When you look around in a crowded public place and don’t immediately see your child, the panic starts to build. It’s slow at first. Maybe they’re hiding behind something or went into the bathroom. You scan the crowd. If you’ve got someone with you, you urge them to check the bathrooms while you keep searching. They were just there.
The panic gets stronger. You feel dizzy. Your child isn’t in the bathroom. They aren’t hiding nearby. Your heart starts pounding. The crowd is a blur. You run to the bathroom and crawl on the floor, checking the stalls. You yell your child’s name over and over, louder and louder, though you can barely hear it over the buzzing in your ears. They’re gone. Your child is lost.
For me, this was a scene played out two years ago at King’s Island and it was the scariest day of my life.
We were wrapping up a long, fun day riding roller coasters by making a stop at the bathroom before heading home. My mom, dad, sister, niece, nephew, daughter, youngest son and I stopped at the bathroom. My 6 year old son, Rilee, did not. He kept walking. It only took a second for him to get swept up in the crowd and who knows how long to notice the people he was walking next to were not his family.
A security guard found us because obviously I stood out in the crowd, running around and yelling in full blown panic mode. I showed her a picture of Rilee on my phone. She wrote down his description and called it out to the other security guards on her radio.
It was physically impossible for me to stand still. I had to find him. I walked and looked. It was getting dark when I finally saw him. He was walking with a security guard. He had been gone for twenty excruciating minutes.
After a lot of crying and hugging I asked Rilee and the security guard a bunch of questions.
Apparently my son had walked pretty far before he noticed he wasn’t with his family. Then he went into a food area at which point an adult asked him if he was lost and took him to an employee who then found a security guard. I have always told my children that if they can’t find me to ask a “worker” for help, meaning someone who works at the place where we are, someone behind the counter or in a uniform. I like to think my son went into the food area to ask for help but I’ll never know for sure. I was shocked at how so nonchalant Rilee was about the situation. He wasn’t scared at all. I don’t think he realized how serious it was.
But it is serious. To help your child know what to do if you become separated, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) recommends the following before you head out to a crowded place.
AGES 3 TO 4
Tell your child that if he doesn’t see you he should sit right down on the ground and that you’ll come get him. Stress that he should never leave the area to go look for you, but he can call out “Mommy” or “Daddy,” which will let people know he’s lost.
AGES 5 TO 6
She should stay in one spot and keep an eye out for a “safe adult” — a woman with a child; a clerk in a uniform or behind a checkout counter; or a security guard or policeman. Your child should tell this adult that she’s lost, and give her full name.
AGES 7 AND UP
He should memorize the phone number of a close friend or relative so that he can ask a “safe adult” to call her for help.
For a long time after the incident at King’s Island, the “what if’s” invaded my thoughts. Now, I often make an effort to talk to my children about safety, though I hope I never have to live through another day like that again.