Lost Child, Lost Mom

by Kelly Bartlett on July 27, 2010

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IMG_4054Let me tell you this story of what happened the other day.  While we were out, my son disappeared from my sight for about 10 minutes.  I tell you, not because it’s entertaining, or to share my experience as a warning that “something like this could happen to you someday, but because when this happened, I didn’t react the way I thought I would.  It seems like my AP skills went out the window, and I’m trying to rationalize that.  For a few moments, my child was lost, and I lost myself as a parent.

One second he was there, and literally the second after I stooped to pick up my bag he wasn’t.  We were in the locker room of our health club, just after a swim, getting ready to leave & go to lunch.  Did he run ahead to wait for us? Sometimes he runs to wait by the basketball courts, but when I got there, he wasn’t.

Did he go into the men’s locker room?  Sometimes he thinks it’s funny to run in there because he knows I can’t follow.  My daughter was with us, and while I don’t think she should go in the men’s locker room anymore, she is under age 6 and technically allowed in.  So she went through the men’s locker room, looking for him, calling his name, checking the showers.  No brother.

She and I walked around downstairs, checking places he might have gone to watch exercisers or wait for us. With still no luck, we went upstairs through the restaurant, thinking that maybe he assumed we were going up there for lunch after swimming. Nope.

OK, now I am really annoyed.  I had the timing of our morning worked out perfectly.  I had a meeting to get to—an API meeting, actually, of which I am the leader, no less!—and now we were going to be late.  All because my 4 year old decided it would be a good time to play hide and seek.

I have my daughter check the men’s locker room again.  Is he seriously not in there?  That is his favorite game to play!  As I stood outside the door listening to her call his name over and over, for the first time, a slight sense of worry began to creep into my mind.  Until this point, I hadn’t actually been worried about his safety, but now, as I had checked and rechecked the places he would be, now it was there.

I headed up to the front lobby and asked a lady at the desk if she had seen a little boy walk out.  She said no, but the club has an emergency code they could issue so that all exits would be covered.  “Would you like me to issue it?”

Should I?  Could he really have completely disappeared so quickly?  It was one second!  Are we at the point in our search to turn it into a bigger deal by issuing the emergency code?  I guess so.  I’m still hesitant that it is even necessary, but how can I say no?  No, please don’t take that extra safety precaution for my missing son.

As I tell her to go ahead an issue the announcement, I am wondering what the code is for a lost child; how the staff would have decided during their security training what word could be easily remembered for a lost child.  Just then her voice rang over the loud speakers throughout the club, “Attention staff, we have a code ABC.”  Oh.  That makes sense.

So staff members were now moving to station themselves at every exit throughout the health club.  I appreciated that, but I still didn’t think he left the building.  I felt sure he could not possibly be any further than the locker room area.  As soon as Ms. Emergency Code came around the desk to start directing the staff, I heard her say, “Is that him?”  I looked up and saw the small figure of a boy—my boy—peeking around the edge of…wait for it…the MEN’S LOCKER ROOM door.

I knew what I was “supposed” to do in a situation like this, and I know that what I actually did, did not match up with that ideal.  I thought I was supposed to run up to him, give him a hug, tell him, “I was worried about you!” with only concern and love in my voice.  Hug him, hold him, tell him I’m so glad he’s safe.  Though I was relieved to see him, I did not run to him like I always thought a mom of a missing child should upon their reunion.  I was still furious and upset, and now that I had him again, I wanted nothing more than to get out quickly and calmly.

I walked towards him, and he walked towards me. I did not get down and hug him.  I took his hand and said, trying to sound casual (mostly for the benefit of others around me) yet incredulous, “Where were you?” To which he replied, “I was playing hide and seek!”  Neither one of us had gotten to the point of being genuinely scared.  Of all the places to disappear, our experience happened in a cushy private health club where we need codes and cards to do anything, and where there’s a large staff caring enough to station themselves around all of the exits, many of whom know my family by name.  Which is probably why he felt safe enough to run on without me anyway.

