This article appears in May-June Family magazine.
The chance of a child wandering away is a real possibility, and it can happen in a split second at a crowded amusement park or on a jam-packed beach.
It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, but very, very few children are abducted or kidnapped, said Justin Lavelle, chief communications officer at BeenVerified, an online background check platform. Fewer than 350 people younger than 21 have been abducted by strangers in the United States per year since 2010, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
Create an action plan
When a child slips away and is lost in a public place, it’s less a parent fail and more a relatively common occurence that could happen to anyone. The key is to create an action plan so that your child knows exactly what to do if he or she is separated, Lavelle said.
“In times of panic, no one makes rational, well-thought-out decisions. This is why it’s crucial to have a well-rehearsed plan in place in the event you are separated from your child in a crowded place,” he said. “If you and your kids have a game plan for an instance like this, the chances of being reunited faster are greater.”
A clear-cut strategy will help avoid panic and allow a child to feel more able to handle the situation. If necessary, write the info down and have him put it in his pocket with your cellphone number. Always determine a place to meet at any location you’re going, such as the information desk, Lavelle said.
Look for helpers
Just like Mr. Rogers said, “Look for the helpers. You can always find people who are helping.” In addition to police officers and security guards, mothers with children are usually safe people for kids to accept help from.
“In almost every scenario a mom with children is going to come to the aid of a child — especially one in distress. It’s basic mom code,” Lavelle said.
When entering a crowded area, point out an employee so your child can see what the uniforms look like, Lavelle said.
Stay put for safety
Once a lost child starts wandering in a crowded place, it’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack, Lavelle said.
“Make sure they know that as long as they are in a safe place to stay put so a parent, grandparent or friend can come back to them. Encourage them to look for a nearby bench or seating area,” Lavelle said.
Info on hand
“All children, regardless of age, should have a note of some sort on them that identifies the parent’s full name, a contact phone number and back-up phone number and where they’re staying (if away from home). It can be a business card from the hotel where you’re staying with the names/phone number hand-written on the card and tucked in a pocket, a temporary tattoo that has identifying information, or Sharpie marker written on their arm with Liquid Band-aid on top of it so it doesn’t rub off,” Lavelle said.
In addition to having a current photo of the child for identification purposes, parents should snap a photo of a child before they leave for the day so they can easily describe what the child is wearing, Lavelle said.
Yell Mom’s (real) name
Tell your child it’s OK to yell her family’s names for help, but avoid “Mom,” which gets lost in a sea of of kids, Lavelle said.
The best thing is to have a calm conversation while arming kids with lifesaving information.
“Then practice, practice, practice so it becomes second nature and they’ll know what to do immediately, with less panic, if it does actually happen,” Lavelle said. “Reassure your kids that if you get separated, you will find them, so stay calm and follow the safety rules.
“Your goal is to prepare them, not scare them, should a separation ever occur. If you take the proper steps ahead of time, you’ll all be in a better position should this ever happen to your family.”