Picture this: You’re at a busy shopping center with only 45 minutes until that birthday party you RSVP’d to months ago. You still need a gift and the ingredients for the homemade brownies you promised the kids you would make together. It’s loud, there are a lot of people weaving in and out of the crowded aisles, and you have a sneaking suspicion that a migraine is brewing thanks to the other half of your much-needed morning coffee that spilled all over the dashboard. You turn around and realize your child is no longer glued to your side. A cold sweat breaks across your forehead as you glance left and right. They were just right next to you.
This is, of course, any parent’s nightmare scenario. While your mind may immediately worry that your child has been harmed or abducted, most kids are found physically unharmed and quickly reunited with their families. However, even momentary wandering can create trauma for both children and parents. So, what should you teach your kids to do when lost? Here’s a guide for your family so that if you ever find yourself separated from your little one, you both have an emergency plan.
What to Teach Your Kid to Do If They are Lost
According to The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), young children, especially those with autism, typically wander away after being drawn by something of interest.1 They might follow a pet, another animal, or another child or run to something they like, such as water or trains. Young children can be unaware they’re lost and may not be worried or lonely for a while.1 If your child goes missing or gets lost in a public place, there are things you can teach them so you’re reunited quickly and before panic sets in. Practicing these safety steps together as a family is a good idea. Doing so will help to minimize feelings of fear and uncertainty in the event they get lost:2
- Teach your child to freeze, stay right where he is, and not let anyone take him to a new location.
- Teach your child to shout your name if they know it or yell “Mom!” or “Dad!” loudly.
- Teach your child to identify safe people he can ask for help. Community helpers like police officers, cashiers, or security guards should be the first source of help, but they are sometimes difficult for younger children to recognize. If that’s the case, you can instruct your child to seek out another mom with kids to ask for help.
- Consider carrying whistle necklaces in a crowded public place. This is a highly effective (and loud!) way to find one another.
What You Should Do If Your Child is Lost
Remaining calm might sound obvious—and impossible—but once your adrenaline is pumping, it can be challenging to focus and regain your composure. Once you’ve taken a deep breath, don’t worry about public etiquette; shout your child’s name, regardless of where you are. Chances are that others will be eager to help you, and you’ll be reunited in no time. If you’re in a location with management staff or security, have another trusted adult contact staff or the nearest security guard while you continue shouting your child’s name. Try to offer up a description of what your child is wearing that day.
Better yet, try to make a habit of snapping a quick photo of your child if you know you’re going to be in a large or crowded space like an amusement park, a shopping complex, or the beach. Don’t wander too far away from where you last saw your child; often, they are still nearby.
Essential Information to Teach Your Children If They Get Lost
While it’s sometimes difficult to prevent an accident like your child going missing, you can give them the knowledge that will help you reunite quickly. Most of us go by “mom” or “dad” exclusively. Take the time to teach your kids your and your spouse’s names. This is helpful because they can then pass this information to an adult if they’re lost. Also, teach your kids to memorize their phone number and address as they get older. One great memorization technique is to turn your number into a fun song or dance.2
Approaching safety information with positivity instead of scare tactics is essential. Your child will likely need to rely on a stranger to help locate you. For nonverbal or younger kids, get into the habit of writing your name, your child’s name, and a contact number on a piece of duct tape inside your child’s jacket. Be sure to show your child where this tape is so they can show someone who can help them if they get lost.2
Discuss Safety Plan
Whenever you go out, take a minute together as a family to discuss the safety plan. This way, your child will know what to do if lost. You can even practice role-playing a scenario with your kids and have them pretend that they are lost. Ask them to go through your safety steps and map out different scenarios.3
Once reunited with your child, congratulate and reassure them rather than scold them. While you may feel frustrated, flustered, or angry (or all the above), try your best to remain upbeat. Once you’re safely back in a quiet place together, it’s essential to take time to calmly review what happened. Discuss what they did once they realized you weren’t by their side and make a pact to practice a safety plan regularly.
No parent wants to think about their child going missing. However, you and your family must prepare and know what to teach your kids what to do when they are lost. Being proactive and taking steps beforehand can make the difference in how quickly you reunite if something does happen.