It was 9:00 pm, and my six-year-old should have been asleep an hour ago. But instead, she stood in the doorway of my office, where I was trying to squeeze in a couple of hours of work before bed. I turned from the glow of my computer with exasperation, but when I saw her scared face, my own softened. “Mom?” she said, “What if the earthquake comes while I’m sleeping?”

Let me explain. For the last few months, I’d been researching the magnitude 9.0+ Cascadia earthquake predicted for our region as I worked on this month’s article about earthquake preparedness in Portland’s schools (see Prep School). I had dragged my daughter to a school preparedness fair, where I listened to speakers and took notes while she ran around the auditorium with other kids. While my husband and I made dinner, I told him what I was learning from my interviews with earthquake experts as my daughter and her little brother played nearby. But I should have known that she was listening, and now she was too scared to sleep.

I was worried about the earthquake, too, and I wasn’t sure that I could find words to help my daughter feel better. Still, I knew that leaving her out of the conversation was the wrong approach. I started by walking her back to her bedroom and answering the question that she had asked. What would we do if the earthquake came at night?

I told her that the ground would shake for several minutes, and she would be safest if she stayed in her bed and covered her head with a pillow, just in case something fell on her. But I also pointed to the wall above her bed and showed her how there wasn’t anything hard there – just a dream catcher and her painting of a butterfly, thumb-tacked to the wall. “If there’s an earthquake at night, you’ll be safe in your bed. Then, when the shaking stops, Dad and I will come find you,” I said.

We also talked about how the lights might not work after an earthquake, and there could be broken glass on the floor. And so, that night, my daughter and I did something that I’d been meaning to do for months. We placed an old but sturdy pair of shoes and flashlight under each of our beds, hers included, so that we would be able to safely navigate our house in the dark after the shaking stops.

After all that, we turned out the lights, and I snuggled with her in her bed. My body wrapped protectively around hers, but I could tell she was still tense. “Can’t I just sleep with you on the night of the earthquake?” she asked.

In that question, my daughter gave voice to one of the scariest things about earthquakes: they hit without warning. I wish that I could guarantee I would be with her in the event of an earthquake or any other disaster, but that I can’t is one of the bittersweet realities of parenting. I needed help knowing how to talk to my daughter about earthquakes without increasing her anxiety, so I reached out to a few experts for some tips. Here’s what they told me:

  1. Talk it over. Kids need to know that a major earthquake is a very real possibility, so that they’ll know what to do when it comes. “Parents should be honest without being overly alarming,” said Dr. David Fassler, professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont. In other words, tell kids what they need to know in an age-appropriate way. Then listen to their concerns and respond with accurate information, but don’t burden them with worst case scenarios.
  2. Prepare as a family. Focus your earthquake conversations not on how scary or overwhelming it is, but on what you’re doing to prepare and how your kids can help. “My main advice to parents is to empower kids by getting them involved in the preparedness process,” said Susan Romanski, a Portland parent and the U.S. Director for Disaster Preparedness and Community Resilience at Mercy Corps. Her eight-year-old son helped build their emergency kit, and he helps maintain it, too. I loved that idea, so my daughter and I spent several summer afternoons (while her little brother napped) reading through emergency kit checklists, making shopping lists, and assembling our supplies. Once they were neatly stowed away in our hall closet, we both felt better.
  3. Make a plan – and practice it. Talk about how you’ll drop, cover, and hold on wherever you are when an earthquake hits and what you’ll do once the shaking stops. In Romanski’s home, this is a family affair. “Once a month we have an earthquake drill where our son gets to pick when the shaking starts and when the ground stops shaking, and then we will all meet at our immediate meeting place outside of the house. Having him lead this exercise is important because it’s empowering, and it builds muscle memory,” she said. Preparedness can be fun, too. “Once a year, we camp using our emergency kit and he gets to change out the few toys/activities in our kit,” said Romanski.
  4. Reassure. “Tell children that in the event of an earthquake or other emergency, there will be lots of people to help,” said Fassler. In our family, I emphasized that if an earthquake happened at home, the first thing my husband and I would do is check on our kids. If it happened when they were at school, our first task after the shaking stops would be to find a way to get to school to pick them up, and their teachers would take care of them in the meantime.
  5. Learn about the science of earthquakes. Knowing more about why they happen — and how people have survived them for millennia — can be empowering. “It’s important for kids to understand that earthquakes are a natural occurrence and that they can happen at any time, but planning will help the family cope,” said Romanski.

Helpful links to learn more:

Alice Callahan, PhD
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