Many children don’t have adult supervision 100% of the time. Parents and caregivers have jobs, errands, and other responsibilities that require them to leave their kids home alone some of the time.
Emergencies and no-notice disasters can happen during these gaps in supervision. Here are some practical skills you can teach and conversations you can have to prepare them to be home alone.
Talk About Emergencies
Emergencies can be scary for anybody, especially children. Parents and guardians must talk to kids about what they can anticipate during and after an emergency. Talking to kids about emergencies, involving them in preparedness activities, and teaching them what to do during an emergency can give them a sense of control if a real emergency happens.
Teach Kids to Use 911
One of the most important lessons a parent or guardian can teach a child—regardless of whether they spend time home alone—is how and when to call 911.
Kate Elkins is a 911 and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) specialist with the National 911 Program in the NHTSA Office of EMS. She has first-hand experience as a paramedic responding to calls from children.
“Kids can be incredibly powerful in a crisis,” she said. “They want to help themselves and their families. It’s important to talk to kids about how and when to call 911. And to let them know that 911 is a resource that can empower them.”
Here are some things you can do to help kids feel more comfortable about calling 911:
- Explain the purpose of 911. They should dial 911 only for an emergency. An emergency is a serious situation when a police officer, firefighter, or paramedic is needed right away.(1)
- Prepare kids to answer the 911 operator’s questions. Explain to them that the operator will ask several questions like, “What is your emergency? What is your address? What phone number can they call you back on?” And they will ask more detailed questions about who needs help, why they need help, and if it’s a medical emergency they will ask a series of questions and may give directions of what to do to help.
- Teach kids how to use the emergency call feature from a locked cell phone.
- Give kids examples of when to call 911. For example, tell them to “Call 911 if someone is threatening or hurting someone else, if something is on fire (but you may need to call from the neighbor’s house if the fire is at your house), or someone is hurt, bleeding, or lying on the ground and not moving.”
- Reassure kids that calling 911 is easy to do. Also, that operators want to help. Emphasize the importance of answering the operator’s questions honestly, following their directions, and staying on the phone until told to hang up.
- Also, go over what to do if your child accidentally calls 911 and there is not an emergency. It is important to stay on the line and explain there is no emergency so that 911 does not send responders to investigate a hang-up call.
Deciding if a situation is an emergency can be difficult for a child. They might have to use their best judgment. Tell them it is better to call 911 if they are in doubt and there’s no time to ask a parent, guardian, or neighbor.
“Sometimes, you just need to give kids permission to call 911 if they’re scared,” said Elkins. “It’s ok. Public safety telecommunicators are trained to take these kinds of calls.”
Partner with Neighbors
Let children know that if an emergency happens, they should look for “the helpers” in their community. This could be a friendly neighbor, teacher, or adult relative.
Introduce your kids to trusted neighbors who might help in an emergency. If possible, share your contact information with them so that they will be able to reach you in an emergency. In return, offer to be an emergency contact for them and their kids.
Practice Makes Perfect
Practicing emergency scenarios with kids can help familiarize them with what they should do in an emergency and build up their confidence to respond.(2)
Role-play to help kids decide when and practice how to dial 911. Act out different scenarios, such as a tornado warning or a stranger coming to the door, when kids may need to take shelter or call 911. Make passcode entry part of your 911 role play.
Elkins also recommends reaching out to your local EMS agency, fire department, and police department to arrange a visit. Ask them to talk to your kids about calling 911. Getting to know the people who answer the phone when they call 911 is another way to make kids feel more comfortable and confident about calling.
Learn more about how to prepare children for an emergency.
Thanks in advance for your questions and comments on this Public Health Matters post. Please note that the CDC does not give personal medical advice. If you are concerned you have a disease or condition, talk to your doctor.
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