This episode is based on a reader suggestion that we received from Michelle in Ham Lake, Minnesota:
I enjoy the Bryghtpath podcast. It lets me use a completely different part of my brain and challenges me to apply the ideas to various organizations, not just items of crisis management, but even everyday team operations.As I read accounts of the Minnehaha Academy explosion and thought about kids going back to school.Would you consider a parent focused episode about how to talk to children (and practice with children) prior to events? We let schools train our kids, but do we follow up? Do we think about how our kids would respond to a crisis in a way that helps the adults who manage situations?
In this episode of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, Bryghtpath Principal & CEO Bryan Strawser and Senior Consultant Jennifer Otremba discuss how to talk with your children about a disaster situation. Topics discussed include starting with preparedness at a family and personal level, leading your family through a tragedy, and long-term recovery for families with children.
Bryan Strawser: We got mail.
Jen Otremba: We did.
Bryan Strawser: Reader mail. Michelle from Ham Lake, Minnesota. A local reader. Local listener.
Jen Otremba: I love mail.
Bryan Strawser: Michelle says, “I enjoy the Bryghtpath podcast. It lets me use a completely different part of my brain, and challenges me to apply the ideas to various organizations. Not just items of crisis management, but even everyday team operations. As I read accounts of the Minnehaha Academy explosion, and I thought about kids going back to school, would you consider doing a parent focused episode about how to talk to children, and how to practice with children, prior to events? Our schools train our kids, but do we ever follow up? Do we think about how our children will respond to a crisis in a way that helps the adults who manage situations?”
Jen Otremba: Thanks, Michelle, for sending that in. We’ll talk about those things. This is actually really relevant, because those of you that have not been paying attention, there was a explosion at the Minnehaha Academy.
Bryan Strawser: This is a charter school. A very large and well regarded charter school in Minneapolis.
Jen Otremba: Yes. It was very scary, although it was summer months, so weren’t that many people around, fortunately, but there were some fatalities.
Bryan Strawser: Right. So it’s like they were moving … There’s an additional report that just came out this week. This explosion happened a few weeks ago, now, but it appears that they were doing some gas line work in preparation for moving gas meters, and something caused a leak in the gas line. The gas, of course, filled the building, and then, in the process of some people trying to effect an evacuation, there was an explosion that resulted in some significant destruction of a large portion of the building, and a couple fatalities that were a result of that. So it’s a really timely topic, given what’s happened here in Minneapolis. I think that story was covered nationally when it happened.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, it was a big deal, and I think at least one of the fatalities was due to some rubble collapsing on them. It’s just really a very unfortunate situation.
Bryan Strawser: It was tragic. It was tragic. The school is relocating, it sounds like, to another city while the building is being rebuilt as a result of this tragedy.
Jen Otremba: Yeah. It’s a historic building too, I believe.
Bryan Strawser: It is.
Jen Otremba: It’s really unfortunate on so many levels, so this topic comes up, and we’d be happy to talk about some of these things that you’ve asked us to talk about, Michelle.
Bryan Strawser: It’s a very difficult topic, because as a parent, it’s really hard to think about my children, who are still very young, they’re four and six, having to go through the kind of situations that their parents have seen, since my wife and I both work in crisis management, and this overall field.
Jen Otremba: I think while we’re taking care of ourselves, oftentimes, the little ones can get forgotten, and bringing them in. Very important topic. We’ll talk about a few things here, maybe what to talk about in preparation, during an incident, and then after an incident. How about that?
Bryan Strawser: Let’s start with what we know happens here in Minnesota, from a school standpoint, because in her email, Michelle referenced that. I’m sure every state has some requirements in place for planning, and exercises, and drills, as schools tend to call them. There’s three types of drills that are required here in Minnesota for all K through 12 schools, public or private, to do. That is, they’re required to do fire drills, and they have to do five during the course of the school year. They’re required to do lockdown drills, so this was enacted after the Columbine school shooting incident in Colorado.
