When You Lose Your Child in Public

I’ve been through some scary moments since becoming a mom. Between illnesses, food allergies, and various other dramas there has been plenty of fear and stress. But for sheer panic not much compares to when you lose your child in public.

I recently took my daughter to visit the preschool we are planning to enroll her in for this fall. We had a great visit. We talked to the teacher, Ellie played with some toys and checked out the class guinea pig. Our visit took place just before the morning class was set to start. When parents began arriving to drop off their kids for the morning class, we prepared to leave. 

This particular preschool is in the basement of a church. We said goodbye to the teachers and headed up the stairs. When we reached the landing in the middle of the staircase I noticed a bulletin board with calendars and newsletters for the school. I stopped to read something and I felt my daughter let go of my hand. When I turned to see where she went, she was gone.

My eyes darting everywhere, I called for Ellie, hoping she would pop up from behind a shelf or hear me and respond. When there was no immediate answer, I ran up the stairs and out the front door frantically searching the parking lot to make sure she hadn’t run outside. With parents pulling in and out of the lot dropping off their children I felt a rising bubble of panic. When there was no sign of Ellie, I ran back downstairs to the preschool and alerted the teachers she was missing.

Both teachers were stationed at the bottom of the stairs welcoming students and stated they had not seen Ellie run by to go back into the preschool. They immediately stood and began alerting other adults.

I ran back up to the landing where I originally lost Ellie. This time I spotted a row of cubbies tucked back under the stairs. I ran towards them. Even faster when I spotted the purple sleeve of my daughter’s coat peeking out from behind the shelf.

There she was crouched behind the shelf of cubbies. She stood and laughed. “Mom, I was hiding from you!”

My head didn’t actually explode. But it definitely felt possible. I went from fear to relief to fury in under a minute. I hustled downstairs to the two teachers and let them know where I had found my daughter. Relief was evident on their faces. Then I marched Ellie up to the parking lot and to the truck in silence.

Once I had her strapped into her car seat, no longer a flight risk, I told her how much she had scared me. I was using the low-voiced, tight-lipped, tone that let her know I meant business.

Ellie cried and told me she just hadn’t wanted to leave the preschool. I told her, probably accurately, it was likely they didn’t want us to come back after this stunt.

I only lost her for about three minutes but it felt like three years.

Has this ever happened to you? You’re out somewhere in public and your child takes off and hides? Or wanders off and becomes separated from you?

Ellie has attempted to bolt before but this was the first time she managed to hide before I could catch her. Obviously, these attempts are followed by consequences intended to teach her this is NOT acceptable behavior. But at this point, I still consider her a flight risk. With staying home 24/7, not a valid option, I’ve gone in search of strategies to deal with this situation.

What to Do if You Lose Your Child in Public

1. Don’t Panic

This is obviously a ridiculous suggestion. But, it’s number one on every list of “what to do” in these situations. I would say to do the best you can. And don’t get so blindingly panicked that you can’t take the necessary next steps.

2. Get Other People Involved

If you’re in a large public place like a mall or an amusement park, contact the main office or security as quickly as possible. Google their phone number and make a call if the office is not nearby.

In my case, I immediately alerted the preschool teachers because I thought the more adults aware of the situation the better. If the situation goes on more than a few minutes or the main office of wherever you are is unhelpful or doesn’t exist, get the police involved.

3. Take a Good Look Around

Take a breath, calm down and take a good look around you. It’s possible your child just wandered a few steps away and is hidden in a crowd. In my situation, I knew my daughter took off deliberately because she didn’t want to leave. If I had more calmly looked around I might have seen the cubbies she was hiding behind more quickly.

4. Yell

Don’t be afraid to yell, loudly, to get your child’s attention. If they simply wandered off, they will hopefully hear you and respond. If not, alerting others nearby to the situation can only be helpful.

Safety Tips

Ideally, your child will never be lost in a public place. But if you talk to other parents, you will find it is not an uncommon occurrence. Before leaving the house with your child it’s a good idea to prepare for the “what-ifs” of public separation. I like this list of safety tips. And want to highlight a few of my own.

  • Discuss What to Do in Advance

Discuss with your child what to do if they find themselves separated from you in a public place. Seeking out a police officer or other person in charge can be a good place to start. A mom with children is often a safe person for a child to approach as well.

  • Communicate About Who is the Eyes On Parent

Because my oldest daughter is a fearless adventurer her dad and I established from a young age the rule of an explicitly stated hand-off. When we’re out in public if one of us is headed to the restroom, or paying for lunch, or otherwise not paying attention, before we look away we say, “Do you have her?” And wait for confirmation.

