Lost And Found: How Parents Can Stop Their Kids From Going Missing

And how they can silence the haters.

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In the United States, over 2,000 children go temporarily missing each day. Therefore, on a daily basis, at least 2,000 caregivers experience what is perhaps the scariest moment of their lives. These heart-stopping occurrences, however, don’t happen because the children are receiving inadequate care—even the best of parents can still lose their kids.

“… I felt like a terrible mother. All the kids came back except mine.”

Although some lost children are taken by abductors, a majority of the children who become separated from their parents do so on their own accord. And while the parent can eventually understand and cope with the emotions that come with a separation, does the child? Are they able to move past the terrifying event, or do they hang onto these intense feelings? Fear not, parents: We’re about to dive into the mind of a child, look at what happens when one is lost, and list what parents can do to keep them put.

Why do kids wander away?

How many times have you heard a devastated and terrified parent say, “I turned my back for just a second, and then he was gone?” No matter how devoted and focused a parent is on their child, there’s always a chance that they can slip away.

“They may walk over to see [something interesting] and forget how to get back to their parents.”

This is precisely what happened to a mother from Lansdowne, Maryland, who lost her child in a state park: One moment he was there, and the next he disappeared. Back when her son was 4 years old, the mother—who wished to stay anonymous—and her family were attending a Memorial Day party in a pavilion at the park. Four of the moms took a few of the children—12 in total—to the park playground while the dads played softball nearby. When the family returned to the pavilion, the mother realized her son was the only child who hadn’t come back. “I started calling his name … I saw him cut between two parked cars in the parking lot [on the way to the pavilion],” she recalls. “… for some reason I just froze for a minute and bawled my eyes out.” The parents alerted the park security and took to the park trails to look for the toddler. Fifteen minutes later, the unfazed little boy was found. His reason for walking away from his family? A pair of bicycle riders. “He said he saw two guys on bicycles and wanted to see them jump over the stream and hills on the trail, and followed them after he went between the two cars,” she says. “He said the bikers asked if he needed help and he told them no, he wanted to watch them jump across streams.” Becoming distracted and then fixated on an object is a common reason for children to wander off, says Emily Driscoll-Roe, a clinical social worker at Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Center for Child and Family Traumatic Stress, in Baltimore, Maryland. “In an exciting, over-stimulating environment, like a store or fair, kids react to sights or sounds that are interesting, like a colorful display, candy counter, or escalator,” says Driscoll-Roe. “They may walk over to see it and forget how to get back to their parents.” And just when you thought you had that part figured out, here’s a curveball: they’ll do the same thing when they’re uninterested. “Conversely, a trip to the mall might be fun for parents, but can be terribly boring to their kids,” Driscoll-Roe says. “Kids may wander off looking for action, or may look for a place to rest or even to hide.” And if they do find themselves away from you, your children are likely to feel some very grown-up feelings.

The Emotional Effects of Getting Lost

Shock, fear, guilt, and despair are some of the emotions that parents and caregivers often feel when they realize they don’t know where their child is. If they find their child soon after, they can feel the worst worry and best relief of their lives in just a matter of minutes. Children, as well, can experience a wide range of feelings when they’re away from their family, but it may not be as bad as parents think. “When a child is lost, they may have a variety of emotions,” says Driscoll-Roe. “Some may not have emotions at all while others may experience intense fear and anxiety. Some kids may not even realize that they are lost until their adult finds them.” If the child becomes lost frequently, however, the traumatic experiences may have a debilitating impact. “If children get lost frequently, they may become resistant to going out in public and may develop separation anxiety,” says Driscoll-Roe. “They may lose confidence in themselves or in their parents to keep them safe.”

Putting the Odds in Your Favor

Fortunately, parents and caregivers can take steps to lessen the chances of losing their children when they are out in a public place.

  • Don’t push it. That is, recognize your child’s limits and plan accordingly. For example, if you know that your little one taps out after about two hours, participate in plans that last less than two hours. If that’s not possible, “schedule times to rest throughout the day and try to choose a location that has less stimulation,” says Driscoll-Roe.
  • Schedule smarter, not harder. Try not to plan outings near nap times or when your kids are hungry. This prevents them from losing focus and becoming easily distracted by what is around them.
  • Assign supervisors. If multiple adults are going out with multiple kids, the adults should agree to closely watch one or two specific children throughout the event, says Driscoll-Roe. “’Assign’ a child or two to each adult,” she says. “The kids should know who their adult is before arriving at the location. This lessens the risk of parents saying, ‘I thought YOU had him!’”
  • Give them your information. Make a card for each child to have with them that includes the cell phone numbers of caregiving adults on it and their names. They can keep this in their pocket and hand it to a store employee, security guard, or an adult in charge so that you can be called. Making sure your children know your first and last name is also helpful, as there are lots of “Mommys” and “Daddys” out in public.
  • Make them stand out. Dress them in, say, bright colors or patterns, and take a picture of them on your cell phone before you leave. This may be helpful in the event one gets lost, as you will have the most current picture of your children available, including what they’re wearing.
  • Create a plan. If you feel comfortable in your child’s maturity level, you may have them approach a mother with children if they get lost, need help, or forgot your meet-up place. You can also tell them to ask someone who works there for assistance. “… they have access to an intercom,” Driscoll-Roe says, “and can set some safety measures in place to make sure your child stays at the location and no one tries to remove your child.”
  • Have snacks, don’t travel. Entice your child to stay near you by offering an incentive, such as a special snack or fun activity when you get home. Provide them with positive feedback throughout the outing, as it may encourage them to continue the good behavior in the future.
  • Get help. If your child is prone to wandering off or is non-verbal, consider a harness or tracking device, says Driscoll-Roe. “You can order a tracking device necklace or harness online.”

Getting Past the Judgment

Parents are under more scrutiny now than ever. When social media didn’t exist, parents could mess up without worrying their mistake would be plastered all over the World Wide Web. Nowadays, angry bloggers and parent-shamers can drag your name through the mud before you even get home to check your laptop.

“Talk to people who have a sense of humor about parenting, and you will find an ally.” —Emily Driscoll-Roe

Parents are also quick to judge those who lose their children. After she lost hers in the park, the anonymous mother kept what happened a secret. “I didn’t tell anyone for a while because I felt like a terrible mother,” she says. “All the kids came back except mine.” Sadly, this mother isn’t alone in neglecting to tell others about her experience for fear she would be criticized. Parents are quick to shame other parents for things they fear will happen to them.

“I think the idea of losing ones’ kids is so scary to parents that they can react by getting judgmental,” Driscoll-Roe says. “Some parents have their own personal childhood experiences with getting lost and are very reactive as a result. But it’s important to remember that even the most attentive parents can lose a child in public. It only takes a second for a child to wander off.” If you’re taking slack from others, remember that you’re not alone and that many moms and dads have endured what you have, as well. “Hopefully, parents have that one friend, sibling, or parent who is supportive and can relate because it happened to them,” says Driscoll-Roe. “Talk to people who have a sense of humor about parenting, and you will find an ally.” She also suggests seeking the help of a therapist if the event or subsequent judgment from others is affecting the parent’s confidence, sleep, mood, or willingness to go out in public with their children. Being in charge of your own life is difficult enough, but when you add tiny humans to the equation, your situation can become madness. No one is perfect, and you are the best person to raise your child, even if they just happened to leave your sight.

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