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.
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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.
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.
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
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.