It’s hugely important to know which adult is consciously on duty and to make sure there is one. Who is designated to watch the kids? Mom? Dad? Grandma? Make sure there are no communication lapses resulting in a child wandering off in public.

When Your Child is a Runner

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It was honestly hard to find tips for what to do when your child RUNS away from you. Not just wanders off but actually runs and hides. I was beginning to think this was just my kid. Then I came across this great advice on alphamom.com. To summarize the advice, my daughter will be on a toddler leash or in a stroller until this phase of taking off in public passes. Luckily I have both.

Has this ever happened to you? Has your child been lost in public? Either because they wandered or because they ran? If you have any tips for handling these situations please add them in the comments.

26 Comments

  1. Melissa @ Disco Bumblebee
    March 16, 2017

    Good tips! I am always afraid my daughter is going to dart off and want to hide. It’s so scary when that happens.

    Reply
  2. Janani Viswanathan
    March 16, 2017

    We had one episode. Due to a miscommunication among elders about who is looking after which kid, we missed our elder twin in a public place. It was a matter of few minutes but my heart leapt out of the fear of having to find my son well and safe. And when we located him I was hit hard by his tears and his eyes spoke so many things do me – why did you let me go mommy? ? I am deeply hurt whenever that incident strikes me even today.

    One more idea I would suggest is making your kid to memorise your phone number and instructing her to take someone’s help (like police officer or a mom as u mentioned) and call mommy immediately.

    Reply
    1. Elizabeth
      March 30, 2017

      That is a great suggestion! I am working with my daughter on learning our phone number. It is definitely important.

      Reply
  3. Kate
    March 16, 2017

    So scary! This is definitely something that needs to be brought to parents’ attention god forbid it happens to them!

    Reply
  4. justine
    March 16, 2017

    THIS IS MY WORST FEAR!!! Thankfully it hasn’t happened, and when it ALMOST did.. my son screamed for me. I need to make sure he knows my phone number. I’m crazy hyper vigilant when we’re in public but you can never be too careful!

    Reply
  5. David Elliott
    March 16, 2017

    These are good things to do to plan ahead if your child vanishes from everyone. I think you did a great job by explaining how bad it was afterwards.

    Reply
  6. Jasmine Hewitt
    March 16, 2017

    we luckily havent endured this-but these are such helpful tips!

    Reply
  7. Just the thought of it. The thoughts that must go through your mind! Luckily my daughter is still too young for me to have to have worried about this, but thank you for the tips for the future!

    Reply
  8. I know the horror that you must have felt. My husband & I list our then 15 months old for a good 7 minutes in a mall. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. Great tips BTW.

    Reply
  9. Hannah
    March 17, 2017

    How scary and scary how easily and quickly this can happen when you just least expect it. Hope your brilliant post helps others!

    Reply
  10. Stephanie Lowry
    March 17, 2017

    Such a terrifying thing to happen. Unfortunately it is all too easy for it too. Especially in crowded public places it just takes a blink of an eye! Great tips.

    Reply
  11. Laurie
    March 17, 2017

    This is every parents worst nightmare and every parent has had it happen (or will have it happen). You age 20 years in 10 seconds! Kids are so quick its unbelievable and you just never ever let go of a child that is in this “phase”.
    Great tips and its a good subject to share!

    Reply
  12. Elizabeth Brico
    March 17, 2017

    This has not full-fledge happened to me yet, but with the way my kiddos are, it will. Lie: My son, who has profound autism, runs ALL the time, but there’s always someone with eyes on him so while he has run away, I have never actually lost him yet. ALTHOUGH when he was a baby, his terrible biological father once came into the store where I was shopping on a bike (?? already) and swept his stroller away behind me while gliding down the next aisle. I did feel that panic when I turned from grabbing whatever it was to see he wasn’t there, but felt relief when I saw him around the corner. Double relief when I saw another dad in the store running toward my ex ready to beat him to a pulp until he realized that everything was okay! It’s a really scary feeling…for sure. I can imagine my Anabelle doing what your Ellie did…and I would (will, probably more likely) be…very upset, to state it mildly.

    Reply
  13. Katie - Mommy Scene
    March 17, 2017

    Great tips! I haven’t lost a child for more than a minute or two, but it can definitely feel scary. Not panicking is the best tip.

    Reply
  14. Ryan - Dadly Reviews
    March 19, 2017

    Great read and good info! This has to be every parent’s nightmare. Thanks for the info!

