Home Alone: Prepare Kids for Emergencies

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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 on 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 a 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 cellphone 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.

References

  1. https://www.911.gov/needtocallortext911.html
  2. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubpdfs/homealone.pdf

Resources

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.

Have a question for CDC? CDC-INFO (http://www.cdc.gov/cdc-info/index.html) offers live agents by phone and email to help you find the latest, reliable, and science-based health information on more than 750 health topics.

 

 

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11 comments on “Home Alone: Prepare Kids for Emergencies”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    Every person should be trained on resusitation whether young or older. These trainings should be updated yearly.

    We always go over with our children the things not to do when leaving the home, leaving them by themselves alone. You may also remind them of whom to call, you and one other person if they were to need something. However, you are giving them the tools to do the right thing and fix the problem, which I never thought of doing. I never thought about showing and looking at the first aid kit. It is on the to do list now.

    It is never too early to prepare children for an emergency. Children practice fire drill as early as preschool which are often the first form of emergency preparedness they undergo. Children and care takers should know where the first aid kit is and who trusted neighbors are. There are several emergency preparedness scenarios are available online that can help familiarize children and reduce their panic in a real emergency.

    I have children and although we have discussed calling 911 in emergent situations, we’ve never gone over what those situations could be. I never thought about going over scenarios, and now I do understand the importance of not assuming that my children understand without confirmation.

    What a great topic to address! I think that this should also cover making sure that the child is mature enough to stay home alone. I have a 13-year-old boy who I do not leave home alone for more than 5 minutes as he doesn’t make sound judgments even on the little things. I also have a 12-year-old girl who, if I weren’t afraid of my kids choking when I wasn’t there, I would let her cook on a gas stove while I was not home. Understanding the mental maturity of our children is also imperative when we are practicing for emergencies. I really appreciate how you talk about finding neighbors that are trusted in the neighborhood to go to for help. I think this helps to make the kids feel like that while no grown-up is in the house at this moment, I have grown-ups around me that I can trust to go to for help. As a nurse in an ER, we see children all the time who were left at home that should have been supervised. Part of the discharge instructions I give to the parents include a lot of what you are saying here as well.

    I also believe that teaching kids basic first aid skills as well as how to respond in an emergency situation is crucial in their preparedness. Involving the neighborhood you live in is another great way to provide your children with the resources they need during an emergency.

    This is such a great teaching moment for children who may have to be left alone. This also gives parents some peace of mind when running errands and leaving children home alone. Knowing when to call 911 and being able to understand the difference in a true emergency and when to use neighbors for help as well as the 911 dispatch can help many children save themselves and siblings from tragic events.

    From a nurses perspective knowing what to do in the event of a emergency is vital to any persons no matter the age safety and well being. I think it is important for young children who are able to be left alone to understand the importance of proper resources to use for aide in the event of an emergency. Not only should children know how to properly use 911 or ask for help from neighbors I believe also from a nurses perspective basic first aide and CPR should be taught in school and at home. Anyone can conduct compressions and rescue breathing if taught properly.

    I think your blog was very informative. From a nurses point of view, it is very important for a person to understand what to do in an emergency. I think the tips you discuss can help a child contact emergency personnel if needed. For example, if a grandparent watches their grandchild but they slip and fall. The child would have the ability to call 911 to help. In cases, it could be life or death depending on the situation. I like how you used teaching children “helpers” such a neighbors and who they can go seek help from. Not only as a nurse, but as a mom you have taught me some valuable information on how to teach my son to get help if there is an emergency.

    When to leave a child at home is one of the most challenging decision that a parent can decide. In my opinion, a child is only responsible to be left alone once the child can comprehend basic safety procedure. Basic safety procedure can include knowing when to call 911, not answering the door for strangers, knowing their home address, knowing contact numbers for their parents, and understands basic fire evacuation. As one could surmise from my comment, a child would have be to mature enough to handle an unforeseen circumstance within a small window time.

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Page last reviewed: August 23, 2021
Page last updated: August 23, 2021