about What to Do if You Get Separated from Your Kids in Public
The holidays are upon us! We’re going shopping! We’re going to holiday-themed farms and parks and events! We’re going to parties!
Basically, this season means we’re out in public more frequently and navigating how to interact with people after nearly three years of isolation. Large groups can feel chaotic, overwhelming, loud, and crowded – even if, prior to COVID, we enjoyed being in these spaces.
For parents, that unease can get heightened by a fear of getting separated from our kids in busy spaces. If you’re the parent of a pandemic baby, this may be the first time you’re truly having to navigate these sorts of scenarios – and your child likely hasn’t really been exposed to them before. If you’re the parent of an older child, they may be feeling the same overwhelm at being out in the world as you.
Anxiety management techniques tell us that one of the best ways to manage those big, worried, catastrophic feelings is to make a plan. And so that’s what we’re going to do.
Below are some suggestions for parents, younger kids, and older kids about what to do if you get separated in public.
What to Do as the Parent of a Younger Child
Look loudly. If you’ve lost track of your child in public, odds are that you’re freaking out. Fear responses can go many ways, but if you’re someone who freezes or fawns, it’s important to ground yourself and then use your big kid voice to look loudly. Shout your child’s name while slowly scanning the area; check in with the kids they were last playing with; make sure other parents know you’re looking. If you’re in a store or other place that has a PA system, call the customer service counter and ask them to make an announcement instructing your child to stay where they are and that you’re trying to find them. (This keeps you in close proximity to where you last saw your child while maximizing your voice.)
Engage the Help of Other Parents. Often, other parents – especially other moms or AFAB parents – are your biggest allies in helping you reconnect with your child. AFAB parents tend to be more observant about children’s behavior in general, and if they notice an upset kiddo, they’re more likely to check in with them and get help or support. So, as you look loudly, engage other parents to also look loudly. Tell them your name, your child’s name, and show them a recent picture of your child – or describe what they’re wearing at the moment.
Have a Recent Photo of Your Child. Ideally, take a photo of your child before you enter wherever you’re headed, so you have the most current image possible. However, the most important thing is to make sure other adults know what your child looks like as you’re searching for them. So have your phone out and be passing a recent photo around to help in the effort.
Remind Your Children that You’re Likely Pretty Close in Proximity. Often, if parents and children get separated, the kiddo will start to wander in order to reconnect – which can lead them to leave the premises, making them harder to find. Reassure your child often that you’re not going to leave the area you’re currently in unless you are together. So if you’re at a playground together and they get turned around, reinforce that you will only be at the playground and that they’re to stay in that specific area. This also helps drive home the point that your child should stay where they are if you get separated or if they get confused or lost.
What to Teach Your Younger Kids
Take Four Deep Breaths. Or do an orienting exercise like 5,4,3,2,1 grounding. Really, what you’re encouraging your child to do is stay calm enough to remember the next steps in the plan. Staying calm also will help them talk to helpful adults and remember important information like your name, what you’re wearing, and possibly your phone number.
Stay Put. Instruct your child to stay exactly where they are if you become separated. This allows you to look for them while keeping them in closer proximity than if you both were looking for each other. Staying put also encourages your child to stay calmer, rather than frantically looking for you and becoming increasingly panicked.
Notice. Encourage your child to notice the colors you are wearing and have them repeat them back to you before you head to your final destination. This will encourage them to look for what you’re wearing as they’re staying put; it also will give them additional information to tell helpful adults who may be helping them reconnect with you.
Your ACTUAL Name. If you and your child get separated, they MUST know at least your first name. This is important for several reasons:
Being referred to as only “mama” or “daddy” isn’t going to help anyone identify or notify you of your child’s whereabouts. It’s too general and there likely are going to be many other parents wherever you are.
Knowing your name is even more important for queer parents because sometimes we use non-gendered parenting terms like Baba, Mopa, ZiZi or Abba; if your child gets separated from you and folks are asking where their mom or dad is, they may not know how to respond because they’re literally not with their mom or dad. I had this happen with my toddler when she got turned around at the playground and started looking for me. A helpful mom asked her where her mommy or daddy was, and she had no way to respond because I use the parenting term Baba.
