What to Do if Your Child is Lost

By Lisa Tucker McElroy

When my family took a cruise vacation last summer, I thought we were prepared.  We had our sunscreen, our walking shoes, and our snorkeling fins.  We’d talked to our two grade-school-aged girls about using their best manners and taking naps during the hottest part of the Caribbean days.  We’d even read ahead about our island destinations so that we could take in the very best tourist sites during our time ashore.

We were not prepared to lose sight of our eight-year-old daughter at one of the largest hotels and water parks in the world.

We’d gotten to the massive water park early in the day and staked out beach chairs near one of the many pools.  Then we’d set out two by two to try out the water slides and lazy river.  When my eight-year-old changed her mind about a water slide right before it was our turn, I told her to wait for me at the bottom – I’d be right back after I slid down.  But what I didn’t know was that the ride was stuck right around the bend, and “right back” would turn into “back in 45 minutes.”  And, by 45 minutes later, the park would be very, very crowded with thousands of tourists, many of whom were eight years old and had brown ponytails, just like my daughter.

My story has a happy ending – after a frantic half-hour search, we found my daughter, safe and sound, exactly where I’d left her (it turned out that slide I’d tried had many twists and turns, letting me out at a completely-different-but-identical-looking spot from the one where I’d started out).  Here’ s how to make sure your story ends the same way:

  • Establish a meeting point.  As soon as you enter a big theme park or historical site, pick out a tall, unique landmark that everyone can see.  Tell your kids to meet you there if you get separated.  Then have them repeat the landmark’s location back to you periodically over the course of the day to make sure they remember.

  • Help kids know who’s safe.  Kids need to know that they can ask strangers for help if they get lost.  Their first choice?  Someone wearing a uniform and a name tag.  The first time you see an employee at a destination, point that person out to your child and help the child remember what the uniform looks like.  Remind your child when you see employees later on in your visit.  Second choice?  A mother with a stroller will always help a lost child.

  • Locate the “lost child” spots as soon as you arrive.  Most large tourist destinations, especially in the United States, have a gathering place for lost children.  If an employee finds a child separated from her group, she’ll take the child there.  Knowing how to find this “lost child” spot can save you a lot of heartache – often, employees can even use walkie-talkies to call and ask if your child is there.

  • Equip pre-verbal children with identification.  When my friend’s two-year-old was lost recently, he lacked the verbal skills to tell the police his name and phone number.  Instead of being returned to his mom in minutes, it took almost two hours of door-to-door knocking.  Some companies now make Velcro wristbands with room for emergency information.  A low-tech solution?  Write the necessary info with a Sharpie on a piece of fabric, then use a safety pin to attach it inside your child’s pocket.  Keeping the information available but hidden prevents strangers from spotting your child’s name but allows the little one to point helpers to it without the need for words.

  • Know that even verbal children may clam up in an emergency.  My ten-year-old chatterbox gets very shy around strangers.  Because we travel a great deal, we practice what she should say if she’s lost, but I also make sure she’s wearing her “necklace,” a fancy dog tag engraved with emergency contact info, then hung on a chain.  She feels grown up because she’s got a nifty piece of “jewelry”; I feel safe knowing that others will be able to contact me if they need to.

  • Carry identification for yourself, too.  Staff members are often trained not to hand a child over unless they can determine that an adult is allowed to take the child.  Carry identification showing that you are related to your child; be ready to provide a photo of your child if you are asked.  This is especially important if it will not be immediately apparent to strangers that you and your child are related, such as if your child is not of your race or you do not share your child’s last name.

  • Don’t hesitate to cause a stir.  Even though most lost kids are returned safely to their families, time can be of the essence in making that happen.  Be firm with those in charge that you want them to sound an alert to all employees telling them that your child is lost.  If they have the ability to use an intercom system or lock doors and gates, ask (even demand) that they do so.  Remind them that finding your child quickly isn’t just about safety, but also about her state of mind:  lost children might be very frightened until they’re reunited with you.

  • Teach children what to do in a true emergency.  Family travel is usually the best part of the year, but remember that serious situations can arise.  Make sure your child knows where emergency exits are in case of fire, whether to stay away from pools and beaches if you’re not around, and how to yell “Stranger!” if an unfamiliar person tries to get too close.

  • Know when to give kids their freedom.  It’s tempting to keep our kids close at hand, but certain situations are safe for kids and may provide a fun opportunity for kids to learn how to explore on their own.  A case in point?  The very same cruise ship that took us to the island where my daughter got lost.  When we were at sea, my two girls ran and played all over the ship’s ten decks – and I got some much-needed Mom time knowing that nothing bad could happen.

Lisa Tucker McElroy is an attorney, writer, law professor, and mom. Lisa is the author of nine children's books, and she regularly publishes articles and essays about travel, marriage, parenting and family in national magazines such as Parenting, Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, FamilyFun, Cooking with Paula Deen, and Golf Vacations. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two travel-loving daughters.

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