The panic of losing a young child in a crowd

There are certain nightmare scenarios that you pray will never happen to you when you’re out in public with your children.

I wrote yesterday about our pre-Christmas family trip to London at the weekend. It was a wonderful day but I omitted one incident that scared the bejesus out of me.

We lost Toby.

Picture the scene. London’s Leicester Square on a busy Sunday just before Christmas. Three energetic children being marshalled by five adults, so you think everyone has everyone covered. You walk into a shop, look around and suddenly realise that one of your kids is missing.

You think it’s the sort of thing that only happens to other people. Stupid, careless people. And then it happens to you.

Here is a summary of the thoughts that passed through my mind in the seconds immediately following this realisation.

He must be here somewhere, right?

Where did we last see him? Who saw him last? How long ago was that?

Okay, so what was he wearing? The grey coat? Or the blue one?

[Look outside the shop] I can see literally hundreds of people in the square. None of them is a sub-four-foot tall boy wearing a navy blue duffel coat, who is probably even now being carried off to become part of a child slavery ring. Or worse.

I am the worst parent in the world.

Shit. Shit. SHIT.

After three minutes of frantic searching – it felt like three hours – I noticed the mobile police unit parked on one corner of the square near where we had last seen Toby and, sure enough, there he was.

He spotted me as soon as I spotted him. I’d like to say there was a magical moment where we ran across the square in beautifully choreographed slow motion, as the crowds parted for us, and threw ourselves into each other’s arms to the tune of some suitably soaring musical accompaniment, probably something by Coldplay. (It’s always Coldplay on TV isn’t it?)

Of course, it was more mundane than that. But he did run over and throw his arms around me with a huge smile of relief on his face. Let me tell you, it was nothing compared to the relief I felt at that moment.

He assured me he was fine in that stoic way he has but I could see he was still shaking. I had a quick chat with the two police officers while they cancelled the lost child report they were in the middle of calling in and they assured me that children get lost more often than people realise.

They also told me that Toby had sought them out under his own steam and provided them with all the details they had asked him for.

In an instant I went from shame in myself to pride in my five-year-old son. We have taught our children what to do in the event of us ever becoming separated and our little boy had held his fear at bay and remembered our instructions to the letter.

Well done, Toby.

It had been a heart-stopping few minutes but it at least ended well. And he earned himself a new toy as a reward too.

Top tips

Here are five things you can do to ensure you and your children are reunited as quickly as possible in the event of becoming separated.

1. Don’t panic. It does no one any good. Stay calm, think clearly, retrace your steps and consider what you might do if you were lost.

2. Give your child your mobile number. Write it on their wrist or on a piece of paper so they can show it to someone who can then contact you. (I hadn’t done this on this occasion. Idiot.)

3. As a backup, if your children are able to, ensure they can provide key personal details. For starters, their name and date of birth will help police confirm and log their identity. If they can remember your home address, so much the better.

4. Agree a plan for what they should do in certain situations. So, for instance, our kids have been repeatedly drilled in the following three basic actions:

  • If we get off a bus or train and they don’t, they should get off at the next stop and wait for us to arrive.
  • If they get off a bus or train and we don’t, they should wait where they are for us to return to them.
  • If they are separated from us in any other way, they should either wait where they are or, if they’re not comfortable waiting, seek out a policeman or anyone wearing a uniform and provide contact details for us. (Which is what Toby did – good lad.)

5. If you don’t find them quickly, find the nearest police officer or police station. If someone has found your child and called it in, their details will be logged so that any officer can pass on their location to you once you have verified their identity.

Hopefully an incident like this will never happen. But, in the event that it does, it’s good to have a plan – better safe than sorry. I’m glad that we did, that’s for sure.

Do you have any other tips?


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