Because of this, the main emotion that had been circulating in me throughout the whole search was anger. Don’t get me wrong, after about 5 minutes of searching, I was starting to worry.  He wasn’t turning up in the few places I expected him to be, so, yes, I had worrisome thoughts running through my head.  But I’d say, in those moments, my feelings broke down like this:

  • Anger: 80%
  • Annoyance: 15%
  • Fear: 4%
  • Embarrassment: 1%

When he finally showed up, I KNEW I wasn’t supposed to yell at him for what he put me through.  That would be selfish.  And it’s not like he intended to put me through the wringer.  Berating him for playing a “game” that he thought was fun would only make him feel bad for something he was doing unintentionally; for being himself.

But the yelling instinct was there.  And because of the 1% embarrassment I was experiencing, I didn’t want to express myself in the main lobby of the health club.  Now that he was recovered, I wanted to get out fast, and hopefully calm down before I said anything I knew I shouldn’t.

I thanked Code ABC Lady and apologized to her.  That was also the 1% embarrassment speaking.  She was, of course, not put out at all, and just happy that he was back with me.  I grabbed my son’s hand and we walked quickly out of the club, my daughter trailing a few steps behind.

My emotions came spilling out at the car when I opened my son’s door and told him to “get in” and my voice cracked.  He looked up at me and instantly knew I was not feeling my usual self.  Not even my usual “mom’s-upset” self.  This was much more, and I needed him to know it.

The tears came fast and furious as I sat in the driver’s seat and waited for him to buckle himself.  I was crying hard, and through the sobs I was yelling at him, “I didn’t know where you were!  You weren’t there; you were gone!  We were calling you and calling you, and you weren’t answering!” Throughout the whole ordeal I had been so angry, but the words that came out now revealed my true feelings; I love my son, and I had been afraid.

My son said nothing, which is unusual.  Normally he protests, talks back, explains, justifies, and whines, trying to defend himself.  But now, in the midst of my sobbing, he could tell the seriousness of what happened.

After I had calmed down (not even close to fully, but enough to drive), I realized that with all of my knowledge of AP and positive discipline—how a parent “should” respond in this situation—I honestly don’t think I could have reacted any differently.  I feel awful for being so angry with him.  Here I am, supposedly knowledgeable on positive parenting, but when the “moment of truth” arrived, being positive was not foremost in my mind.  Was I angry because he was in the men’s locker room the whole time, which I was sure of all along?  If he had reappeared from somewhere else in the club, or had actually been lost or scared, would I have been as upset, or just relieved?

I don’t know those answers, and I never want to find out.  I know that I don’t love the way I handled things; I want to be a better parent than that.  My emotions were running so strong that all I could think of was making things “right” again, in any way necessary.  I don’t plan to dwell on this; I am right back on the positive parenting path with a new understanding of the instinct that drives parents to treat their children less-than-ideally.  It happens.  Children are human, and they act in ways that are developmentally appropriate.  Well, we are human, too; complete with all of the instincts that go with it.

Kelly is an API Leader and a Certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator in Portland, Oregon.  She blogs at Parenting From Scratch.

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Kelly Bartlett (36 Posts)

Kelly Bartlett is the author of "Encouraging Words For Kids" and "Help! My Child is Addicted to Screens (Yikes! So Am I.)" She is an API leader and Certified Positive Discipline Educator in Portland Oregon.


{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah July 27, 2010 at 6:31 am

There is NO worse feeling than when your child is missing! And it is impossible to judge how you will react until you are in that situation! When your child is missing, you revert to adrenaline and base instinct! It is not an indication of you as a person or a parent, but rather just how you react to an overwhelmingly stressful and unimaginable situation.

My daughter has been lost twice: once at the mall when she was two, and once at the state fair when she was 4.

Both times I lost all capacity for rational thought! When she was two and lost at the mall, instead of calmly and rationally thinking about what happened and notifying mall security (I had even SEEN some security guys!) I just sobbed and called her name. Luckily for me, a jewelry store employee found her and called security, who then approached mindless me.

