Every year on the third Thursday in October, it’s the Great American Shakeout – it’s a good once-a-year time to remember to talk with your child about earthquakes and to do an earthquake drill. We want to focus on how to prepare… not scare.
There may be other times where your child has questions about earthquakes – perhaps they heard about one in the news or in a story, or maybe they recently experienced an earthquake, and they’re working to process it. This post addresses some ways to talk about the topic.
My general approach when talking about any topic that might be scary for a child is:
- Talk about how likely (or unlikely) this thing is to happen.
- Address: Can we predict it? Can we prevent it? Can we at least take steps to prevent it from being a big problem?
- Explain to them how they would know this thing was happening.
- Teach what they could do if it happened, in order to make things better.
- Talk about what the grown-ups around them would do to make it better.
- Reassure them that even if bad things happens to people, people are tough and resilient, and pull together and make it through.
So, let’s walk through questions your child might have:
How Likely Is an Earthquake?
In many parts of the world, the answer is extremely unlikely. In other parts of the world, it’s quite likely your child will experience many earthquakes over their lifetime. I think you can be honest about your situation. If the likelihood is low, that can be very reassuring for your child to know. If the likelihood is high, we acknowledge that and then we focus on how we prepare and how we learn about earthquakes so we can respond if and when one happens.
Can you predict or prevent an earthquake?
Many people say “and that’s what makes it so scary!” It’s normal to feel that way, but that’s not the way to talk to your kids about earthquakes. Say “We can’t do anything to prevent them, and we can’t really predict when one is coming. So instead of worrying about that every day, we just make a plan for what we’ll do if or when one happens. And every once in a while, we practice how to respond.”
How will I know if there’s an earthquake?
Many adults leading earthquake drills for kids teach what to do, but never stop to think about whether a child would know when to do those things. We can’t assume they would know that an earthquake was happening. It’s important to describe what an earthquake might feel like, using non-scary descriptions. I’ve said things like “If you’re sitting down, it may feel like someone is holding onto your chair and shaking it back and forth. If you’re standing up, you’d start feeling all wobbly, like you’re in a bounce house and the other kids are bouncing a lot.” If you’re ever in a situation where there’s a similar sensation, point it out: “Wow – when everyone in the stadium stomps their feet, it feels almost like an earthquake.” “The way the bridge at the playground sways back and forth sort of reminds me of an earthquake.”
After one 4.6 earthquake in Seattle, here are some descriptions people shared on social media: “At first, I thought it was the dog bumping against the bed.” “It was like being in one of those coin-operated beds that wiggle and shake.” “I heard the dishes rattling.” “My dog started barking just before it happened.” “My cat freaked out and bolted out of the room.” “I thought it was a really loud truck driving by.” “There was a big rumbling booming sound like thunder, then my whole house shook for about 20 seconds.” “I thought one of my kids was shaking the bed.” There were also LOTS of people (including my whole family) that slept through the quake and never noticed anything!
Sharing descriptions like these will hopefully illustrate to your child what it might feel like so they can recognize it, but do it in a non-frightening way.
What you DON’T want to do: don’t go online with your child sitting next to you and search for photos and videos of earthquakes. This can be frightening out of context. If they’ve already seen scary images, you’ll need to reassure them and remind them that a news station will always search a whole city for the single most scary image to share. For example, in Seattle, we once had a 6.8 quake, and if you looked at the news, it would show a collapsed brick building in downtown Seattle. But that was the only collapsed building in town. It did not show photos like one my husband took of the worst damage at Microsoft campus, which was of the drink cooler that came open and spilled 20 cans of soda down to roll around on the floor. So be honest with your child, and say that yes, bad things can happen in an earthquake. But it is more likely that they won’t than that they will.
Let your children know that sometimes an earthquake only lasts a few seconds, and you’re not even sure you felt it. Other times it may last long enough for you to take action to protect yourself.
What should they do if there’s an earthquake?
Teach your child this basic method:
- DROP down onto your hands and knees (before the earthquake knocks you over). This position protects you from falling but allows you to still move if necessary.