Jen Otremba: And five of those, too, right, per school year?
Bryan Strawser: Five lockdown drills. What’s interesting to me is they’re not really active shooter drills. They’re lockdown drills. It’s not the run, hide, fight that we think of today. It’s just the hide part of that.
Lastly, they have to do a tornado drill, and only one, because we are here in Minnesota, where we have a lot of tornadoes during storm season.
Jen Otremba: Tornado Alley.
Bryan Strawser: Tornado Alley. We even had one in the winter, this last winter.
Jen Otremba: Which is a whole other podcast in and of itself.
Bryan Strawser: Winter is its own problem.
Jen Otremba: Yes.
Bryan Strawser: But Michelle points out that there are drills, and our kids learn about crises from this standpoint, in school, but how many parents take the time to think about, as we’ve talked about family and personal preparedness, how many parents do this with their kids?
Jen Otremba: Or maybe even know that they do all these drills. I mean, that’s 11 drills a year.
Bryan Strawser: Yeah.
Jen Otremba: That’s a lot.
Bryan Strawser: Out of the six months or so that you’re in school, from September to … I guess it’s nine months. September to June.
Jen Otremba: But still, that’s a lot.
Bryan Strawser: So as we talk through this, you’re going to hear us refer to the term multiple times, and that’s going to be just age appropriate involvements and messaging, because when you’re thinking about disaster planning, and exercises, or practice drills with your kids, there’s a huge difference between when your children are young, and what you want to tell them, and the level of involvement you want them to have, and when they are teenagers and young adults, and they can be more involved and take on more personal responsibility. So, we’re going to talk about that a lot.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, and we’re not talking a specific age as in a number, as in what year is it appropriate to talk about certain things, because each child is different, right?
Bryan Strawser: You really will need, those of you that are parents, guardians, you’ll need to decide what that is.
So, as we think about preparedness, we’ve talked before about personal and family preparedness, and we absolutely believe that children should be a part of that process in your home, as you make those plans, or build your kit, but there’s a couple guiding principles that we think are important through all of this. The first is just to be honest. Instead of trying to use fear to drive them in the course of preparedness, just be honest about the threat. I think about my four year old, who right now is just deathly afraid of storms, and thinks that when it rains, that means there’s going to be a thunderstorm, and then there will be a tornado, in every rain storm, because they have had a tornado drill, and it scared her.
Jen Otremba: Sure. Yeah, or there was a storm at some point in time that scared her.
Bryan Strawser: Yeah. Yeah. Fortunately she doesn’t remember that one. That was one that should have scared her, but she was only a few months old.
Be honest with them. You have to tell them the age appropriate truth. Instead of scaring them, we should be teaching them an age appropriate lesson about what that is.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, and I think much like adults, you start with the whys, why do we have to do this, because kids are all about, “Why are we doing this? Why is this?”
Bryan Strawser: “Why? But why?”
Jen Otremba: Yes. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Bryan Strawser: You should explain to them why you’re preparing, and how you’re preparing, and what that means, again, in an age appropriate way. Then, if you have a family emergency plan, you should share that with them, or build it with them, if you’re constructing it for the first time.
You can also teach your children about things you’re noticing in your surroundings, as you’re going about the normal day, that you can point out to them about preparedness or emergencies. For example, maybe one of your neighbors is climbing a tree to cut a branch off, and not doing it in a safe manner, or is up on a ladder and leaning way off of the ladder as they do something. You have to teach them-
Jen Otremba: Working around electrical lines.
Bryan Strawser: Live electrical lines.
Jen Otremba: Yes. Digging in certain areas they shouldn’t be digging in.
Bryan Strawser: As you’re traveling to a mall, or a movie theater, or a baseball game, you can point out exits, and signing, and rally points, police officers, firefighters, the things that you see.
Jen Otremba: Security guards.
Bryan Strawser: Security officers. We were at Target Field to watch the Minnesota Twins on Sunday. It was the first game for our kids to go to. First major league baseball game. The kids were fascinated that there were police there.
Jen Otremba: Oh, really?
Bryan Strawser: To see that there were, as we walked in. They were like, “Mommy, it’s a police officer.”
Jen Otremba: Yeah.
Bryan Strawser: There were a lot of police officers there. To them, that’s not something they see every single day, so they were excited to see right there.
Jen Otremba: That’s a good opportunity to explain why they’re there, right?
Bryan Strawser: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jen Otremba: I think it’s good, with kids especially, to take the opportunity, when it presents itself. They have a lot of questions, so that’s a good time to start answering why.
Bryan Strawser: If you’re building an emergency kit, or you’re doing-
Jen Otremba: You mean when you are.
Bryan Strawser: When you build your emergency kid, if you haven’t already, or you’re updating it, because I’m sure all of you already have one [crosstalk 00:09:01].
Jen Otremba: Yes, you should already. Yeah. I’m sure you do.
Bryan Strawser: You can involve your children in that. In fact, you can have your kids make their own kit.
Jen Otremba: Yes.
Bryan Strawser: My kids would want their own kit. I can see this already. It would have to be in a My Little Pony or princess purse.
Jen Otremba: Nothing wrong with that.
Bryan Strawser: Right. It’d have to be a perfectly branded bag for them, but they’d want their own kit.
Jen Otremba: I think it’s great. I think that’s a really good way to get them involved, and to get them thinking about things. Not only while you’re at home, but when they’re not with you, they’re going to be thinking about these things, because you’ve already introduced it to them.
Bryan Strawser: Another way to get them involved is to have, once you have your kit ready or updated, and you have your plan ready or updated, is to practice that, and involve them in that practice. I mean, they’re doing evacuation drills at school. They’re doing fire drills at school, about how to get out. Do they know how they would get out of your house? Do they only think about your house as, “I can only get out through the garage or the front door,” but really, you might need to go out the back door.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, or this window here-
Bryan Strawser: Or a window. Right.
Jen Otremba: … That’s on the first level.
Bryan Strawser: Or, here’s the emergency ladder in the little folding thing, if those are still a thing. I don’t know.
Jen Otremba: They might be. I don’t know.
Bryan Strawser: We’re not prepared to that extent quite yet. You can do those drills, and I think they would think that was cool.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, and I think it’s good to keep them involved, as in asking them questions. “Well, what else could you do? If you couldn’t get out there, where else would you go? If you couldn’t hide there, where else could you hide?”
Bryan Strawser: Right.
Jen Otremba: Kids are the best at hiding, by the way.
Bryan Strawser: Far better than I.
Jen Otremba: Yeah. It’s also a good opportunity for parents to get involved with the schools, and acquire from the school what their plans are, so that when you’re making your home plans, and involving your children in the home plans, you can incorporate those plans as well.
Bryan Strawser: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, during the disaster, the emergency, if you’ve practiced these things, then hopefully your children will remember. Really, at this point, for you as the parent, as it’s happening, and your child is there with you, this is really a lot of just … This is going to be put on you, that your child’s not going to know how to act in the moment, as they’re going through this traumatic situation.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, they’re going to be looking at you.
Bryan Strawser: They’re going to be looking at you, and so you have to manage your response to that situation. Whether you’re experiencing it or you’re watching it, like you’re watching 9/11 on TV, for example, you have to manage your response, because your child’s going to mirror it. Finding a way to not show alarm, and to demonstrate a level of calmness when you’re with your child is going to be important, because that’s how they’re going to know how to act.
Jen Otremba: Right, and this is, ironically, very similar to managing with adults.
Bryan Strawser: It is.
Jen Otremba: Same kind of concept.
Bryan Strawser: Right.
Jen Otremba: But more so important, I think, because kids are, like you said, they’re definitely looking to you to how to react to something.
Bryan Strawser: Right. There’s also the issue … It’s not the issue, but if you’ve practiced the things that you want your family to do in an emergency, then your children should be doing that when it happens because you’ve practiced it. You have a fire in your home, they know that they can evacuate, and where to go.
