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Teaching Children the Signs of a Heart Attack

Parents, grandparents, stepparents, aunts and uncles, friendly neighbors – caregivers of all sorts are a dear part of children’s daily lives. They play, feed, and nurture, providing kids with the safety and comfort necessary to thrive. However, they are also human, and unfortunately unexpected health troubles can happen any time. So, while it may seem unconventional, teaching kids to recognize and respond to the signs of a heart attack in a calm, levelheaded manner can be a powerful tool in emergencies, potentially saving lives and fostering a sense of responsibility and empowerment among youth.

Make It Simple and Clear

The 25-cent word for a heart attack is myocardial infarction. It occurs when the blood flow to a part of the heart muscle is blocked or narrowed, often by a blood clot or atherosclerosis (“hardening” of the arteries), leading to damage of the heart tissue. Usually, kids start learning about the human body in grades 3-5, so you can ask older children about their prior knowledge about the cardiovascular system to kick off the talk.

Explaining a heart attack to a young child can be challenging, so it’s important to use simple and descriptive language that doesn’t frighten them. You might say:

“A heart attack is when the heart, which is like a strong pump in our body, has some trouble. Imagine your heart as a house with lots of little workers (blood vessels) bringing in supplies (blood) to keep everything running smoothly. Sometimes, there can be a problem, like a blockage, that makes it hard for the workers to do their job.

When this happens, the heart can feel a bit tired or hurt. It’s like when you’re playing and suddenly feel tired because you need a break. Doctors help fix the heart and make sure it gets the rest it needs, so it can go back to being a strong and healthy pump again.”

Discuss the Common Signs

The signs of a heart attack can vary, and they may not always be the same for everyone. However, common symptoms include:

It’s important to note that not everyone experiencing a heart attack will have all of these symptoms, and some may experience symptoms that are not listed here. Additionally, women and older adults may have less common symptoms.

Walk Through the Steps

If someone may be having a heart attack, it’s important to take immediate action. The faster they can be seen by an emergency medical professional, the more chance there is of a positive outcome. Explain the following action steps to your child, making sure to check for understanding and allow for questions.

  1. First, ask the adult if they are OK. They may be holding their arm or chest. If they are unable to respond, it’s time to call 911.
  2. Call emergency services – 911. (It’s a good idea to practice calling 911 with younger kids (without actually calling them). Teach them the numbers “9-1-1” through visual aids or a catchy rhyme. Engage in role-playing scenarios where the child practices calling 911 using a toy or deactivated phone. Guide them on what to say during the call, emphasizing providing their name, address, and a calm description of the emergency.) Stay with the person while on the phone with the 911 operator until emergency medical help arrives.
  3. Stay calm and reassure the person that help is on the way. Encourage them to sit down and rest while awaiting emergency medical assistance.
  4. The 911 operator may ask more questions about the person having the heart attack or tell the caller what they can do to help. Teaching your child about being a good listener and staying as calm as possible will allow them to be extremely helpful on this call.

Discuss General Emergency Preparedness

These are tough conversations to have. Make sure to focus on positive and reassuring messages, especially with younger children. Emphasize that emergencies are rare, but having a plan is like being prepared for other activities. We like to teach kids phrases like, “smart, not scared!” or “prepared, not scared!” in moments like these.

Teach them about basic emergency supplies through simple examples and turn preparedness into an empowering activity, such as a game or role-playing. Highlight the importance of staying calm during emergencies, explaining how it helps everyone think clearly and make good decisions. And keep it simple!

Encourage them to ask for help when needed, assuring them that it’s a responsible and brave thing to do. Revisit the topic periodically to reinforce concepts, ensuring they feel confident and empowered without unnecessary fear.

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About the Expert

Dr. Christina Johns is a nationally recognized pediatric emergency physician and Senior Medical Advisor at PM Pediatric Care. An official spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, she is board-certified in both pediatrics and pediatric emergency medicine. With extensive media experience, the proud mom of two teenagers shares over 20 years of pediatric expertise with patients and families everywhere. Follow Dr. Johns for more insights on children’s health!