As pointed out in the earlier section about how child poisonings happen, almost every case can be traced to an ignorant child who is unaware of the danger in what they’re doing. So by giving children an education about household poisons and regularly reinforcing a few basic rules, parents can greatly diminish the risk of their child being poisoned. Granted, many poisonings occur in very young children who lack advanced language skills. But even toddlers can be communicated to in a way that will decrease the likelihood of a child poisoning.
Teaching toddlers about poisons
- When teaching toddlers about poisons, use concrete terms that they can understand: “big tummy ache” or “make you sick” is more informative than telling them something is “dangerous” or “poisonous,” which means very little to them. Touching something and saying “big tummy ache” is also better than simply telling them “no” or “don’t touch that.” Also use facial expressions. Sticking your tongue out and shaking your head back and forth while making your best icky face can teach them more than words. Studies have shown that when given a choice of two boxes to play with, kids this age will explore a box a parent seemed delighted with while avoiding a box she seemed upset with, based on nothing more than the parent’s facial expressions and body language. Of course, this should come secondary to keeping poisonous things away from your toddler, but when you’re cleaning with chemicals and they happen to be around, it doesn’t hurt to start the safety training process.
- When you see a child reaching for something dangerous (or ingesting it), do not just tell a child no. Separate the manner in which you tell a child no for everyday things and those no’s used for poisons. After all, a toddler’s life revolves around doing everything they can to provoke as many no’s as possible, and then intentionally doing the precise opposite of what you say. (They do this to test boundaries, not because they want to make you angry.) So when a child reaches for something hazardous, don’t just shout “no.” Tap the item in question and say “No, no, no!” (Yes, say it three times) and then “Big tummy-ache …Lyla get big tummy-ache.” Be sure to use the child’s name, and most importantly, alter your facial expression to the most convincing look of concern you can muster. Since children are masters at reading your expressions, they should get the message that this face means something different than the frustrated or angry faces you are wearing the other thousand times you say no. Hold your child’s chin if you have to and make them look into your eyes, but one way or another, use facial expressions to communicate that this particular “no” is nothing to mess with.
Teaching preschoolers about poison
By the time a child is two-and-a half or three-years-old, they are old enough to begin to understand that not everything around them is safe to put in their mouth. So parents of preschoolers can begin to expand this home safety education about poisons:
- Teach children this simple rule: never eat anything or put anything in your mouth without checking with an adult first. Explain that some things which look harmless can hurt them really bad. Talk to them about other kids who ate something poisonous because it looked like candy, and what would happen afterward (ER visit, stomach pumping, etc.).
- An awareness of what’s dangerous should be discussed throughout everyday life. Make a habit of pointing out poisons the minute you bring them home from the grocery store. Point them out when walking down the isle inside the store. If they are helping you in the garage, take a minute or two to talk about the poisonous things around them. Following the rule that the #1 cause of accidental poisoning is a child’s ignorance about what is harmful; you want children to be aware of every potentially poisonous thing around them. Don’t let these teachable moments pass.
- Play a game of naming an item around you, and asking children if they can eat that, a sort of variation of ‘I Spy.’ (“I spy with my little eye …a package of kitty litter. Can we eat that?”) It’s simple and fun, and preschoolers will love the silliness of some of your choices. Mix it up between edible things (an apple), inedible things (a box of detergent), and the just plain absurd (doggy poo). Be sure to explain why something is harmful when it comes to the poisonous things you name. Also remember that the point of this game is not so much to point out specific poisons, but to get children conditioned to the idea that some things do not go in their mouth and that they should ask before eating something. This general message is more important than the specific items you name.
Teaching elementary school children about poisons
In addition to what we’ve already discussed, you should touch upon the following:
- It is not unheard of to find cases of children exchanging prescription drugs in elementary school, even as early as kindergarten or first grade. Sometimes they know what they’re doing and believe it’s cool or are after a thrill, perhaps mimicking what they’ve seen older siblings do. Other times, the kids may not know what they have and will be completely oblivious to the dangers. Either way, talk to your children about the dangers of prescription drugs. Remind them to never take any medication they get from a friend, and explain that just because it comes in a pill form that doesn’t mean it’s safe. Medications are drugs used for a very specific purpose or condition, and when taken by the wrong people who don’t have that condition, they can be just as dangerous as illegal drugs.
- Teach children they should never self-medicate. This may seem obvious, but many a child with a headache or stomach-ache has wanted to show how grown up they were by handling it themselves and taking a Tylenol for their pain. Only what they thought was Tylenol or vitamins turned out to be something else entirely. So give children this rule: only take medication if it comes straight from an adult, and never try to treat yourself.
Poisoning Prevention Resources for Kids: