How should I teach my young child to handle getting lost in a public place?’s Parental Advisory.

Parental Advisory: Lost in a Crowd

What should we do if we get separated in public? by Rebecca Odes & Ceridwen Morris

June 3, 2009



A friend of mine just told me about her daughter getting lost in public, and I suddenly realized that we have no plan for this scary possibility ourselves. So far we’ve managed to stay close together, but I know it’s only a matter of time until someone wanders off. I want my son to know how to handle it if or when it happens. What is the best thing to teach a young child to do if he should get separated from his parents in public? – Lost In (a public) Space

Dear Lost,

Any parent who’s lost track of a child for more than a few moments knows how terrifying it feels: the frenzied scan for his face, the increasingly hysterical name-calling and the sky-rocketing heart rate. The good news is that it’s a very, very rare event for a public “disappearance” to end in a real tragedy. But it’s still good to talk to your kid about what to do if he can’t find you.

For older children – who are more likely to be out alone, or at least on a longer leash – there are some important lessons to be learned about assessing and managing risky situations. But even a young child can be taught some strategies for staying safe and speeding a reunion.

According to experts, here’s what you should teach your young son to do, should he get lost:

1. Tell him to stay in one place. It’s easier for a caregiver to find a child if he stays put.

2. Tell him to call out for you. You may hear the shouts and, if not, his yelling will alert people to the fact that he’s a lost child, which can lead to help.

3. Tell him to look for someone trustworthy . . . like another mommy with kids. Stats show that mothers are the most likely to be helpful in a lost child situation. If your child knows what a police uniform looks like, that’s another option. Mothers are often the first suggestion for very little kids, however, as looking for the right uniform can be confusing.

4. Tell him to give out any information about you. He can tell the other mother or cop his name and your name and anything else he can remember (cell phone, street address). Young kids can’t be expected to retain a lot of detail so you could consider an ID for your kid – either in or attached to his backpack or written onto his shirts or shoes. This is something you may want to consider when traveling or going to a very crowded and confusing place.

5. Don’t teach your child to avoid ALL strangers. The chances of abduction or other untoward experience in public is really quite small, and strangers account for relatively few of the tragedies that do occur. But your kid might get lost or be stranded in someway that could benefit from the help of . . . strangers. If he’s afraid of them, he may not get that help. You can teach your child how to respond if something scary happens, especially if the child’s old enough to be out and about on his/her own.

The goal of all this preparation is to give your child confidence. There’s no reason to go through lots of worst-case scenarios, but rehearsing some of the above in a straightforward fire-drill kind of way can help drum in the protocol. And then, in the unlikely scenario that he finds himself lost and scared, he’ll have a few ideas about how to deal.

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