When she was four and lost at the state fair, even though I had BEEN in the lost-child situation before, I reacted the exact same way! I sobbed and panicked and called her name. It was my husband who reacted well in an emergency and had the presence of mind to notify the sheriff’s deputies and run to the lost parent center. (Where my daughter was found, happily eating the candy and doughnuts the sheriff was giving her!)

I assure you I am not as mindless and panicky as I was in those situations. But when your child is missing, whether by the child playing hide-and-seek or the child just wandering off, you run on pure base instinct. There is no more terrifying situation.

Please don’t be so hard on yourself! You WEREN’T yourself! Your child was gone! You were an adrenaline machine! EVERYBODY reacts differently to that influx of adrenaline! I panicked and cried. You reacted differently. That doesn’t indicate the kind of person or parent you are AT ALL!

I won’t say “learn from this and do better next time” because obviously I didn’t learn!

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Sarah Baca July 27, 2010 at 7:18 am

I must be honest and say that I completely disagree that you should have handled that differently. I think you handled it *exactly* like you should have. He now has NO DOUBT in his mind that what he did terrified you and it is not okay. You didn’t call him names or shame him in any way. You showed your genuine emotions (which shows that it’s okay to not be calm and collected all the time). You separated yourself from public before you lost it (also a skill we try to teach our children). It sounds like all of your comments were focused on how you felt, so he could see that his actions had direct consequences on your feelings because you love him and you were worried about him.

I must admit that you reacted much better than I would have. I think you did very well.

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ladykay July 27, 2010 at 7:30 am

Kelly, I don’t think you reacted badly at all. Yes, he was just playing a game, but it was a dangerous and unacceptable game. You didn’t scream at him or hit him, or anything of that nature. You expressed your very real feelings and it is likely that his seeing that will make much more of an impression on him than if you had calmly and rationally explained why it was not an acceptable game, especially since your reaction was so out of your norm.

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Kayris July 27, 2010 at 7:33 am

Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with expressing anger in a scenario like this. Children need to see that their actions have consequences. A 4 year old is definitely old enough to understand basic rules and that it’s not okay to play hide and seek in a crowded public place, especially in the men’s locker room. What would have been, IMO, an inappropriate response would have been to berate your child in front of others, spank him, or belittle him, and it doesn’t sound like you did any of those things.

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Our Sentiments July 27, 2010 at 7:35 am

I never even thought there was a proper way to react in these situations. Of course hitting would be a no-go with me, but I would think it be ridiculous had you reacted calm, cool and collected.

I will tell you my story, if you may. K was pushing two and a half and we where in the department store. She is usually good in public places. She stays with me, the only thing she does that would be considered to some annoying is, she will try to pick up products and tell me what they are for. While putting them back she might drop some, but she cleans them up or when she’s tired she cries.

This one day we were getting lotion, she was right there, beside me picking up the products. I was talking to her. I was telling her I could not wait to put the new outfit on. How she will like her new toothbrush; I looked towards where she was – GONE.

I looked around me in a circle – GONE, I called her – GONE. My eyes began to water, I screamed out her name – GONE, I told her it was not funny to come out – still GONE. All the while I am thinking bad things. I am thinking on how fast the time flew, how far someone could have gotten with her. Other awful things, coming from an abused background you can get the drift. My fact was she was gone.

I dropped all my items on the floor, I was like a pacing rat. I walked around the shelving unit, still gone. I seen a lady who seemed to be in the same isle, if she seen her, nope… It was getting hard to breath at this point, but I was still calling her name. I was sure something happened, because I could tell in my voice that there was something wrong. She should sense that we are not playing, she’s good at picking up feelings. I told her she won to come out please. Nothing.

I did find her, but not before I was in complete tears and my breathing was shallow. She was under the clothing racks, the ones that have two circles to hang clothing on? She was under there, giggling. I was mad and she knew it by looking at me. I hugged her and yelled don’t you ever do that again (I don’t know why I said that, because she thought we were having fun). I told her we don’t play hide and seek in stores, and when Mommy calls for you, you come, the game is over. She has not done it since, but I am sure one day she will.

