When Your Child Is Lost: Creating a Road Map to Safety

200-lostKids’ Corner | By Patrick Biron –

All too often, kids get lost even in their own neighborhood. It is easy for a child to begin in a comfort zone, then slowly work his way out by following distractions – a bug around the corner, a cat past a fence or a slide down a hill. Once they realize they are lost, most children panic and begin making bad decisions that do not help their situation. The following S.T.O.P. rules are good to teach depending upon your child’s development.

Stop. Unless they are in a dangerous place, such as the middle of a road, children should immediately stop moving once they realize they are lost. Most likely, the direction they face is the opposite direction they want to go, but they won’t know for sure until they think. Tell them to assume you are looking for them right at that moment and not to panic, but running and hiding doesn’t help you do that.

Think. This is the hardest one for most kids. Panic usually sets in, causing children to do things that are counterproductive. One example is a child who couldn’t find his mom in our 32,000 square-foot facility. His response was to lay down behind a mat and hide. Teach your children to try to recall their steps and how they ended up where they are. Do they recognize anything near them or any people? Do they know who they can trust in that situation?

My son and I play hide and seek in our house after dark with the lights off as a way to try and lessen his fear of the dark. Games like this, which force children to think during traditionally scary or strange scenarios, are a great starting point, especially if you take the time to tell the child what you are trying to teach him in that moment.

Observe. This step is also based on some prior learning. The classic road trip game I Spy may seem silly, but it teaches children valuable skills about observing details. I turn these into “verbal roadmaps.” Once we play for a bit, I ask my son to tell me everything we have seen in order. I enjoy doing this as we drive into and out of our neighborhood, slowly increasing the distance we play each time and picking new landmarks. My son now knows landmarks and how those landmarks can guide him home, and he even does it in new areas as well.

In a new area that a child is not familiar with, the power of observation can save his life. Many parents teach kids to not trust strangers and for valid reasons, but what then does your child do if lost? Teach children “safe people” to trust when they are lost, such as police, fire and medical personnel, a large family together or waiters and waitresses since they are usually easy to spot in a restaurant or mall. If your school or workplace has badges or staff shirts, show them how to recognize those as well.

Plan. Children need to take in all that they have remembered and plan out their next step. Emphasize that the child doesn’t need a plan all the way home since this can be overwhelming. Just plan one step at a time. This takes much of the stress off the situation and helps a child feel in control. A plan might be, “Carefully cross the street at the crosswalk, go to the restaurant, and tell a waitress I’m lost.” It seems simple enough for adults, but for children, that plan is usually the last thing they think of. Their normal response is to hide or run, making finding them harder.

Finally, does your child know your full name and phone number? It’s hard for a policeman to find “Mommy!”