Lost at the mall
Lost at the mall

What to Do If Your Child Gets Lost at the Mall

According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), approximately 800,000 young people go missing annually. And in all of these missing child scenarios, statistics show that the first three hours are the most important for successful resolutions. In conjunction with the AMBER Alerts program, the NCMEC is ready to assist whenever child safety concerns are an issue, and encouragingly, its rate of recovering lost children has increased from 62 percent back in 1990 to 97 percent as of today, according to the NCMEC website.

Informed parents who make a safety plan and practice it with their children are still the best lines of defense in the event accidental separation occurs. Yet, as The New York Times reports in its article “Keeping Children from Going Missing”, finding the balance between discussing child safety concerns with our kids and feeling we’re creating neurotic children involves walking a “fine line.” What follows are some practical tips so your next trip to the mall is a teaching experience—not a panicked one.

Teach Awareness and Protection Skills

Robin Sax, spokeswoman for the National AMBER Alert Registry and mother of three, reminds parents to never shy away from teaching their children in the moment. Try explaining why you choose to avoid an uncomfortable or threatening situation the next time one arises. For example, the next time you cross a street or don’t get onto an elevator because something or someone gives you an unsafe feeling, talk to your children calmly and honestly. If they only observe a tighter grip on their hands before you stop and change direction, they’re not learning self-protection skills. But by talking to your kids, you’ll help them acquire an awareness of their surroundings and how to properly react to them.

Develop a Safety Plan

Despite parents’ best efforts to constantly observe their children, distractions and mishaps occur. That’s why all parents should make a safety plan with their children in the event they’re separated in a public place like a shopping mall or grocery store. It’s important to have a step-by-step plan that lets your kids know it’s perfectly permissible to walk to the front of a checkout line and inform the store’s cashier that they’re lost. And, if they wear an ID or alert bracelet, or have your cellphone number attached to their clothing, that’s the time to share it.

Though you probably spend a great deal of time teaching your kids values and good manners, you also need to tell them how to act calmly and firmly in an emergency situation. Confidently approaching a uniformed employee and saying, “I need help finding my parent!” is a crucial skill for all children.

Practice Getting Help

Once you have a safety plan in place, be sure to practice it with your children. Don’t be afraid to stop in the middle of a busy department store and ask your children where and to whom they’d go to seek help if they suddenly became separated from you. Remind them to look for uniformed officers or employees. If they can’t find any, teach them to speak to a woman who has children with her. Mothers with young children are likely to stay with a lost child until he or she is reunited with a parent, according to public safety expert Gavin de Becker, author of Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane).

In addition to the system of AMBER Alerts, Code Adam is a voluntary program of business establishments whose employees are trained in helping lost children find their parents. Participating stores display Code Adam stickers to inform parents and children alike that child safety assistance is available. Be sure to point out what these decals look like and what they mean, so your kids are as informed as you are about the program.

By taking advantage of teaching opportunities as they arise and practicing a pre-established safety plan, parents can make a decisive difference in their children’s lives when they need it most. There are many good people out there, but knowing whom to approach can mean a world of difference when you’re young and lost.