The Longest 20 Minutes Of Your Life.

By Keryn Christiansen

What to do when kids go missing.

If you're a parent of small children, you've probably experienced this situation... You turn around, just for a second. Maybe the baby needs attention, maybe you've suddenly spotted a friend and stopped to say, "Hi." You turn back and your preschooler is nowhere in sight.

There's a certain kind of cold panic you feel, mixed with feelings of guilt and incredulity. How could they disappear so quickly? You hunt wildly around the shop or park, worst case scenarios are running rampant through your mind. Heart-rate raising, swearing quietly or maybe not so quietly, under your breath. You holler your child's name, ask passer-bys, "Did you see A???" People shake their heads sympathetically but back away quickly, because let’s face it, you're looking a tad crazy at this point.

If you're lucky, your child was just hiding in the adventure playground or behind a bush, and then makes their appearance known to put you out of your misery. If you're not, you have to take it to the next level and that's asking for help. If you're in a mall or at an outdoor event, there is often an information desk where parents can go to either retrieve lost children, or put out a loudspeaker announcement.

I have a story of that scenario, which also comes with a cautionary tale about giving your children nicknames.

My sister's childhood nickname was Paula Pops. Nice little onomatopoeic nickname of no real, meaningful origin. Once on a shopping trip to the mall, my little sister got lost. My mother was in the aforementioned panic state, running around the mall trying to find her. Then she heard an announcement over the loudspeaker, "Would Mrs Pops come to the office please, we have your lost daughter." My mum thought for a moment and realised that she was, in fact, Mrs Pops.

My sister was retrieved from the mall office, and there-after hated the name and had a tantrum ensue when it was used. At least a funny story was added to the list to tell at my sisters 21st party.

In preparation for the almost inevitable event of losing a child, what are ways that you can ready yourself and your kids?

  • As early as they are able, help your child remember your phone number. If they are too young or have trouble with this, try adding your name and phone number to the inside of shoes or clothing. Make sure the kids know that it's there!
  • Talk to your child about what to do if they get lost before it happens - without alarming or frightening them. Maybe even role play the scenario.
  • Teach children to stop what they are doing when they realise they can't find you. Make sure they know to position themselves in a safe place. Away from traffic, water hazards or dangerous machinery.
  • Make sure your child knows you're actual name, and tell them to call that, rather than Mum or Dad.
  • The safest type of person for a lost child to approach, is a mother with young children. Teach them to approach these people, tell them they are lost and need help.
  • For older children, agree a meeting place if you get separated.

What you can do if it happens

  • Try not to panic. I know that's easier said than done in this situation, but stay calm. It is highly likely your child is close by and will be found quickly.
  • Enlist the help of staff or other parents, especially if you're looking after other small children. Give them a description of what your child was wearing and show a photo if you have one.
  • If possible, get a loudspeaker message broadcast. If you're in a mall or at a fair or event, that's often how children are found. Isn't it Mrs Pops!?

Tip: If you have a business card pop it in your childs pocket when you go out.

And just so you know, I speak from experience. Here are a couple of my own stories of losing my kids. In researching this post, I did find I was the only parent in the Enrolmy office - who has in fact, lost a child, and to my shame more than once. However it does qualify me to talk about the experience and hopefully help you learn from my stories.

Matteo ferrero

Story 1: The Zoo

I'd organised a trip to the zoo for my 3 year old and my newborn daughter. The plan was to meet a friend there with kids about the same age. My friend was just having a rotten baby day. She only lasted half an hour and had to take her fussy baby home before things got extremely unpleasant for all.

This was probably one of the first outings I'd made with a baby and toddler in tow on my own. I had a little base anxiety going on already. But I had promised my daughter a day at the zoo, and she wasn't one to let me off the hook, so we began our adventure.

Not all the enclosures were buggy-friendly. As we approached the Meerkat tunnels, I was faced with negotiating stairs or winding ramps; which took some time to navigate. Before I'd even got to the entrance of the tunnels and been able to brief my daughter on what I expected, she was gone. She'd disappeared into the tunnels. A maze like structure which exited at all sorts of other locations that I was not at, and could not easily get to with a buggy. I called into the tunnels after her asking her to come out. She didn't. I couldn't follow and leave the baby. Some school children came along and where heading for the tunnel entrance. I enlisted their help and asked them to look for my daughter. They disappeared and re-appeared a few moments later. No 3 year olds anywhere in the tunnel. By this point, she could have left from one of the other tunnel exits and have headed off anywhere else in the zoo. Panic was starting to set in. I did my best to navigate the buggy around the perimeter of the meerkat enclosure, hollering like a banshee. There was no sign of her near the enclosure, nowhere in sight down the path ways. I had visions of her wandering into big cat enclosures, stumbling into the moat around the crocodiles - or worse, being stalked by a human predator.

I knew I needed some help. I went up to the office feeling terrible about leaving the scene in case she came back and couldn't find me. The zoo staff put a call out on the loudspeaker describing my daughter. Surprisingly quickly, a zoo keeper found her and brought her to the office. She wasn't upset in the least. She had followed a school group out of the tunnels and around the zoo. As far as she was concerned, she wasn't lost. I on the other hand was, while incredibly relieved to find her, fuming and in no mood to stay at the zoo. She was deeply aggrieved when I exclaimed, "That's it we're going home!"

