How to Find Your Child If They Are Missing

A crying preschooler.
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What's your first response when you discover that your child is missing?

If you are like most parents, you immediately feel terror as you imagine the one hundred and one bad things that could be happening to your child. It is important to remain calm though, as what you do first might mean the difference between whether or not you have a happy ending.

In addition to calling for help, the first thing to do is to check the places in and around your home that pose the greatest hazard to your child. Keep in mind that your child could drown in just minutes in a backyard pool or pond, so that should be where you check first, instead of underneath all of the beds or in the guest-room closet.

If your younger child is simply hiding someplace inside the house, they will likely still be okay, even if you don't find them for 15 or 20 minutes, although they probably wouldn't last that long in the trunk of your hot car, in a hot tub, or on a busy street.

If Your Child Is Missing at Home

After calling for help, including other adults in your home or a close neighbor who can help search, you should very quickly:

  • Check high danger areas, which might include:
  • A pool, hot tub, pond, stream, lake, or any other nearby body of water
  • Nearby vehicles, including car trunks
  • An old refrigerator, inside which kids can get trapped
  • A street with a lot of traffic
  • Look inside closets, under beds, and any other place that your child likes to hide
  • Check with neighbors that your child often visits or plays with
  • While continuing to check high danger areas, have someone check nearby 'fun' areas, including playgrounds.

If Your Child Is Lost in a Public Place

Things are pretty much the same if your child gets lost in a public place, although it may be easier to get help if you are in a kid-friendly location, like a supermarket, zoo, or amusement park. Ask a nearby worker for help, who can then hopefully notify someone in the security or a manager and issue a Code Adam.

Depending on where you are and if there are any high danger areas nearby, your next steps might be to:

  • Check any of those high danger areas, including any bodies of water
  • Go to a designated meeting place if you have one
  • Call local law enforcement for extra help if you haven't already

While it is scary when your child is missing, keep in mind that most children who go missing do go home. Statistics from the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children II (NISMART II) show 99.8% of the children who go missing do come home (the report is from 2002 but has the most recent nation-level data).

If Your Child Is Still Missing

If you still can't find your child after a quick search, you should call your local law enforcement agency for extra help and request that they:

  • Issue an Amber Alert
  • Enter your child into the National Crime Information Center Missing Persons File
  • Put out a "be on the lookout" type bulletin

You should also call the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678) for more help and advice.

The Family Survival Guide from the U.S. Department of Justice is another great resource for parents and can help them know what to do and expect, especially during the first 48 hours that they discover that their child is missing.

You don't have to wait 24 hours or any length of time if your child is missing, even if it is an older teen who is missing.

Don't wait too long to report your missing child to law enforcement. The more people looking for your child, especially professionals, the better.

Keeping Track of Your Kids

Fortunately, many 'missing kids' are only 'lost' for a few minutes and there is no tragic ending like we sometimes see on the news. Still, since the consequences can be so tragic, parents should take some steps to make sure that their kids can't get away from them and become lost and that it is easier to get reunited if they do. These might include, but aren't limited to:

  • Childproof your home so that your younger kids can't get outside on their own. Just as importantly, make sure any home you are visiting is childproofed, otherwise keep a very close eye on your kids.
  • Have a designated 'watcher' for each young child, especially at parties, when there can be a lot of kids running around and a lot of people coming and going from the house. A watcher or buddy can also be a good idea at busy, public places.
  • Know where high danger areas are in and around your home so that you know where to check if your child is missing.
  • Have a recent picture of your child that you can give to law enforcement to help in a search if that becomes necessary.
  • Teach your kids your full name, cell phone number (and a few alternative numbers if possible), and your address. Most can at least learn their phone number by the time they are 4 or 5 years old. If they don't, consider giving them a safety tag or bracelet with that information when you are out in a busy public place.
  • Choose a designated meeting area whenever you are out in public with your kids in case you get separated.

If you have an autistic child who is prone to wandering, having a plan to keep them safe is even more important. One 2016 study found that 32.7% of autistic children without an intellectual disability and 37.7% of autistic children with an intellectual disability had wandered or become lost in the previous year.

What to Do If Your Child Is Missing or Lost

If your child is lost or missing, call for help and check the areas that pose the highest danger to your child first, especially any bodies of water (pools, ponds, and lakes, etc.) and unlocked cars.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Gateway Region YMCA. Drowning Facts.

  2. National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Code Adam.

  3. U.S. Department of Justice. National Estimates of Missing Children: An Overview.

  4. Rice CE, Zablotsky B, Avila RM, et al. Reported wandering behavior among children with autism spectrum disorder and/or intellectual disability. J Pediatrics. 2016;174:232-239. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2016.03.047

Additional Reading

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.