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Does Your Child Know What To Do When He’s Lost?

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Health, Wellness, & Safety

It’s every parent’s nightmare: your child isn’t where you thought she was. In fact, she’s nowhere to be seen.  Even if being lost lasts for only a minute or two, you want to save yourself the anxiety and protect your child from what could happen when she’s lost.

From the moment a child is able to walk, he has places to go, things to see. His ability to keep track of where he is and how far he’s wandered doesn’t develop until much, much later. His ability to retrace his steps to get back to safety is even slower to develop – it’s something even we adults struggle with sometimes. Children often don’t even realize they’re lost. Many times, they’re just moving ahead, absorbed in whatever they’re doing.

Keeping toddlers under your eye is important. Use the seatbelt to keep your little one securely in place in a shopping cart. Hold hands or pick her up when you walk through a crowd. At the playground or children’s museum, keep your phone in your pocket so you’re not distracted. Many a parent has looked up from a phone after “just a few seconds” reviewing updates to discover the child has disappeared. It’s amazing how far away children can get when you’re not looking.

Preschoolers and older children are a bit more of a challenge. They are more independent of adult oversight as they play with each other at the park or walk along with the family on an outing. With picnics, street fairs, and water park visits coming up this summer, what can you do? You may not always keep them from getting lost but you can make it more certain they’ll be quickly found.

Here are some strategies to keep you and your kids safe.

  1. A child who realizes she’s lost should stay put and yell. Once a child realizes she’s become separated from her parents, she should stop moving and make a lot of noise. Running to find you or even just continuing to walk around hunting for you is more likely to lead her further and further away. Teach her to call loudly, “MOM!”  Most of all, children should know to not go to the parking lot to find you. Your child must know you would never leave without her.
  2. The lost child should enlist the help of a woman who has children with her. A mother is likely to be helpful and sympathetic… and safe. A store clerk or other employee can help, too, but the child should stay close to where they first realized they were lost. Teach your child how to speak up clearly, saying “I’ve lost my parents. Can you help me?”
  3. A child should never be more than a few steps away from you. Make it clear that your child should always keep you in sight. Make certain your children know they must tell you when they want to stop to look at something.
  4. Forbid playing hiding games in unfamiliar locations and unbounded spaces. Hide and seek is a great game, but what are the boundaries if you’re playing at the park? How far can a child go? How will you recover a child who hides so well that you can’t find her? At the very least, assign yourself thejob of “watcher” whose job is to know where every child is hidden.
  5. Know where you’ll meet and when. If you’re at an event with older elementary children and you want to let the kids go on their own, set a time and place to reunite. The place should be something very obvious – something tall that can be seen from a distance is a good location. If your child has a cell phone, then insist he answer your texts and calls. Make sure the notification volume is loud enough to be heard in a noisy situation.
  6. Make your child easily identifiable. To people not their parents, all children look alike. Before going out with your children, notice what they’re wearing today. Take a group photo before setting out at the fair.

Think ahead, you and your kids together, and have a lovely time!


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Join Dr. Anderson in an online conference for teachers and parents. Find out more at Quality Conference for Early Childhood Leaders.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.