Teaching Your Teen How to Act in an Emergency | Be Prepared

Sam was 18 years old when he had his first car accident. “It was a slippery, nasty night,” says his mother, Mary Robertson. “The wind was blowing. Visibility was OK, but it was very cold out. He hit some very hard packed snow that acted like a ramp, and he skidded into a large tree. He smashed the hood of the car, but he was OK.”

Luckily, Sam knew what to do after the accident. “I know he covered this in driving school, but it was nothing we ever discussed,” Robertson says. “We’ve gone over lots of defensive driving techniques, but I never discussed post-accident events.”

Most kids learn at an early age when and how to call 911 in case of an emergency. We teach our children important survival tools such as escape routes if the house needs to be evacuated or who to approach if the family gets separated at a crowded amusement park. However, once the basics are covered, parents often neglect preparing teenage or young adult children for emergency situations. Like Robertson, parents often focus on keeping safe, and forget (or want to deny) the possibility that something could go wrong. Consequently, teenagers are moving into an independent lifestyle without the skills to handle a crisis.

Common Emergency Situations

According to Norris Beren, executive director of the Emergency Preparedness Institute, the following are the most common emergency situations:

  • Potential auto accidents, including riding with inexperienced drivers in overloaded cars and alcohol as a contributor – Teens should be prepared for this and should know how to refuse getting into this type of situation. In addition, use of seatbelts is critical to injury (or death) avoidance.
  • Fire at home – Have a family emergency escape plan, and practice it.
  • Home invasion – Opening doors to strangers should be on your discussion list.
  • Purse snatchers – Address improper carrying of purses and valuables while walking in public areas.
  • Use of ATM machines – Talk about robbery at ATMs, kidnapping and other likely scenarios.
  • Public parking lots – Advise against walking alone at night and parking cars next to vans where a predator may be hiding.
  • Crowded places – Sports events and other entertainment places (liquor sold, music, crowds, limited exits, electrical wiring overloads, potential for fire) present dangerous situations of which your teen should be aware.

In addition, the teenage years are ones of experimentation and poor self-esteem. With binge drinking a problem among this age group, teenagers may come across situations where a friend or roommate is found unconscious or participating in risky behavior.

Parental Prep

“Parents should start training in the grammar school years and continue as new opportunities, such as outlined above, become part of life and routine,” Beren says. He recommends using newspaper articles depicting local events as a starting point for conversations. To prepare teenagers for any emergency situation, Beren has the following general tips:

  • Discuss what dangers, emergencies and unexpected events could cause injury or death. For example, hold a family meeting of what could happen.
  • Go over what young adults need to know about the possibility of events occurring to them.
  • Advise them on what things they need to have with them in places where an emergency or potential event could occur, such as a small flashlight in a purse or pocket, a whistle, emergency phone numbers, spare battery for phone, change, bottle of water, etc.
  • Talk about what actions they need to take under various circumstances to protect themselves from harm, such as learning to say “No” when circumstances warrant it; getting in a car with an imperiled young driver or avoiding unruly crowds, such as occurred at the University of Wisconsin football game some years ago that caused serious injury to many students.
  • Discuss these matters with your teen and several friends together informally if “listening” is likely.

For example, new teenage drivers should be able to find insurance and registration information immediately and understand that they should never leave an accident scene. If a teen is involved with a robbery, they should know that their life and safety is always more important than material goods – don’t try to fight to save a few bucks.

Teenagers should never be hesitant to call for help if they feel the need to. Police and other emergency personnel are there to help. Parents, too, need to remember that accidents happen, and even the most cautious person might end up in a bad situation. If their child is calling for assistance, parents should not be critical. Instead, they should offer calm, patient guidance and talk their teen through the problem.

The most important lesson parents can teach their teen is to remain calm. It isn’t an easy lesson to teach, and some teenagers – like some adults – naturally find an inner strength during an emergency. Having knowledge of how to react beforehand, however, is the best way to stay calm when the crisis calls for it.

Another example: A teenager might have a friend who is suicidal. In this situation, Beverly Cobain, co-author of Dying to Be Free: A Healing Guide for Families After a Suicide (Hazleden, 2006), says not to panic. “Don’t try to change your friend’s mind,” she says. “Ask him what is bothering him and then listen, listen, listen. Do not leave him alone until a trusted adult or professional is involved. Some options for help are hospital emergency rooms, school counselors, clergy, crisis lines or 911.”

If a teenager sees someone behaving in risky behavior, Cobain says to call 911 immediately. Many teens only think of saving their friend, but that can only create more danger. “It is probably not prudent to try to pull someone in from a ledge or remove a weapon, lest you become a victim, too.”

College students throughout the Gulf region discovered how to survive another emergency – a natural disaster. In case of any disaster, “students need to be oriented on what is the crisis/emergency plan on their campus, including learning evacuation procedures and identifying shelter,” says Melissa Brymer, director of the terrorism and disaster programs at UCLA. “They also need to learn where they can listen to community-wide emergency communications.”

Brymer’s organization suggests that teenagers – and all family members – carry cards with various emergency numbers written on it (more information on this can be found at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network). “We also emphasize that families think of adding an extended family member that lives out of state on this list,” she says. “In large-scale events, even after a school shooting, local telephone systems get jammed, and it is easier to reach someone out of the area than someone a block away. It also helps families reconnect if they are dispersed throughout the community.”

As parents, we always hope that our children will never have to use emergency skills, but it is always better to be prepared for the worse and hope for the best.

 Names have been changed to protect identity.

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