In our society today, the topic of emergency planning is often wrapped around an active shooter. While the odds of an active shooter situation for your family are small, it is something we can talk about and plan for — but don’t go overboard. Create a universal action plan for your family that includes action words, safe words, and basic escape strategies for a variety of emergency scenarios.
Fight Flight Freeze
When dealing with a person who intends to harm us, the body will naturally do 1 of 3 things fight flight or freeze. For kids we can give the a very simple understanding of what to do when they experience “Condition Black.”
Fight- Using anything in their immediate area, tools of opportunity to throw at or defend themselves from an attacker
Flight- Run. Keep running. Don’t look back.
Freeze- Freezing is not always a bad thing. Being still is less likely to draw attention to you and the attacker may walk right past you. If the situation is extremely violent, play dead.
Free Thinking vs Doing What You Are Told
In an emergency situation, even a young child of 4 years old can make a decision to Fight, Flight, or Freeze; they just have to know they have permission to do it if something feels really wrong with the directions they are being given. It is important that they know when they hear the action word from you to obey you and obey you now. It is also important to stress that they do what their teacher says. However, for example, if the teacher tells them to stop drop and roll in a burning building and they clearly see the outside and an escape route, they may have the discernment to make a decision for themselves that could save their lives. Similarly, if you disagree with your school district’s classroom action plan for an active shooter, you will need to have the discussion with your child on when to obey the teacher and when to create his or her own action plan. Make sure you have the conversation with your child as well to make sure they have ALL the information they need to survive. This is a very difficult topic to discuss and teach with your child, and you will have to determine at what age your child will understand this concept.
Modeling behavior that the child can pick up on naturally is something we do every day. We model how to use good manners, how to look both ways before crossing the street, how to do household chores, even how to be safe and responsible gun owners. You can demonstrate safe behavior for the emergency action plan and reduce the scary conversations.
Talking to Kids about Emergency Preparedness
Regardless if you are a parent or work with children as your profession, it is a safe assumption that you may have forgotten what it is like to think like a child. There are three points that need to be followed in order for a child to understand what he is being taught about emergency preparedness.
The discussion of emergency preparedness must be honest from your heart and your intentions as a family.
1. Focus. If too many topics are under discussion, the child may get lost in the maze. Try to keep the discussion short and sweet., though discussion on related items is definitely acceptable.
2. Be honest. A child often knows when an adult is hiding something or not telling the truth. The child does not know why the adult is doing this. This causes mistrust and in an emergency situation, doubt can potentially harm the child. Brutal honesty can also be damaging so there needs to be a balance between honesty and need-to- know.
3. Understanding. These types of situations can be scary to think about, and children do not know how to cope with those feelings that come up which are normal.
Asking questions like “What would you do if there was a fire?” could create havoc in a child’s mind. Amidst the scary thoughts of their home, toys, and books going up in smoke, being all alone, and being afraid of dying or some other horror, the answer is usually “I don’t know.”
Open up the discussion topic by saying “I have a question for you. Do you remember when you were a bit nervous about the first day of school? It was because you didn’t really know the teacher. You were getting used to a new grade, a new room, different kids in your class… These all led to some concerns about how it would go. Now, you’re an old hand at it, aren’t you?” This brings the child’s mind to a positive place because where there was once fear and uncertainty there is now confidence and normal routine because there was preparation and planning that went into those first days of school. This nonthreatening type of discussion helps prepare their minds for talking about situations that have always seemed scary to them. “Do you know what emergency preparedness is? It is preparing, or planning for an emergency.”
Again, the conversation should have comforting words like “If you have been taught what to do, then you will be more ready to handle something happening in the future. I don’t want you to worry about it because knowledge is a valuable tool for staying safe, but if you get scared or have questions, make sure that you ask! It is okay to feel some nervousness. Lots of people do, even adults. But if you keep your mind calm, and think about the steps that you are learning, then you will be able to use what you learned.”
We don’t want children to feel badly for having feelings. They need to understand what they are feeling and accept this as okay, because they are more likely to gain control of them or overcome them in an emergency.
The discussion can be much more angst-ridden for the adult than for the child. Not speaking down to a child, but treating him like he is capable of learning and understanding what is being discussed with him, makes both the adult and the child feel like they are on even ground. The child can get answers, the adult can help him prepare, and hopefully both parties come out of the discussion much happier for having had it.
When should you talk to your kids about your plan?
Each family has to decide what is right for their individual children. Consider their age, their level of development, their personality. You can still have the “safety plan” discussion especially on stranger danger. For younger children, it can be an extension of rules of the family that must be obeyed no matter what. You can introduce topics like a fire escape plan for the home, like the ones they do at school. Over time and as they are ready, introduce more intense topics like active shooter. It is important not to dump all these scenarios on a child at one time.
What is an Emergency Situation?
Create a Family Action Plan for the following scenarios:
1. Natural Disasters
2. Medical Emergency
3. Car Accident
5. Stranger Danger
6. Home Invasion
7. Active Shooter
8. Terror Attack
How to Teach Kids What to Do if There Is an Active Shooter
Teach your kids to respond to “Get down!”