- COVER your head and neck (entire body if possible) under a sturdy table or desk.
- If there is no shelter nearby, crawl away from windows and things that could fall on you, covering your head and neck with your hands.
- HOLD ON to your shelter (or continue covering your head and neck) until the shaking stops. Be prepared to move with your shelter if the shaking shifts it around.
A Children’s Book about Earthquake Response
I’ve written a children’s story book to teach this method: It’s called Rabbits in the Hole: A Story about Earthquake Preparedness, and you can download it by clicking on that link
Some additional guidance for parents
This is more than you would teach kids, but it’s worth knowing. (Source for recommendations.)
If you’re with your child, when they drop, cover and hold, so do you. Then you cover over them with your own body, and then cover the back of your neck with one hand.
If you are driving: pull over, stay in your car with your seat-belt buckled (and your child buckled in their car seat) until the shaking stops.
If you’re in bed, stay in bed! Lay facedown, cover your head and neck with a pillow and your hands.
What NOT to do:
- Do NOT stand in doorways. In modern buildings, the doorways are no stronger than other parts of the house. You are safer under a table.
- Do NOT try to run outside or run around inside the building. Although it is safer to be near an interior wall, away from windows, it’s not a big enough benefit to risk running to another room during an earthquake. It’s better to drop, crawl a few feet to the safest space, cover, and hold.
What Will the Grown-Ups Do?
Explain to children that during an earthquake, if a grown-up is nearby, they will help to shelter the child by putting their body over the top of the child. If the grown-up is not nearby, the child should still drop, cover and hold right where they are and trust that as soon as the shaking is over, their caregivers will come to them as quickly as possible.
After the shaking, the grown-ups will help to make sure everything is safe around them, and they can help by staying calm and listening well to what they’re told to do. If there’s anything that could be dangerous or needs to be fixed, the grown-ups will help to figure that out.
Don’t expose your young child to pictures of cities devastated by earthquakes. That will only frighten them, and that level of damage is beyond their control and ours. If they have seen those pictures, acknowledge that this is possible and it’s tragic, but it’s not likely to happen to them.
Do talk about (or show pictures of) damage that is challenging but manageable. Good ones might be of a grocery store – there may be big spills and some broken glass that the grown-ups would need to take care of, but soon everything will be set back to right.
If you have a story of someone your kids know who experienced an earthquake but everything turned out OK, that’s a good story to tell. (In general, it’s a helpful lesson for children to hear that challenging things can happen to people, and they can be OK. That actually teaches resilience better than telling your kids that nothing bad will ever happen to them.)
I tell stories about the two biggest earthquakes I’ve been in (a 6.8 and a 5.1): in one, we were at a children’s theatre watching a play about Winnie the Pooh, where they were talking about taking the bounce out of Tigger, then the room started bouncing – we all thought it was a special effect at first! We were asked to evacuate the theater after the earthquake, and everyone left calmly, and we went home, so the sad thing was that we didn’t get to see the end of the show, but we were all OK, and our families were all OK. Some people had a few broken things in their house, but nothing big. The other time, we were at Disneyland watching Fantasmic, and as the pirate ship came around the bend, things started swaying and rumbling. Again, it felt like a special effect. But then they stopped the show, turned up the lights, and asked us to leave the park. So, we didn’t get to see the end of the show, but we did get to calmly evacuate through the back part of the park (the employee areas no one is ever allowed to see) which was super interesting, and we went back the next day and everything was OK. They did have some aftershocks, so after each one, they would close the ride, quickly inspect it, and then go right back to having fun.
Telling a story like this, or any story you know, can help to teach that earthquakes can be a big problem, but more often, they are totally manageable if we stay calm and know how to respond.
- Consider building an emergency preparedness kit. You can engage your child in some parts of the process, where it will reassure them that you have a plan, just in case.
- Learn more about earthquake preparedness, specifically.
- For fun, hands-on science activities, check out my post at Inventors Of Tomorrow about Earthquake Science for Kids.