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Dionna @ Code Name: Mama July 27, 2010 at 8:34 am

I completely agree with Kayris – there’s nothing wrong with your child seeing you expressing your authentic emotions – it’s not like you were screaming/humiliating him, etc.

My 2 yr old wandered off for about 1.5 minutes once at a store – he was under a clothing rack hiding, which is exactly where I knew he would be, it just took me a minute to find him amongst the clothes. I didn’t cry or yell, but I did tell him I was upset and scared when I couldn’t see him. Seeing my emotions made him see that it wasn’t a game.

I do agree that if the situation were ever to come again for me, I’d want to add in some big hugs and love though :) (which I don’t remember doing either)

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Adi July 27, 2010 at 2:59 pm

Isnt their choice of games our fault?
I have a 6 month old, I am severly unfamiliar with parenting (attached or other) but I do follow many attached parenting ideals. we have just begun with a funny game where we call out our little one’s name as if we are looking for her and then act all surprised when we look down… “O…. O….. where’s O??? any one see O? Hey!!! there you are! There’s O” and then we all giggle and she loves it.We see it as a name teaching kind of game. Isnt that teaching her that it’s funny to disappear and then show up? why would she understand otherwise? How could she understand that sometimes it may scare the **** out of mommy and its not appropriate or funny anymore? Im sure we have all played some kind of similar hide and seek games and I think the message is quite mixed. would love to hear your responses.
I know for sure that I am going to freak out if something of the sort happens to us. Im not even gonna kid myself otherwise.

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Erin W. / Beatnik Momma July 27, 2010 at 10:55 am

I’m also with Kayris on this one. I think that it is healthy for a child to see that his parent has emotion as well (other than the happy-I-love-you-oxytocin-induced kind.) and anger is certainly an emotion that a child needs to see from time to time. What I think the key concern when showing emotion is that you appropriately express your emotion. Were you justified in being angry with him at that time? Absolutely! Were you justified in being scared? Most definitely!

I think you handled yourself fairly well given the situation and I admire that you strive for better should something like this come up again.

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Amy July 27, 2010 at 4:45 pm

The fact that you feel silly for being worried in a “cushy” heath club rubs me the wrong way, honestly. Your kid is not less likely to be grabbed by rich white people than he is by poor people of color. Ugh. Moms worry, period. Your judgments about the relative risk of people from the “good” side of the tracks will only expose your child to MORE risk; look at the statistics of convicted pedophiles if you want proof. FAR more white guys on those lists.

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Amber July 27, 2010 at 4:50 pm

My 5-year-old is in a phase where she runs away and hides when we’re leaving a place she enjoys. I’ll admit, I become pretty irritated. I realize it’s a developmentally appropriate stage, but it pushes all of my parenting buttons. And I struggle with it.

I agree that it’s OK for our kids to see our emotions. It’s OK for them to understand that they can make us sad or angry. It’s also OK for them to understand that even when we feel that way, we still love them heart and soul.

I don’t have any great answers. I’m struggling with this myself. I guess I just want to say I’ve been there, I’ve felt as if I didn’t always handle it well, and I still honestly don’t even know what the best way to handle the hiding in public IS. You’re not alone.

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apprenticemom July 27, 2010 at 10:24 pm

I agree with everyone above who said they felt your reaction was completely appropriate in the circumstances. Why wouldn’t showing your fear be considered positive parenting? It seems like you are beating yourself up a bit for even feeling angry. Your feelings and your reaction or the way you ultimately handled the situation are two totally different things. You cannot change your feelings. They are what they are. You can only change what you do with those feelings. You did that. You showed your son the real fear you had felt. You did not take your anger out on him. You also didn’t completely hide your emotions or act as if what had happened was no big deal. You were truthful and authentic with your child. That sounds like positive parenting to me.

