It happens at playgrounds, shopping malls, grocery stores, amusement parks…just about anywhere. Nearly every parent has experienced it. That sickening feeling when you suddenly realize your child is not by your side. Fortunately, with a few strategies in place, this situation can be easily avoided. Try these tips before your next outing to keep your family all together – and reunited quickly if you do get separated.
Before heading out in public, take some time to review a few safety rules with your child. If you’re going to a venue with a big gathering, discuss what you will be doing and what rules you have while you’re there. “Don’t have the expectation that they’re just going to listen to you in real time when you’re in the public place,” says Lt. Stephen Saunders of the Cincinnati Police Department. Those conversations need to happen before you leave home when your child is not distracted. When you’re out, make sure your child walks in front of you and doesn’t linger behind, says Saunders. Keeping them in your line of vision allows you to quickly notice if they go astray.
If your child cannot memorize your cell number, include it on a slip of paper in his pocket. For children who have their own phones, having the numbers saved for mom and dad allows a police officer to contact you quickly.
For locations like an amusement park or museum, go online to review their map and read the guidelines on how they handle missing children. “Taking the time to plan your trip and including your children in that process will help make your outing a more enjoyable one from start to finish,” says Nancy A. McBride with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Find the right person to help
People are ready to help a lost child and your child needs to know how to recognize them. Teach kids to look for a responsible adult – police officer, firefighter, store employee, amusement park employee, lifeguard – and let them know he or she is lost and needs help.
McBride includes this advice: “Instruct older children to go directly to a designated spot, like a store or an information booth, to meet you. They should never leave or go to the parking lot to try and find you.” Because knowing who is or isn’t a store employee, park official, etc. can sometimes be tricky, McBride says to tell children that if anyone approaches them who makes them feel uncomfortable, they should yell “This person is not my mom/dad!”
Also, promise your child that you will not be angry with them if they are lost, and make sure you keep that promise. “If your kid feels like they’re going to get yelled at out in public for getting lost, they may be afraid to come back,” says Sgt. Dan Hils. Don’t let a child’s fear of punishment delay them getting help.
Think about clothing
Differentiating your family members by clothing can be tremendously helpful. Experts say both children and parents should dress in something distinctive such as a bright colored shirt or hat to be easily identified. You may also want to consider having your child wear a special bracelet or have a temporary tattoo. Because many children can have similar descriptions, being able to tell an officer that your lost child also has a specific identifier can be very helpful. “The dollar store has many of these items in the trinket areas that might help separate them from other kids,” says Saunders.
Rather than trying to remember what your child is wearing, especially when you may be upset that they’re lost, snap a quick picture before you head out the door. Making this a habit before you leave home records exactly how your child is dressed that day.
Even with the best advance preparations, kids still wander. If your child is suddenly missing, stay calm but act quickly. This is when your photograph is critical. Be prepared to give an accurate and detailed description of your child. The sooner you get the attention of those that can help with a search, the better.