Additionally, sometimes queer parents don’t fit the stereotypical “parent” image. I know that as a masculine-of-center person with a mohawk and tattoos, I certainly don’t. And so your child knowing your name also will confirm for other helpful adults that your child does in fact know you, and that you are, in fact, their parent.
Ask Another Mom or Female Person for Help. This is not a knock against men or dads or non-AFAB parents. It’s more a general observation about the practicalities and realities of gender roles in parenting. Here’s why:
Kids are more likely to talk to a woman or AFAB person than a cisgender man because they usually are smaller in stature and therefore less physically intimidating. They also are more likely to kneel and get down on a child’s level to talk with them.
The child’s primary attachment figure most likely is a woman or AFAB parent. Simply, there’s often a different, more attuned, connection between the gestational parent and child.
Moms and AFAB parents tend to dress their children, making them more observant about outfits, shoes, hairstyles, etc. of other children. We notice when kids aren’t wearing coats or hats or when their shoes are worn out or when kids look adorable because we’re responsible for taking care of those responsibilities with our own children. We make subconscious assessments and notes about care and safety of children that aren’t ours.
Because of attachment, moms and AFAB parents tend to be more attuned to the emotional states of all children. We notice when other kids fall and get hurt. We respond differently to different types of distressed cries. And so we’re more likely to notice a child without their adult human and make an effort to help reunite them.
Reassure Your Child that You’ll Be Looking for Them. Nothing is more terrifying to a child than getting left behind. And while we don’t want to scare them by talking about what to do if you get separated or if they get lost, ensure that your child knows that you won’t leave wherever you are unless they are in tow. This reinforces the attachment bond and encourages them to stay in place or at least in close proximity, making it easier to find them faster.
What to Teach Your Older Kids
All of the Steps from the above Sections.
Keep Their Cell Phones Charged and on Ring. What’s the point of having a phone if the battery is dead or the ringer is silenced? Before you and your family enter a busy place, check battery levels and ringers to ensure that you’ll be able to stay in contact if you get separated. Even consider carrying a portable charger because inevitably, at least someone in your party is going to have a phone whose battery is on the brink.
Know Phone Numbers. That way if their phone dies or gets lost or thrown in a toilet, they can borrow someone else’s and still call you. It’s an old school necessity with very real, new school uses. Similarly, it’s also important for you to memorize your children’s phone numbers because kids aren’t the only ones who forget to charge their phones or who drop them in large bodies of water.
Find a Helper. Now that your child is old enough to have better object permanence and sense of direction, they can be trusted to wander a little outside close proximity to find an official helper like a security guard or event staff member. This point also is especially helpful if your group intentionally split into different directions and your child needs assistance navigating their way back to a centralized or designated meeting spot.
What to Do as the Parent of an Older Child
Everything on the List. Literally.
Designate a Central Meeting Spot. Before your group splits off – or even if you all plan on staying together – identify a central location that will serve as a point of contact if you do get separated. Reinforce this place with your kids by encouraging them to notice other landmarks in close proximity to that central meeting spot.
Reinforce Their Problem-Solving Skills. No matter how many times you remind your kids to do X, Y, or Z, they may still forget or get confused or feel overwhelmed. It happens to the best of us. The most important thing is that they still feel like capable problem solvers who have the tools to find a solution. Just as you encourage your child to think creatively in other arenas of their lives, reassure them that they have the skills to solve this problem, too. Again, this conversation isn’t meant to be used as a scare tactic so much as an opportunity for your child to help formulate a plan and also to flex some problem solving skills if necessary.
There you have it. There is nothing in the world that can assuage the fear and panic that happens if you get separated from your child in a public place. But hopefully this list helps with some preparation and prevention.
If you and your child do get separated in public, put aside the anger and frustration you might feel and approach them with love and empathy. Dialectic Behavioral Therapy tells us that anger usually is a spill-over of some underlying emotion, in this case probably extreme fear. And if you’re feeling afraid, imagine how scared your child may be feeling – especially younger kids who might not have the language or skills to process or problem-solve what’s happening. Reinforce love, consistency, understanding, and acceptance. Hold space for their feelings and listen and answer their questions honestly, as it’s likely somewhat traumatic for both of you. Then, once you both are in a more rational place, return to this list of suggestions as a means of future planning and prevention.