How to Teach Your Kids What to Do If They Get Lost

Little girl alone in the city

Nuria Camps Curtiada / Getty Images

Losing sight of your child—no matter how brief it is—can induce heart-pounding panic and fear. Yet, as frightening as it is for you, imagine how terrifying it could potentially be for your child. For this reason, it is important that you equip your child with the skills they need if they become lost or separated from you.

We explore what your child needs to know should they ever get lost as well as what they should do in the moment. We also discuss how to put it all together in a safety plan that is appropriate for both you and your child. Read on to learn more about how to teach your child what to do if they get lost.

What Your Child Needs to Know If They Get Lost

While no one wants to imagine getting separated from their child—especially at a busy spot like a shopping mall, airport, or a water park—it is still important to consider the possibility and prepare your child as best you can. This way, if they do happen to get lost, they know some basic safety tips on how to handle the situation.

"You should [start by] teaching your child their full name, your full name, and have them memorize your cell phone number as soon as they are able," suggests Susan Kennedy, senior program manager for outreach and prevention at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). "That way if they get lost away from home—like at an amusement park or festival—an adult can help them call you. Ideally, also teach them phone numbers for one or two other emergency contact people and their home address as well."

If they are unable to memorize your number or their address, you can discreetly stick a label inside their pant leg or write the information on a piece of paper and tuck it into a pocket before you leave. Then, remind your child where the paper or sticker is located before heading to your destination so they know where it is and can share it with a safe adult if they get separated from you.

You also should talk to your child about who to ask for help if they are lost. According to Michael Drogin, a public information officer for the Leesburg (VA) Police Department, and Josh Carter, a school resource officer for the Leesburg (VA) Police Department, you should make sure your child knows to ask a police officer, firefighter, security guard, festival or park employee, or other trusted adult to help them.

"Asking any of these individuals for help is beneficial [because they are] able to render aid or assist in contacting a parent or first responder," Officers Drogin and Carter say. "Parents also should contact these same people because many businesses, police officers, and festival operators have plans in place for quickly and safely locating a missing child."

What to Teach Your Child to Do if They Are Lost

If your child does happen to get lost, it is important that they know what to do so that they can stay as calm as possible. For this reason, you want to be as encouraging when talking to your child about what to do if they get separated from you. Refrain from using scare tactics and instead assure them that if they follow your advice, they will be reunited with you quickly.

Stress that they should try to stay as calm as possible when they realize they are lost. They can take a deep breath and then yell for you. Remind them that you are most likely not far away and will hear them. They should also plan to stay where they are rather than running to look for you. Assure them that you will be looking for them, too, and if they are running around it will be harder for you to find them.

"If your child is in a safe place, then they should remain where they are as their parent(s) will likely retrace their steps," say Officers Drogin and Carter. "If they are in a position of danger, they should relocate to a position of safety and if possible, contact an adult."

If they see a police officer, firefighter, security guard, park ranger, or festival employee nearby they can ask them for help. But, they should not leave the festival, mall, or amusement park in search of you. Likewise, if they are on a hiking trail with the family, they should remain on the trail. Make sure they know not to leave the trail and wander through the woods in search of you.

"[Remind your child] that they also should not leave a venue like a sports arena or amusement park to go to a parking lot or similar to find their parents," says Kennedy.

How to Put a Safety Plan in Place

Whether heading to a music festival, a carnival, or state fair, some families find that having a plan prior to the outing helps. For instance, dress your child in bright clothing that can help you spot them quickly. It also helps to take a photo of your child as soon as you arrive so that you have a current shot of your child to share with police officers and others if they are lost.

"Also, remind children often about staying close by or staying where you can see them," says Kennedy. "Saying something like 'If you can’t see me, I can’t see you' can help reinforce safe behavior while out in a crowd."

Some families also like to discuss the "what ifs" prior to a big trip out. For parents of younger kids, it helps to ask them what they would do in different scenarios like "What would you do if you could not see me?" This will allow them to put what you have taught them to use.

Help them walk through all the things they should do if they get lost like memorizing names and phone numbers (or knowing where to find them), yelling for you when lost, staying where they are, and asking for help from trusted adults.

Susan Kennedy, NCMEC

We recommend telling children to look for people like store clerks and police officers who are trained to help children when they are lost. If they can’t find any of those people we should tell them to look for parents with children.

— Susan Kennedy, NCMEC

"Most adults, of course, will be well-intentioned and willing to help a lost child," says Kennedy. "We recommend telling children to look for people like store clerks and police officers who are trained to help children when they are lost. If they can’t find any of those people we should tell them to look for parents with children."  

Meanwhile, parents of older children might also establish a meeting place should they get separated from one another like a large monument in the center of the park. Even when kids have cell phones, this step can be helpful because phones can get lost, broken, or have dead batteries.

The key is to empower your child to handle a frightening situation like getting separated from you in a crowded location. You want to ensure they have an idea of what to do and how to ask for help.

But don't stop there. You also should think through how you should handle the situation, too, so that you are equally as prepared.

"The biggest mistake that parents make is that they go looking for their child once they realize that the child is missing," say officers Drogin and Carter. "Many times, a child will retrace their steps and the parent will no longer be there. Also, sometimes law enforcement will locate the missing child, but then will need to search for the parent as they are no longer where they originally were."

For this reason, it might make sense to divide and conquer when looking for your child. Have someone stay where you last saw your child, while someone else goes to get help or searches for the child. If you are the only adult, try to stay in the general area where you were when you realized your child was missing, and contact help from there. If you have to leave to find help, return to your prior location as soon as possible in case your child comes looking for you there.

The officers also advise not to let your emotions get the best of you. Once you realize you cannot find your child, remain calm and contact local law enforcement as soon as possible. You also should let the managers of the park, shopping mall, or festival know your child is missing. 

"After [contacting the authorities], begin to make phone calls to those that you know are nearby and can assist," officers Drogin and Carter say. "Divide and conquer when searching for a missing child. Also, always have a recent, full-face picture of the child ready to share with law enforcement and those assisting."

A Word From Verywell

While the idea of your child getting lost in a crowded place might seem like an unlikely scenario, it still helps to be prepared. Even the most vigilant parents can get separated from their kids. But having a plan in place and talking to your child about what to do if they get lost, is the best way to ensure your child is reunited with you quickly.

Just remember to keep things in perspective. While you want to empower your child so they know what to do, you also don't want to terrify them in the process. Make sure they know you will all do your best to stick together, but sometimes places can get busy and they can get separated from you for a short period of time. Knowing what to do if that happens will ensure they can find you right away.

1 Source
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  1. Healthchildren.org. Help prevent your child from going missing: Safety tips from the AAP.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon is a published author and a bullying prevention expert.