Story 2: St Lukes Mall

I was shopping at St Lukes Mall with my two daughters. One was around 4, the other around 1 years old. One in a buggy and one on foot. We were in the Farmers clothing department.
Anyone who's ever attempted to shop for clothes with preschoolers knows this was a fool's errand. The clothing racks in Farmers seem to be set to just the right height and density, to provide perfect cover for children seeking to hide from their parents. I turned my back for a second, and my daughter had disappeared from view.

There was no way to scan the shop for her, she could have been a few feet away but completely hidden by the densely-packed clothing racks. I called out for her and received no response. I started combing the aisles in a systematic pattern, all the while getting further away from ground zero. No sign. I enlisted the help of staff. No one had seen her.

Farmers had two stories, which increased the challenge. My first thought was that she wouldn't leave the shop. So I did several circuits of each floor to no avail. Finally, reluctantly, I had to leave the shop. I was on my own, no one to leave on guard in the shop. I headed for the information desk. Luckily there she was sitting, calmly colouring in. The staff were just about to put out the announcement on the loudspeaker. My daughter had apparently tried to tell the lady her phone number, and because she was only three they hadn't believed that she would actually know it. So hadn't bothered to try phoning. Anyway, again a great sense of relief and another lesson learned - Farmers has a rack environment perfect for losing kids in. Don't go in there alone!

Story 3: Paris

Story 3: Paris

Just so you don't get to comfy and complacent about looking after your kids whereabouts once they're school age, I have the third, final and possibly most scary story to share.

Last year our family went on holiday to Europe. Our family includes my 82 year old mum, husband and two girls, one tween and one teenager.

We were sightseeing in Paris, making use of the Hop-on-Hop-off bus to see the landmarks. This was our main means of transport around the city. While this worked out great most of the time, the drawback was that the whole circuit took a couple of hours to get around - longer if the traffic was bad.

We had split up from my husband at around midday. He had decided to go back to the hotel and charge his phone. He had booked a Blue Bike evening tour of Paris for himself and my eldest daughter. He knew having his phone would be vital for navigation and safety. The rest of us stayed on the bus wanting to visit Notre Dame before we finished for the day. By the time we'd viewed the cathedral, eaten something, visited the bathroom and got back on the next bus - it was probably 3ish. This seemed like plenty of time to meander back on the bus. Then do the half an hour walk back to the hotel before the bikers headed off to catch the metro at around 6.

We underestimated Paris traffic. The bus chugged on, and while I tried to keep in touch with my husband, I could see my battery life beginning to drain away. As it got later and later I began to wonder if we should hop off the bus and take a taxi home, but finding a taxi and then communicating the address, all seemed a bit too hard. Things were getting really down to the wire with timing, and all our phones had dropped to a single-figure battery percentage. When we finally arrived at our stop, there was just enough time to get back for my daughter to meet my husband. Just not at the speed my 82 year old mum walked.

I made a big call, and in hindsight, it was a big mistake. I gave my daughter my phone with about 5% battery life and she and my younger daughter took off in the direction of the hotel. We'd made the trip several times and I was pretty sure the girls knew the way, but she had the phone just in case. My mum and I started at a more leisurely pace back to the hotel. It was dusk and after walking for too long, we began to worry that we had gotten lost. Buildings were all looking the same and yet unfamiliar. My mum was getting tired and the trip taking longer than expected. I decided we'd better get a taxi to save my mums legs and get us home quicker. I stopped a cab and with some difficulty, explained our address. The taxi driver kindly pointed out that it was just around the corner, so with great relief we arrived back at the hotel. Only to be met by my husband and the words I'll never forget,

"Where are the girls?"

"What do you mean!"

I said in horror. At the pace we were walking, getting lost and chatting to the cabby, they should have been home ages ago. "They went off ahead. Aren't they here?"* "No,"* he said, stress rising in his voice. We tried to call them, but no answer.

Swear words were said at this point. My husband and I split up and began frantically searching the local streets in both directions. It was getting darker now and all of a sudden we realised how seedy and dangerous Paris looked in the night time. I had walked as far away from the hotel as I dared, but had not seen them.

Panicking more than any time before, kicking myself for my stupid decision to split up - I began walking back to the hotel. Not sure what to do next. I found my husband walking in the opposite direction.

"They're back," He said.

They had arrived back at the hotel minutes beforehand, charged the phone and called him. They had missed the turn-off walking back, and had indeed gotten lost. My younger daughter had gotten very distressed and was crying. My elder daughter had used her head and heard some tourists speaking English and had asked for help. They had pointed her to a hotel who had helped them find their way home. We were of course incredibly relieved. That situation could have gone horribly wrong. We were very lucky it didn't.
My daughter and husband headed off for their bike tour, but were so late arriving that it had already gone. They enjoyed a night time stroll around the Arc de Triomphe. Took some photos and came home.

I've definitely learned a lesson or two. We have been lucky that our children have never been missing long and they were never hurt. My eldest is more adventurous and her pre-school getting lost experiences were not traumatic. The experience in Paris was much more freaky. But they kept their heads and figured it out. Shortly afterwards my daughter went on a school trip to Sydney. I felt better about her going, knowing that she could use her initiative in a sticky situation.

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