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Heather July 28, 2010 at 10:40 am

@ Adi – I think that as kids get older they CAN understand that in some situations expected behavior is different than in others. By four years old (even in the 2′s) they are learning all about that. So, yes, if you set down your 6 month old in a public place and he/she stared playing peek-a-boo and you lost sight of him/her – yes, it might be inappropriate to get upset – but by the ages they are in these stories they can learn from our reactions in different situations.
@Amy – I don’t believe that author said anything about the health club being ‘white’. I’m not sure where you got that from. I’m pretty sure cushy health clubs can and do have all kinds of people in them. I believe her point was that they had a lot of security measures in place to prevent and deal with situations such as this, and that she knew most of the staff and they knew her and her children and might recognize if something or someone were out of place. Even a ‘rich white guy’, as you put it.

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Kelly July 30, 2010 at 10:09 am

Heather, thank you so much for this comment…my sentiments exactly!

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victoria July 29, 2010 at 7:37 am

Scary story that most parents can totally relate to. The good news is that he was found safe and simply “playing a game”.
Your reaction of crying once the ordeal was over is extremely human. Your son’s own reaction to your tears and concern proves that he knew without a doubt that this was not a good game to play.
I think this will be one of those things that your family always remembers …”that day at the gym”. And, if it aids in keeping him and your daughter safe in the future, maybe it wasn’t such a bad day after all.

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Kelly July 30, 2010 at 10:06 am

Thanks to everyone who commented on this! I strive to use positive discipline every day with my kids, but when this happened, nothing about the experience *felt* positive. It just caused me to reflect on what happened and how I responded. I realized how, when, and why those strong maternal instincts kick in. I figured this story might get mixed reactions from readers. I appreciate all of your insightful comments! :)

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Kat July 30, 2010 at 11:27 am

“But now, in the midst of my sobbing, he could tell the seriousness of what happened.”

Sounds like you did exactly the right thing to me!

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Sharron July 30, 2010 at 1:17 pm

It was a scary situation, and while your son was not scared, it’s good that he knows how scared and upset you were. I think we’ve all been in similar situations and reacted emotionally first, logically second.

It’s okay for our children to see us with true emotion, as long as anger is not the only emotion we show. I’m guilty of getting angry first when I’m in a scary situation. It has taken me years to understand that the anger is just fear in disguise.

It’s important for all of us to remember that we are not just here to teach our children; they are here to teach us as well. You did great and I’m so glad your story has a happy ending.

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Tara August 4, 2010 at 1:30 pm

I am reading this while eating lunch at my desk and I just had to close my door so no one would see my tears. The *thought* of this happening with me and my 3 year old son is making me teary and shaking with fear.

I can’t imagine handling things any way other than exactly what you did.

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Kristol Scofield June 28, 2011 at 5:11 am

I realize this thread started almost a year ago but after reading it teary eyed i feel compelled to write my story. I found your blog while searching for help in dealing with my 7 year old son. He has a high amount of seperation anxiety, not just being away from mom but being lost in general. A close family member took him to a ball game, he cried all the way to the stadium for fear of getting lost and being left. He didn’t like school because if he missed the bus he could get locked out and left behind. It broke my heart that my beautiful son lies awake at night thinking and stressing all the ways we could “leave him behind”. Even more disheartening is its my fault. When my son was 5 a friend and myself each got hotel rooms. Right across the hall from one another we let our kids watch a movie in one room and gabbed in the other with the doors open. It seemed harmless. The kids fell asleep and my friend carried her girls to their room and i climbed in bed right next to my son. At some point he woke up, not realizing i was there next to him he ventured out the hall to the other room. Our door closed and locked behind him only to find another locked door across the hall. Fortunately my friend is light sleeper and heard the quiet tapping on her door. When she opened it my son was a wreck, softly sobbing, a quiet wreck. I don’t know how long he was out there panicked, not knowing what to do. How lucky was i that somebody with ill intentions wasn’t creeping around the corner, or that he didn’t go out the exit that was 10 feet away and would have locked him out of the building completely. I felt like God must have whispered in my friends ear to wake her. A year later simple seperation anxiety turned into real anxiety and has been progressing ever since. I know what i felt when i woke up to my friend knocking on my door. The feeling of relief and love came long after the tears, what ifs, and oh my gosh im a bad parent feelings had subsided. Rocking him both of us sobbing i knew how lucky i was and how much i loved him!

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