If there is crossfire, if there is no apparent way to get out safely or in the first moments that you process what is going on and look for a way to escape. Say, “If Mommy or Daddy tell you to get down, lay flat on your belly with your head down on the floor right away. This might be in a store or in the car. It’s okay to take off your seatbelt and get down on the floor of the car if Mommy or Daddy tell you to, even if the car is moving.”
Teach your kids what gunfire sounds like.
If they’ve never heard it. “Like very loud firecrackers.” Or “several loud bangs in a row”. Depending on where you live, gunshots outside are common but they can have completely different meanings depending on where you are: If I was in big city and heard gunshots I would automatically assume someone with a gun was shooting people. Compare that with living in a rural area could mean that someone is sighting in a new scope, practicing with a new gun or hunting. The important thing is for your children to be able to recognize the sound of a gunshot wherever they are so they will be ready to act appropriately should they need to.
Use a code word.
If you have to leave a situation quickly. “Bad Guys” or “Emergency” or anything you want, as long as it’s agreed on beforehand and everyone in the family knows the code word. The code word is used to signal that everyone must move quickly, quietly and stay together. We stressed to our kids, “Even if you don’t understand why, it’s very important to do whatever Mommy and Daddy tell you and we’ll discuss it later, when we are in a safe place.”
Teach them to forget about their stuff.
Explain that exiting a situation quickly in an emergency might mean leaving behind a shopping cart full of stuff, a plate full of restaurant food or even our personal belongings.
Hold on to stay together.
Everyone holds hands. Plan if you need carry a child younger than 5, have older siblings hold on to younger siblings. What if you don’t have your spouse/significant other with you to help with the children. Practice the plan. The goal is to exit, but if that is not possible, let kids know that your next strategy will be finding a place to hide and they must be absolutely silent in this situation.
Know your surroundings.
This is probably the hardest thing for children to learn to pay attention to unless they are in a very familiar environment but knowing where the exits are and how to get out of a building in more than one way is important. If there is an emergency in the building you are in, do you know how to get out? If the crises is between you and one exit, do you have a backup or alternate exit to go to? In a life or death scenario (and assuming you aren’t in a high-rise) would you bust out a window and go out that way?
Stay calm- Stick to the Plan.
Panic is probably the hardest to overcome in a situation where there is someone shooting people and coming your way, but having some conversations about where they would go and what they would do if faced with certain obstacles helps kids to think about this potential situation before they are faced with it. Just the exercise of talking through what they would do gives kids some perspective they can draw on in a crisis situation. Tell your kids to do whatever it takes to get out of the building to stay alive and they won’t be in trouble if they damage property in the process.
Run – Get Out! Hide only as a last resort.
Play hide and seek with scenarios if they should Run or Hide. During this game encourage them to keep running because I would want them to run until they couldn’t run anymore, and as if their life depended on it. Our kids feel safe “getting caught” but we want them to know that isn’t an option if they are running from a bad guy. Another recommendation from some experts is that if you cannot escape or hide, play dead. Children, especially small ones, would be powerless against an adult intent on hurting others, so the “play dead” technique is something for parents to consider teaching.
If you Have to Hide, what is the difference between Cover vs. Concealment
In the case of a robbery or active shooter situation, it is important for your children to know what bullets can do and what is necessary to stop them from going through someone. If they are trapped inside, they need to find something that will give them the best chance of surviving if the bullets start flying. That means something with enough mass to stop rounds.
Children think that as long as they are hidden they will be OK and we know that isn’t the case. They have to know what will protect them from bullets and there aren’t many things in an office building, movie theater or school that will do an effective job but you can learn to look for more solid objects. Don’t even bother hiding under a table or a glass trophy case, but those big concrete posts in the lobby will work. Forget about hiding under the teacher’s desk, but the large bookshelves in the library could offer protection. Large appliances in the back of the cafeteria will work better than stainless steel serving dollies. The next time you are out anywhere ask your child what they could hide behind that would stop a bullet and see what they say.
Tell them how very unlikely it is that we will ever need to use this plan, but it could help us be safe if we needed it. We’re not trying to make our kids afraid when we are at the grocery store or the mall. Explain that this is another safety precaution, like having a smoke detector or a fire evacuation plan from our home. The chances that we will need those things to save us from a dangerous situation are relatively small, but they may make all the difference.
Resources to Use to Build Your Plan
The American Red Cross suggests some basic steps to make sure you remain safe. Click here. You can even request free youth preparedness trainings and activities from your local Red Cross chapter.
FEMA has emergency preparedness curriculum for grades 1-12 that teach kids what to do before, during, and after an emergency while fostering critical 21st-century skills such as problem solving, teamwork, creativity, leadership, and communication. Click here.
Sesame Street has an activity book to make a family plan with young children. Click here.
The State of Utah has a planning workbook for families. Click here.