Katie Olson of Chicago lived her biggest nightmare when her 4-year-old daughter ran off after ballet class while Olson was getting her 2-year-old ready.
“I didn’t notice her leave,” Olson says. “It was the scariest five minutes of my life, but she didn’t think she had done anything wrong.”
Kids can get lost anywhere in an instant, from behind those sneaky clothing racks in stores to airports, theme parks and any crowded areas (i.e., fun vacation spots)–and, according to the FBI, this happens every 40 seconds in the United States. In Canada, about 45,000 children are reported missing each year, with similar stats throughout the globe.
But there are some ways you can help prepare you kids in the event that they get lost:
1. Teach them your phone numbers
Your phone number is the fastest, easiest way to find you if your child gets lost.
But memorizing a phone number can be a tricky one, especially for tots. Creating a song or a chant out of the numbers is often helpful, says Elisabeth Stitt, of Joyful Parenting Coaching. Sing it as part of the drop-off ritual, as you’re unbuckling them from their car seats or putting them to bed.
2. Explain why they should stay in one place
As long as it’s safe (not in the middle of the road), kids should stay in the same spot once they realize they’ve become separated, says Christy Keating, owner of Savvy Parents Safe Kids and The Heartful Parent, LLC. This allows parents or caregivers to retrace their steps, leading them to the child. Explain to your child that they shouldn’t panic once they realize they’ve established they’re lost, but rather to stop, make sure they’re standing in a visible place (if they’re inside a bathroom, they can move right outside the bathroom so they can be spotted) and wait for an adult for help. The key is to stay in the same place until they are found.
3. Ask a mom for help
In a perfect world, a police officer just happens to be there when your child is lost, but the chances of that happening is unlikely. Much more likely, is that another mom with kids will be around, and they’re generally a child’s best bet for finding safe and caring help, Keating says. Once your child spots a mom, they should approach her and explain that they’re lost and need help finding their adult.
4. Don’t leave with your helper
Found someone to help? Great. But make sure your kids understand that they shouldn’t leave their safe spot (e.g., the place where they realized they were lost), says Raffi Bilek, a family therapist, lecturer on child safety and director of the Baltimore Therapy Center. “Not only does it make it more likely that their parent will come back and find them there, but it also reduces the risk of ending up in a secluded area with a safe helper who turns out not to be so safe,” Bilek says. Instead, simply ask your helper to call your adult if your child knows the phone number, or to phone the police if your child can’t remember the number.
5. Teach kids yours (and their own) full names
Give your child permission to yell loudly and repeatedly, “I want my mommy, where is [parent’s full name],” Stitt says. “This will bring the attention of other people, and will hopefully alert an appropriate helper.” Knowing full names also makes it much easier for your child to be identified, and will give bystanders or local law enforcement a means of locating parents or guardians.
While Olson found her daughter happily playing in the playground, her mom learned a very valuable lesson that she passed along to her child immediately. “I told her she scared me more than I’ve ever been scared, and she needs to wait for me and always be where I can see her,” Olson says. It’s a lesson that could save her life.