible. 

We cannot control when emergencies happen. But we can help our children prepare for them, so they feel empowered to act rationally and calmly when they do. We can communicate with them and make them active participants in resolving difficult situations, helping them grow up into responsible and capable adults. You got this! All of you. 

Communication, Connection, & Trust 

Down time – whether it be school breaks or weekends – is a great opportunity to deepen connections with your kids and practice positive communication strategies that lead to long-term trust. Let’s discuss some important tips and factors that influence bonding between parents and children. 

Communication Is Key 

One of the biggest concerns I hear from parents is “How can I connect with my child?” My response is usually in the form of a question: “How do you communicate with them?” Communication is a major key to building a connection. Our tiny daily interactions lay the foundation for a lifelong bond that is rooted in mutual trust. So, in no particular order, here are some tips to consider when communicating with your children: 

These three actions are the building blocks of trust between parent and child that grows gradually over time. The end goal is to help your child feel comfortable coming to you with their problems and allow you to believe in them making the right choices.  

The Impact of Age 

Trust and connection slowly take shape by intentional communication as children age. The older they get, the less control we have over their lives, and our interaction with them should reflect this dynamic.  

When they’re babies, we have 100% say over their daily lives, and they truly need us there 24/7. If you think of their life as a plane – you are the pilot, and they are the cabin passenger during this time. As children get older, they start to learn independence; they peek into the flight deck and eventually take the co-pilot’s seat. The relationship at this stage should become more collaborative in order for a connection to be built. Trust them to make mistakes and encourage them to share them with you by being non-judgmental. Before long, they will be the main pilot of their plane with you (hopefully) relaxing in first class. 

A Bit About Technology 

And of course, a conversation about communication is incomplete without mention of technology these days. It’s important to note that tech can sometimes provide an excellent medium for connection and shared activities. Some feelings can be easier to relay through text – just remember that tone isn’t always accurate in writing, and you may need to help kids understand this also. As our children get engaged in some new game or gadget, we can actually use this as an opportunity to bond and pay attention to their interests.  

However, technology can also act as a barrier between family members, so positive modeling and setting clear expectations about tech use is crucial. (Yes, it’s not just about telling kids to put down the tablet at dinner time – it’s also about putting your own phone away!)  

All in all, the benefit to good communication is having a connection and building trust with your children as they grow. Connections provide feelings of belonging and being significant in the world. It increases happiness, supports health, and encourages positivity. (Speaking of communication and building trust, check out Dr. Christina’s tips for helping your child feel prepared for medical emergencies, here!)