How to talk to kids about fires and earthquakes, before and after they happen

Chloe Hoskins, 7, tags along with her father, who was checking on a neighbor's burned out property in the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Southern California parents who have seen the devastation from fires to the north and the earthquakes to the south in Mexico may be thinking about how to prepare if Santa Ana winds fuel similar blazes here or if the Big One hits Los Angeles.

There are plenty of ways to make your home safer in case disaster strikes. But it’s also important that children know what to do in an emergency, and that they get support when something does happen.

Here are some tips from experts on how to prepare children for disasters without terrifying them, and how to help them cope after a disaster:

Preparing for a disaster

Involve your children in the process

“You’re giving them a sense of empowerment,” said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff. “For a kid or a teenager … it’s very important for them to feel like they’re part of it, they’ve got a job to do.”

Approaches should vary depending on the age of the child, she said. But even a 5-year-old may be able to understand the important of having a place to meet up if something happens, Tolmachoff said.

Kids might also like something comforting to put in the go bags that parents prepare — a game, crayons or a familiar object.

Giving children a role in this process, especially after they see disasters elsewhere, can help them feel safer, experts say.

Prepare them without frightening them more

There’s a way for parents to approach the conversation without making their children more afraid, said Jennifer MacLeamy, the director of behavioral health at the Petaluma Health Center.

She suggests starting the conversation along these lines: “Sometimes things happen in life that we can’t control and sometimes that’s on a big scale … and sometimes that’s on a little scale … but here’s what I want you to know: that your family will always love you. We will do everything we can to keep you safe.” Then transition to: “If we have to leave, let’s talk about what we need to take with us.”

Make sure they know who to call

Kids should know how to call 911 from a cellphone and landline, and they should know that the person who picks up is someone they can trust, said Bunni Benaron, co-founder of The Hero In You Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to youth disaster preparedness.

Children should also memorize key telephone numbers, such as those of their parents. Some experts say that a family based in Southern California should designate a single relative or friend in a different area, say Northern California or out of state, as the person they should call to say they’re safe or need help. In disasters, a family member or friend outside of the disaster zone may be better able to coordinate aid.

If they’re old enough to have cellphones, children should have all family members’ and emergency contact numbers saved in their contact lists.

Have fire and earthquake drills at home

Kids (and adults) should have pairs of sturdy shoes next to their beds or tied to their bedposts. Kids should know that in a fire, they should not hide, that they should stay low to the ground to avoid smoke, go to a previously designated meeting place and not run back inside, said Lisa Derderian, Pasadena’s city emergency management coordinator.

They should also know about multiple escape routes in a fire — and that, though the fundamentals are the same, how they protect themselves or escape from a fire or earthquake at school might be different from at home.

For earthquakes, they should know to hide under a desk or table — and that if there isn’t one and they are alone in their bedrooms, they should get under the covers and lightly hold pillows over their heads to protect themselves from falling objects. It’s a myth that doorways are safer during earthquakes, Derderian said, and kids shouldn’t stand in them. A door can swing, and other objects could cause injuries. Once the shaking stops, they can go to their parents’ room if it’s safe.

Talk to their schools about emergency preparations

Parents should ask their children’s schools to make sure they have up-to-date emergency supplies, said Mina Arnao, the founder of More Prepared, an online emergency supplies store.

“Ask your school what they have, what are the supplies that they have. ‘What are your plans? What are your evacuation plans? Where am I going to pick up my kid? How are you going to communicate?’”

Schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District should have about three days worth of emergency supplies, including rescue supplies, food and water, for all their students, said Jill Barnes, the district’s executive emergency strategist. They should also have safety plans that parents can access.

California schools are held to higher construction standards than other buildings, Barnes said, something that may reassure children and their parents.

In a large earthquake, “our buildings are going to be less damaged than the buildings around them,” she said.

It’s also good to know, she said, that public employees, including teachers, can be activated to work in a disaster.

“When there is an emergency at school, we’re not going home. We will be with the kids” as long as necessary, Barnes said.

After disaster strikes

Answer their questions and validate their feelings

Kids tend to regress when they are under stress, so don’t panic if they’re not hitting all the milestones they did before, MacLeamy said.

They might also ask questions that parents don’t want to answer. But parents shouldn’t ignore or dismiss those questions.

