“The kids are playing doctor!”
More than one horrified mom has made that statement over the many, many decades that curious kids have been re-enacting their exams at the pediatrician’s office.
“I’ll be the doctor and you can be the patient!”
Kids instinctively understand that the well-being of their bodies is important. Visits to the pediatrician are one of their earliest memories. With a natural interest already in place, it makes sense to include them in family health training. After all, the more people in the family who know what to do in an emergency, the better.
Key Concept #1: What is an emergency?
As a new mom, I came running every time one of the kids yelled, “It’s an emergency!” It didn’t take long, though, for me to wise up. A four-year-old has a lot to learn about the definition of an emergency! According to Patrice Blank, a medical professional and owner of 123CPR, a medical training company based in Phoenix, the definition of an emergency is the most important concept for children to learn.
“Kids must learn how to recognize when they need to get help. Very young children, say ages three and four, usually have adults present with them, and they need to know when an adult might need help,” she says. It’s also a vital concept for older kids who are more capable of not only recognizing the danger signs but then following through with a 911 call and even administering basic first aid themselves.
There are five danger signals kids should recognize in order to define an emergency.
- Is there a lot of blood?
- Can the person not wake up?
- Can the person not get up to walk or stand?
- Are they breathing funny?
- Are they acting strangely?
Each of these is a signal of a possible medical crisis, but just knowing them isn’t enough. Parents should teach their kids what each signal means and provide simple, real-life examples and hands-on practice.
Signal #1: Is there a lot of blood?
When he was young, my son would use half a dozen bandages because he was “bleeding” from scraping a knee on the sidewalk. To him, any blood is, “a lot”. Just about every kid has experienced a scraped elbow or knee, so this is an ideal example to use for teaching Signal 1, Is there a lot of blood?
Remind your child of those sidewalk scrapes and ask, “Were you bleeding? Did we need to call 911?” Chances are, they’ll recognize that the scraped knee, however painful, didn’t require medical attention.
On the other hand, do they know what, “a lot” of blood is? Patrice uses a balloon partially filled with water to illustrate this point. She pokes a tiny hole in the balloon and a few drops emerge. “This isn’t a lot of blood,” she tells them. However, once she pokes a larger hole and kids immediately see a steady stream of water, they get it. “Now this,” she explains, “is a lot of blood. If you see an injury like this, it’s time to call 911.”
Signal #2: Can the person not wake up?
Signal #2 asks kids to be aware if a person can’t wake up, but a deep sleep could be the result of exhaustion or medication. On the other hand, it could be something worse. How can a youngster determine if Grandma is just taking a nap or is in need of immediate medical attention?
Teach children to first call the person’s name loudly several times. If there is no response, they should gently shake them. If the person remains asleep, it’s officially an emergency. This is a situation that is easily role-played between parent and child or even using a doll as the sleeping person.
Signal #3: Can the person not get up to walk or stand?
If someone is unable to get up or stand, it’s possible that a bone has been broken. Signal #3 can be a bit easier to diagnose when the injured person can still talk and direct the child to get help.
Recently I slipped on a Frisbee that had been left on the living room floor. Although I didn’t require help from paramedics, I was perfectly capable of yelling, “Whoever left this thing on the floor is grounded for a week!” If a bone had been broken, I would have been just as verbal if not more so!
However, an important part of training kids to distinguish between an emergency and non-emergency is learning to ask an injured person, “Can you move? Can you get up?” If the answer is negative or if the person is unable to answer, a 911 call should be made immediately.
Signal #4: Is the person breathing funny?
The fourth danger signal is, “funny breathing.” If a family member or friend is asthmatic, this will be easy to identify. If not, the parent can imitate gasping for breath, struggling for breath, wheezing, or choking. Breathing problems are a significant warning sign and help should be called for immediately. Around age seven or eight, kids should know where to locate life-saving medication for an asthmatic in the family and how to assist in its administration.
Signal 5: Is the person acting strangely?
Finally, Signal #5 asks, “Are they acting strangely?” Head injuries, seizures, a stroke, reactions to medication, and low blood sugar are just a few issues that can cause symptoms such as disorientation, trembling, dizziness, or slurred speech. Teach kids to trust their instincts, and if they think someone is acting strangely, to go ahead and make that 911 call.
Key Concept #2: Dial 911
Once a child of any age realizes that help is needed, they need to feel comfortable about dialing 911 for help. In a scary situation, most kids will be tempted to first call a parent or run over to a neighbor’s house, but valuable time is lost every minute that a life-saving call is delayed.
Beginning at age four or so, parents and kids can begin role-playing 911 phone calls. My daughter can be quite shy and hated talking on the phone when she was younger. We started rehearsing 911 phone calls together and her confidence grew. A stranger on the other end of the phone can be intimidating, which makes rehearsal extremely important, even with older children.
Here are a few suggestions for helping your kids learn to make 911 calls and provide vital information to the operator.
- Rehearse dialing 911 on both a cell phone and the family landline phone. If using a cell phone, make sure the child knows to hit the ‘Send’ button in order to complete the call.
- Teach the youngster their home address and the first and last name of every person living in the household.
- Post the five danger signs somewhere in the house. Make sure everyone knows where they are so a diagnosis can be made swiftly.
- As part of the role-play, ask the child, “What is your emergency?” and coach them how to answer that question. It will likely be the first question posed by the 911 operator.
- Teach your children to listen very carefully to the 911 operator and follow their instructions exactly.
- Once the 911 call has been completed, then a second call can be placed to a parent, relative, or family friend.
- If the emergency occurs at night, children should know to turn on all indoor lights, unlock the front door, secure pets in another room, and, if they are old enough, go outside to signal the emergency vehicles. This is especially important if your home is difficult to locate.
Key Concept #3: Family-specific medical issues
Many families deal with critical health issues every day and are more likely to experience health and medical related emergencies. From an early age, children need to know about these issues, who is affected, and what they should do if help is needed. It might be a severe allergy, Grandma’s pacemaker, a diabetic in the family, or a sibling with Down syndrome. Whatever the situation, explain it in age-appropriate terms, specific danger signals to watch for, and then, how to help.
Advanced training for kids
Surprisingly, medical training, including CPR, is something kids can master beginning around age eight or nine. “Kids are amazing,” Patrice Blank states. “They catch on to everything I teach in first aid classes and CPR.” Often, parents think children are too young for important information, but in the case of medical-related training, they can get started at an early age.
Many city governments, Red Cross offices, and even the YMCA offer classes in babysitting safety and first aid. “Kids can easily learn how to clean and wrap a wound. They can learn how to clear out airways and use the Heimlich maneuver,” Patrice says.
Your home likely contains at least one first aid kit, and kids need to know where it’s located and how to use the supplies. The very best way to learn this is by taking classes as a family. ‘What if’ discussions and rehearsals will deepen the understanding of important concepts and reinforce vital skills.
We parents tend to think that we’ll be the ones handling emergencies, but it’s very possible that we may be out of commission ourselves or the kids may be home alone when a crisis occurs. Begin medical training early on. Rehearse frequently emergency situations, calls to 911, and first aid procedures. Post emergency phone numbers and the five Danger Signals, and continue adding to their medical education as they mature. Someday, the life your kid saves may be your own!
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