“Can You Help Me? I’m Lost.” A Guide For Parents of Preschoolers

A few days ago at the Children’s Museum, my youngest took off running while my oldest was climbing in the climbing structure. My oldest didn’t appear to notice, but it bothered me to leave him unsupervised while I chased down my toddler. What if he noticed I was gone and decided to wander off trying to find me? What if someone decided to try to take my oldest while I wasn’t watching? Would he know what to do? Would he know not to go with an unfamiliar adult?

Honestly, I’m not sure what he would do. We haven’t had the “stranger danger” talk yet. To him, all grown-ups are people who can be trusted. Part of me appreciates the naivete of his worldview; who wouldn’t want to live with such innocence? But, my practical side tells me it is not safe to let him continue to hold this belief. So how do you bring up this subject with a four-and-a-half-year-old without scaring or traumatizing him?

Well, I did what most of us would do: I Googled it to get an idea what experts recommend and what other parents are doing. The following is what I took away from the articles.

Stay Put

Teach your child to stop what they are doing and stay put until they find you. Tell them the best way to find you is by staying right where they are*.

*The only exception is if they are near an inherently dangerous place. Teach them that roads, large machines, bodies of water, etc. are not safe places to wait for you. Then tell them to move only as far as necessary to stay safe and then to stay put there. (The goal here is to get them to not wait for you in a place that may be prone to them getting into an accident while waiting for you.)

Teach Them To Not Go Anywhere Without Your Permission

Samantha Wilson, a former police officer who founded Kidproof Safety, recommends to not use the classic “don’t talk to strangers” line we were taught growing up (Parents.com). Her rationale is this may inadvertently prevent your child from asking for help from someone who would legitimately help them. Rather, she stresses you should teach your child to not go anywhere with any adult unless you have given them permission to do so. No exceptions. She says this rule is clear and easy to understand, even for young preschoolers. Let your child know they can ask any willing adult for help, but that they should tell this adult that they cannot move from that spot until you arrive to get them. Then stress to your child that if the adult refuses to accept these terms they should find another adult to help them.

Make Sure They Know Your Real Name

This should be a no-brainer, but make sure your child knows your full name; first and last. This way if an adult asks them who they should be looking for, they can have more information to go off of other than “Mom” or “Dad”.

Teach Them To Shout Your Real Name

This one is also pretty self-explanatory. Teach your child that as soon as they realize they are lost they should begin shouting your real name in a clear and loud voice. Teach them that this is a perfect time to use their outdoor voices.

Make sure you shout their name as well. Chances are someone will hear both of you shouting and will be more than happy to help you two reunite in a safe manner.

Make Sure They Know Your Cell Phone Number

If your child is old enough, for most kids this is 3 and up, teach them your cell phone number and have them practice dialing it on a phone. And since most of us are in the habit of not answering our phone if someone calls, teach your child to ask the adult helping them to text you AND call you at that number.

Now some sites also tell you to teach your child to give the adult your address as well. I’m on the fence about this one. While it is certainly important for your child to know their address, I am not sure I want strangers knowing where we live.

Affix Important Identifying Info Into Your Child’s Clothing

For kids who are too young to memorize their information, affix important identifying information including their name and phone number onto their clothes or shoes. This info can be sewn, duct taped, or affixed using pre-printed labels. Then teach your child where they can find this information so they can share it with the adult who is trying to help them. Another suggestion is to purchase an ID bracelet, which could be helpful if they are not able to communicate this information themselves.

Teach Them To Look For A Mom With Kids

Teach your child to look for a mom with kids. This should be an easy enough task for even young preschoolers to accomplish. Moms with kids are more likely to commit the time and energy to help reconnect the lost child with their parent than your random passerby.

For your older preschoolers, teach them how to identify people who have “helping hands.” Teach them that police officers, firefighters, and people who have name tags or badges are generally good people to ask for help. Make sure to reiterate to your child that they should tell these people they can’t go anywhere until you arrive, but that it’s okay to tell the adult their name, your name, phone number, and other information which may help them locate you.

Talk About Safety, Role Play What To Do, And Then Create A Safety Plan

All of the websites I read emphasized that you have to make sure to both talk about and then practice what to do with your kids. Just talking about it isn’t enough. Additionally, make sure you stress to your child that you will find them so they should stay calm and follow the rules you have set up for them.

The experts also say you should focus on the positive things your child can do when practicing your plan. Simply pretending to be lost, or pretending to stop a bad person from taking them, may have a negative effect on your child; as it may traumatize them accidentally. So focus on the positive steps and help your child work through them slowly and at their individual comfort level. This will be more empowering than scary for your child and will give them the confidence that they can follow your safety rules should they ever get lost.

While practicing with your child, make sure you go over various scenarios such as:

  • “What would you do if you couldn’t see me?”
  • “What would you do if you don’t see a mom with a child right away after you realize we had been separated?”
  • “What would you do if someone said you should go with them to find me?” (verywellfamily.com)

Make sure to revisit these things occasionally if you are going to be in a situation where it’s possible that you may become separated from your child.

Know What You Should Do If You Lose Your Child

Lastly, make sure you know what to do should you lose your child. Have a game plan of what you will do first so you don’t immediately go into panic mode and forget what to do.

For example, if you are at a large event one thing you could do is have another adult contact management or security while you shout your child’s name and begin searching for them.

Hopefully you will never have to experience losing a child. If you do, you will be glad you spent the time planning ahead. Being prepared will help keep you calm and ensure the time you spend looking for your child is more efficient.


Reference Sites

Dan was born and raised in New Berlin, WI. He is married to the most amazing woman, Dawn, and has two children, Joe (born September 2014) and Nora (born April 2017). Dan has a background in Psychology (BA from UW-La Crosse) and Nursing (BSN from UW-Oshkosh). He is currently staying at home full-time. He enjoys cooking, biking, running, and yoga. He is also an avid coffee aficionado and hopes to one day be able to roast his own coffee beans.


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