“They’re very smart and they’re very intuitive and they know when something is going on,” MacLeamy said.

Saying everything is fine when it’s clearly not, she said, invalidates children’s feelings and can affect them negatively.

“The thing that children want the most is to know that their parents are in control and taking care of them,” MacLeamy said. “What happens in a natural disaster is exactly the opposite … so they’re feeling that fear and that uncertainty. So we have to validate that feeling.”

Try different approaches to figure out what they’re feeling

It’s important to check in with kids even if they’re not asking questions, said Marian Pena, the behavioral health director at West County Health Centers in Sonoma County, where recent fires destroyed thousands of homes and killed more than 20 people. Some children will develop anxiety because they’re stressed and don’t have an outlet for that stress.

“A lot of parents feel like if they don’t ever talk to their kids about this, it’s out of sight out of mind,” she said.

But that’s not true. Children are thinking about what’s happening around them, whether or not they ask their parents about it. And it’s important for parents to provide the most accurate information, and reassure children that they are safe.

There are different ways to figure out how kids are feeling and what they’re experiencing, if doing so directly isn’t working. Parents can ask them what they’ve heard or try art-based therapy, Pena said. Sometimes children don't have the words but stressors come out in what they draw.

MacLeamy suggests asking what they are dreaming about, or what they and their friends are telling them.

Keep routines in place, but add hugs

During the Northern California fires, parents often asked “how to be with their children so much when they’re not at school and experiencing all this trauma and distress,” MacLeamy said.

Schools may be closed for days or weeks during fires or after a massive earthquake. Children (and adults) feel safer doing what they usually do, so it’s important to maintain some elements of their daily routine, like eating and sleeping at normal times, mental health experts said.

“Rituals and routines and boundaries are how children really know for sure that they’re safe,” MacLeamy said. That’s how “kids know that, even though a lot of things in their world have changed, not everything has changed.”

But it’s also good to add some extra affection to those routines — hugs, a bedtime snuggle, assurances that kids are out of harm’s way.

“‘I love you and you’re safe.’ Just keep saying it, over and over again,” MacLeamy said. “A hug is really powerful.”

Try to find some hope

It’s important to acknowledge the bad things that have happened, but parents should try to answer their children’s questions with some hope, MacLeamy said.

MacLeamy said her 3-year-old recently asked why there were fire trucks in the station, because for weeks he had seen them out fighting fires.

“I said, ‘Well, the great news is most of the fires are put out — and even when they weren’t, we needed to have some firefighters in our town to make sure we’re safe.’”

If children ask about deaths, she said, it’s important to acknowledge the losses but also point out that most people found safety.

If an older child is afraid and asks about the deaths, she said, it might help to look at a map together and point out all the places where people were safely rescued or evacuated.

It’s also important to let children be part of the community healing process, MacLeamy said.

“Children will always remember when they were in a natural disaster. So if we can make that memory … a story of overcoming, rather than just — ‘and then we were depressed and miserable for the next two months,’ it can help shape children’s memories and recovery,” she said. “Kids don’t have a lot of agency in their lives and they really want to help. They want to contribute in some way.”

Allow older children to volunteer in the community or take them to see people and neighbors helping each other.

Pena said she feels it’s appropriate to take children of all ages to community vigils after disasters.

When people shield [children] from life and illness and death, it’s not good.… Kids need to learn how to cope with this,” she said. “Celebrating life is a good thing to do.”

For teachers

Take care of yourself before you walk back into the classroom

Teachers in Northern California are worried about how to help the influx of new students they might see and how to talk to the students who have lost homes — especially if the teachers are also displaced, MacLeamy said.

“Before they even walk into the classrooms, I’m telling them … take care of yourselves,” MacLeamy said. Beyond the basics of securing their own housing, that can mean eating well, trying to practice mindfulness or getting some exercise, she said.

Be prepared to answer questions

“Children might ask their teachers questions that they wouldn’t necessarily ask their parents,” because they see teachers as wells of knowledge or because they don’t want to further stress out their parents, MacLeamy said.

Teachers should come prepared to answer factual questions about the disaster, she said.

They should also keep an eye out for children who are particularly withdrawn or are acting significantly differently than before, and avoid punitive responses to such shifts in behavior.

“They’ve been through a trauma,” she said. “We’ve all been through a trauma.”