Jen Otremba: And where the rally point is.
Bryan Strawser: Right, where you’re going to regroup as a family.
Jen Otremba: You ultimately want them to execute those plans without you, without having to look to you to know what to do.
Bryan Strawser: Right. The most difficult time, as a parent, will probably be after the disaster, whatever that is. Whether you’ve experienced it or you’ve watched it, and your children are aware of it, it will be about that post disaster recovery, and there’s a lot of things that can happen here. We expect younger children, in particular, are going to be anxious, and confused, and frightened, because they’ve seen the world kind of turn upside down, in terms of what they’ve been through and what they’re watching.
You might find what’ll seem like strange behavior to you. They might regress and do some things that they’ve outgrown. For a young child, sucking their thumb, or looking for their pacifier that they gave up two years ago.
Jen Otremba: Wetting the bed.
Bryan Strawser: Wetting the bed.
Jen Otremba: Yeah.
Bryan Strawser: We actually see that with adults post disaster. The most important thing you can do, as a parent, during this time, is to be there to support your child’s emotional needs, and understand that their response is really going to be centered on that aspect of the disaster. You’re going to want to shield them from news coverage of what you’ve either watched or just have experienced, because it’s difficult for them to separate you’re watching old news coverage of something that has already happened and is over, versus they’re watching this and thinking it’s new.
Jen Otremba: Right. This is happening right now, and it scares them that much more.
Bryan Strawser: So it’s certainly a situation where you should not be afraid to seek professional help by talking to your doctor, your pediatrician, and a child psychologist, a counselor.
Jen Otremba: At school, they may have people you talk to.
Bryan Strawser: Right, or start with your pediatrician, or family physician, and then have them refer you to an age appropriate specialist to help with that. That’s not unusual. People that are crisis professionals and others do this, because of the things that we all deal with.
Jen Otremba: Right, and it’s helping.
Bryan Strawser: Yeah.
Jen Otremba: It’s a good idea to get ahead of that, too. Even if your child is not responding the way you think that they’re going to, it might be a good idea just to touch base with your pediatrician and explain to them what had happened, and they may be able to help guide you through that.
Bryan Strawser: It doesn’t have to be the 9/11 event. It doesn’t have to be the Minnehaha explosion. I had a coworker at our old employer who was just in a bad car accident. It was the four of them. It was he, and his wife, and their two children, and their dog. They got rear ended on the highway, but at high speed. It killed their dog in the accident.
Jen Otremba: Don’t tell me that.
Bryan Strawser: I’m sorry. Their dog was killed in the accident. Everybody was okay-
Jen Otremba: Except for the dog.
Bryan Strawser: Yeah. Dogs don’t wear seat belts. There’s that problem.
Jen Otremba: Yeah.
Bryan Strawser: But there was some broken bones amongst the family, but nothing-
Jen Otremba: Some definite emotional trauma, right?
Bryan Strawser: Huge emotional trauma. That was the most difficult thing that his family had gone through. It was really difficult for his kids to work through this situation. They had to do some counseling, and they had to do some kind of family group therapy to kind of talk through, for quite a while, about what had happened.
Jen Otremba: I don’t even think they have to be involved. I’ve seen where their parents were involved in something, and they just heard about it, so they just know the story. They weren’t actually there. They weren’t involved, but it’s very traumatizing, or it can be.
Bryan Strawser: What we want to end with is, in the end, as a parent, that all this is really about making sure that your children are prepared in an age appropriate way in advance, that you practice some things, and involve your children in that preparation. You make them accountable, as they get older, for their own preparation and their own personal resiliency is really what we’re after.
During the incident, your role as a parent is to model the behavior that you want your children to follow. After, it’s about making sure that you’re caring for the emotion impact that this has had on your child. Again, don’t be afraid to seek professional help for yourself or for your children, following an incident like that. Do that, and you’ll be the best parent that you can.