For about three months now we’ve had issues with Heike running off. We’ll be out doing groceries or at the playground, and the next thing I know she’ll be gone, which always causes about 10 seconds of panic until I spot her hiding or checking out something shiny in the distance.
I’ve known it was becoming a problem and even my parents had mentioned it when they were here visiting. But I hadn’t really known what to do about it, or really tried. We’ve had a few chats about using our listening ears and consequences for running off (which is difficult – I try to use logical consequences and the most logical consequence for running off is getting lost/killed!). But I knew I wasn’t doing enough about it and have frankly just been too tired and had too much on my plate and let it slide.
Which brings us to Sunday night, a group picnic on the (crowded) beach at dusk with two kids in tow for the Mid Autumn Festival. We really should have seen it as a recipe for disaster regardless, as both kids made a beeline for the water and we weren’t prepared for swimming, and the fading light made it difficult to keep an eye on them. While I decided not to drink in order to keep a better eye on the kids there was alcohol involved and all the other kids there were older.
We basically had a really stressful time and just as we were packing up to leave, I turned to say something to Justus and laugh at something funny Walter was doing. I took a picture. And when I turned back, Heike was gone.
There were around 10 people at the picnic, adults and kids, and I did a quick scan to confirm she wasn’t with them. I then did a scan of the outer perimeters and still couldn’t see her. It had only been a matter of 15-20 seconds – how far could she have gone? But she was nowhere to be found.
I started freaking out and ran down the beach calling her name. I knew she had been carrying an open umbrella, which was also nowhere to be seen, so she should have been easy to spot. But I couldn’t see any umbrellas. Then again, it was really dark. I couldn’t see many details at all. I saw Justus following me down the beach and screamed at him to go check the other direction.
Our friends were chatting and laughing, oblivious to what was happening. As the seconds ticked by I ran to them and asked them to help. It was amazing how quickly they mobilised – two in charge of watching the remaining kids and the rest of the adults on patrol. A local Hong Kong woman who was sitting behind us and heard the conversation picked up her phone to call the police. At this point I completely lost it – it had been a few minutes now and my instinct (as, I found out later, was Justus’) was that if anything had happened she’d been grabbed. Because it was that fast. My friend could tell I was freaking out and started telling me to stay calm as I raced up to two security guards screaming that my daughter was missing. And just at that moment, I saw Justus coming down the stairs from the road holding a small person clutching an umbrella. She had gone to the bus stop!
I of course burst into tears and was basically in shock, all after a total of maybe four minutes. I can’t begin to imagine what parents go through when their child is really, properly missing – in those four minutes I thought about where she could be, a range of things that could have happened, lamented the fact that there was alcohol involved, felt gutted that I’d yelled at her minutes earlier. It was awful.
Naturally after the emotional part was over Heike was in real, serious trouble and still is. Triple secret probation as my Dad used to call it. No TV, no iPad, no play group, no treats. But also some effort on my part to curb the running off. Everyone I speak to seems to have a story of when they lost their child at Coles so I knew there must be some information out there and there is, loads.
A few of the tips that I’m now using with Heike (who is four, so old enough to understand what she should be doing and why) are:
- Explaining before we leave what I expect of her – listening, staying close to Mummy, not running away etc.
- Outlining the consequences for not meeting expectations – sadly if I say “…then we will go home” Heike often responds, “Great, I love staying home!” so I usually have to make it something like you will lose your TV time or no dessert for x days.
- Reinforcing expectations while we are out, as well as praise – Heike loves to hear, “Wow, you are staying so close to Mum! You’re really listening today” so I have to try to remember to give positive reinforcement. I’ll often then throw in “I think we can definitely have some ice cream tonight after dinner”!!
- I also read about the concept of an “I can touch you walk” and a “Free walk”. The idea is you introduce each of these “walks” to your children and use the “I can touch you walk” (walking at arms distance or less from parent) when you’re in a dangerous environment e.g. by a road. At other times you can happily exclaim “It’s really safe here, you can free walk!”. Heike is at that age where she quite likes having a specific rule to follow so I imagine this could work well.
It’s great when kids get older and have the ability to listen and reason, but also so frustrating when you know they understand you and still do the opposite of what you ask! I’m learning as always that with every year some things get easier and there are new challenges to overcome. Thank GOODNESS she is safe.