Getting lost in public can be a frightening experience unless children know what to do. The following article is from The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Self Protection, Confidence, Personal Safety, and Advocacy for Young People.
Being lost and feeling helpless is a scary experience no matter how old you are. As ten-year-old Sophia told me, “When I was a little girl, I couldn’t find my mom in the grocery store. I started to cry, and a lady grabbed my arm and started to take me away. Now I am pretty sure that she was just trying to help me but I was so scared that I still get a sick feeling in my stomach whenever I think about it.”
Knowing what to do if you get lost can make a huge difference in whether an experience is empowering or traumatic.
Making a Safety Plan
Because children’s perspectives and understandings are constantly changing, it is important to review their safety plan about getting lost each time they go somewhere they haven’t been for a while. Remember that even a week can seem like a long time from the point of view of a young child. Older children can be asked to tell YOU their safety plan, just for your peace of mind.
During our Kidpower Parent-Child workshops, we ask the children to imagine they are going someplace they don’t know well. We have them practice asking the adult they came with, who is likely to be busy, “Wait! What’s our safety plan if we get lost from each other here?” We ask the adults to imagine that they are in a hurry so they can practice stopping and saying, “Thank you for asking me.” Together, the adult and child can then agree on a plan that makes sense for this place, such as meeting at the person in charge of the closest ride in an amusement park.
Most of the time, we want children who are lost to stay where they are to give their adults a chance to find them before they leave to get help. This is especially true in a bigger place such as a shopping mall, a circus, a park, a zoo, or a busy sidewalk.
What to Do If You Get Lost
We recommend that children go through the following steps before leaving to get help if they are separated from their adults:
2. Stand tall and strong if it is safe to stay where you are. Otherwise, go to the nearest place that is safe. For example, if you are in the middle of the street, go to the sidewalk and stand tall and strong there. To help them keep upright and calm, we tell younger children to make their bodies strong and still like “the trunk of a tree.”
3. Look around for your adults. Most of the time when children think they are lost from their adults, their grownup is actually close by and just taking a minute to stop and look is enough to find them again.
4. If you cannot see the adults you came with, then yell out the names you use to call them. You can yell anywhere, even in a library, movie theater, or restaurant.
5. If that doesn’t work or if staying where you are is not safe, then follow your safety plan for getting help.
6. If you don’t know what else to do, ask a woman with children for help.
7. If there is no woman with children, then look for either a woman or a man who seems calm and respectful. Ask for help but also be clear that you want to stay in the store or the place where you are. Ask other adults for help if the one you chose first is not listening.
The Backup Plan
Children need a backup plan in case they get stuck and cannot figure out what to do. Maybe the store is too crowded to spot a cashier, or the part of the zoo is too far from the ticket seller. Maybe they are lost in a place where there are no people, such as while camping or hiking.
As unfair as this reality is to all of the caring and wonderful men we know and work with, statistically the unknown person who is LEAST likely to harm a child is a woman with children. So if a child needs help – this is almost always the safest way to seek it out. Kids can ask for help in finding the nearest cashier, information center, or ticket seller.
Whoever they ask for help, kids should insist on staying in the same building or area, rather than going with someone somewhere else, unless there is a huge emergency that makes it unsafe to stay there.
Most people have mobile phones. Tell children that they can ask a woman with children or a man who seems calm and respectful to call your number to help you find each other. Some parents even tape their own mobile number to a younger child’s sleeve if they go to a crowded place, just to be sure that they can be easily contacted if the child gets lost.
If children are lost in nature, their safety plan is to wait in the closest safe place to where they first noticed they were lost. They need to know that you will look for them and, when people need help like this, a ranger or even a search party full of strangers will come looking for them. People will be calling their name. Their job is to call for help so the ranger or search party people can find them. In this case, they would let the ranger or the search party take them to the place where they would meet up with you.
Cell phones are very convenient, but not always reliable. Any safety plan that involves a cell phone should have an alternative in case the cell phone doesn’t work.
Practicing How to Get Help if You Get Lost
Children need to know both what their safety plan is if they get lost and how to act on that plan. Practicing how to get help in public can prepare children to use these skills in real-life situations.
1. Pretend to be someplace where the child is likely to go, such as a big store. Tell the child to imagine that you forgot to talk about this and have her ask you, “What’s our safety plan if we get lost?”
2. Make a safety plan to go to a place that is easy to identify, such as “Checkout counter number one.” Tell the child to imagine that a spot in the room is “Checkout counter number one.” If you are with a group of children, you can have one child act it out with you in front of the group, or you can all practice together.
3. Have the child (or group of children) stand tall and turn her head to look around the room. Make sure she is really seeing what she is looking at by asking about things that are actually in the room. Ask, “Can you see the clock on the wall? Or the tree through that window?”
4. Coach the child you are practicing with to yell out to the adult she came with, most likely, “MOM! DAD!” If she has a hard time yelling loudly by herself, then yell with her or get others in the room to do so. If you are with a group of children, ask them, “Who are the adults who might be with you in the store?”
Have them yell out the actual names such as Mom, Dad, Papa, Mommy, Auntie, Grandpa, Fred, etc.
If the children speak different languages or have specific names they use for their adults, you can yell together the names of everybody who is likely to take them to the store.
5. Tell the child, “Now imagine that you have waited, and looked, and yelled, but you are still lost. So, your safety plan is to go to checkout counter number one. Do you go to the front of the line or the end of the line?”
6. Sometimes, children will say “the end of the line.” This gives you an opportunity to remind them, “You wait at the end of the line if you want to buy something. But if you have a safety problem, you go to the front of the line, around to the back of the counter if you have to, and interrupt the cashier who might be busy with other customers.”
7. Pretend to be the cashier (talking to another “customer” who is either imaginary, a doll, or a real person) and ask your pretend customer, “What is it you wanted to buy, sir?”
8. Coach the child to clasp your arm firmly and interrupt politely, using a strong voice, and saying, “Excuse me, I need your help. I’m lost.” If you have a whole group of children acting this out, they can either do it in the air, come to you as a group, or take turns.
9. Pretend to be the cashier and say very impatiently, “You’re cutting in line. You need to wait at the end of the line.”
10. Coach the child to be persistent and say, “But I’m lost!”
11. In your role as the cashier, pretend to call on the loudspeaker and say, “There is a lost girl. She is wearing a white shirt and green pants.” If the child knows, she can be asked the name of the adult she came with for the announcement.
12. Younger children like to see resolution at the end of a practice, especially one about getting lost. Pretend to be the adult who came with the child. Come rushing up, hug the child if this is appropriate, and say, “Oh, there you are! Great job following our safety plan.”
13. For older children, you can pretend to be a cashier who does not know the safety rules by taking the child’s hand and saying, “Oh, you’re lost! Well, come with me to the manager’s office.” Remind the child to follow the safety plan and stay in the public area. Coach her to pull her hand away and say, “My safety plan is to stay at this checkout stand if I’m lost.”
14. Here’s a different role play that would be useful for younger children if you are going to be in a crowded area and have a cell phone. Tell the child to pretend to be lost and to imagine that you are a mother with children. Coach the child to point to the phone number on her or his arm and say confidently, “This is my mom’s number. She’s here, but I can’t find her. Please call her!”