    Reply
  15. Brandy Champeau
    March 20, 2017

    Great tips. It happens to the best of us, but I know that even a few minutes of having a lost child is torture.

    Reply
  16. Yolanda McAdam
    March 22, 2017

    Our eldest son was a runner and we lost him once in the mall when he was three and it was the most terrifying twenty minutes or so of our lives. Horrible. Thankfully it all turned out ok. Thank you for these great tips.

    Reply
  17. Laura Driskell
    March 22, 2017

    My husband thinks it is dumb that I have a leash for my son! He isn’t around him all the time, and doesn’t go as many places as I do with him. We go out a lot, to stores, events and places with lots of people. Carrying them and holding their hand constantly is not as easy as it sounds. So I will look dumb, and continue to put my son on a leash or in the stroller! Great read!

    Reply
    1. Elizabeth
      March 30, 2017

      My kids love the leash. It lets them walk without holding my hand. And it’s cute:) My littlest brings it to me when she wants to go outside. My husband doesn’t always get it either because I go out more with the kids. When we go shopping he always wants to let our kids walk rather than put them in the cart. Until he has to go running after them every 5 minutes!

      Reply
  18. Tina
    March 23, 2017

    I have always been an eyes glued to them kind of mom – to the point people actually tell me to ease up! Yet we still had a scary episode when our daughter was 4. We were at a children’s museum – loud and crowded. My husband was with her and 2 of her brothers inside a netted ball area. I stood just to the side of the exit to it with the baby in a stroller. One of the boys went in the opposte direction so my husband turned, at the same time a large group of people walked past the exit. Once they were past, I saw that my daughter was gone! We gathered the boys and frantically circled around the place, imagining every horrible thing possible. It was 5 minutes later that we found her calmly playing with dolls in one of their little partitioned areas. We still start shaking when it comes up. It can happen, even if you think it never would to you. This is a very helpful list! It can be hard to come up with a plan on what to do next when they’ve already gone missing, because you’re so stressed out! We have used the backpack leashes with each child. Yes, we get the dirty looks. But if we’re somewhere like a crowded zoo, they need to be able to walk around and see things and still be safe. The people who give the dirty looks obviously have never felt how slippery a 2 yr old’s hand can be! Oh, and we also do the “Do you have them?”. That, and at family gatherings they are only allowed outside if one of us is out there with them. When there are so many adults, they all think someone else is watching them!

    Reply
  19. Mae
    March 23, 2017

    Ugh, this has always been my biggest fear! When we are shopping, I always tell my daughter in advance that we are in a public space so she needs to always hold mommy’s hand or stay close where I can see her. It helps now that she’s almost 6 and can understand this, so she’s getting a little bit of the concept of stranger danger. These are good tips indeed!

    Mae | http://www.thegospelofbeauty.org/

    Reply
  20. Dnai
    March 24, 2017

    Wow this is so scary, thank god what happened to you was simply solved and nothing worse … Interesting you suggest the toddler leash, i have had so many arguments with other people about these and if it’s ok to use or if it’s demeaning!!!! I think that whatever keeps your children safe is perfect…..!

    Reply
    1. Elizabeth
      March 30, 2017

      I can assure you my girls have not felt demeaned by wearing our leash. It’s a backpack monkey with a tail for a parent to hold onto. My kids think it’s their cute backpack. And they like being able to walk without holding hands. I like not having to run after them every few minutes when they take off or head into trouble. Win-win! 😉

      Reply
  21. This is so terrifying to think about. Talking about what to do is such a great tip and so important. I remember my parents always telling us before we went somewhere, what we should do or where we should go.

    Reply
  22. Patty
    January 24, 2018

    When my son was little, we were in a curtain store and he was standing right next to me. He decided to hide in between the bins. I looked down and he wasnt there. I panicked and made the store manager block anyone from leaving until I found him . He was crouched between the bin where I had been standing with him and laughing, thinking we were playin hide and seek. I was never so scared in my life.

    Reply
  23. Laura @ Chaos & Quiet
    July 19, 2018

    This just happened to me last week! We were at the beach with my brother (so 3 adults to 3 kids – a better ratio than normal!), and were packing up to leave. My 3 y.o. went from standing on the grass waiting for us to GONE in a matter of about 10 seconds. This particular beach is particularly dangerous because not only is there water on one side, on the other side the parking lot is right there. He was only missing for about 30 seconds, but it felt like a lifetime. I think half the beach knew we had lost a child from how loud I was yelling! (He had wandered off around the other side of the washrooms, and was completely fine, but it was a good 20 minutes before my heart rate went back to normal!)

    Reply

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