When you’re a parent of a small child, life can be filled with little moments of panic.

You’re in the mall. You’ve diligently held your child’s hand or carried them across the parking lot. You keep them close, always within sight. Then you pause to check the price on an item on the sales rack. You look down to check on them. They’re gone.

Your rational mind tells you, they can’t be far. It was just a few seconds. They merely wandered toward a colorful curiosity. A few moments pass. You spot them, amazed at how far a 4-year-old’s legs can carry them in the space of just 10 seconds.

In those 10 seconds, however, your mind races with horrible thoughts. What if those few seconds turned into minutes, hours or days? Fortunately, cases of child abduction are extremely rare. Luckily, if your child wanders out of your sight, a well-meaning store employee or security guard will likely keep them safe while they track you down. Nonetheless in a crowded mall during the holidays, those few moments of vulnerability can be frightening.

Safety experts say it’s important your children to know exactly what to do if they’re separated. Planning is key, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). Your child should know what to do if they become separated:

• Teach your children to look for people who can help: security guards and store employees, but never a stranger.

• Your child should know to stay close to where they last saw you. Never go looking through the mall for mom or dad, and never leave the mall.

• Practice and remind your children of what to do often, so they won’t panic.

Many parents find themselves hurried and distracted during the holidays. The NCMEC advises going to the mall early to avoid crowds, allowing you to take your time with your children. Never leave them alone, even when they’re going to the bathroom, or they seem pre-occupied with a toy in the store or a mall playground. Remember, predators go where the children are.

Remind your children that a stranger is anyone they don’t know. Kids may conjure up images of “bad people” in their minds, but predators rarely look threatening. If anything, predators find their victims by appealing to them. They may tell your child they know you. They may comfort them, or use a logo or character on their shirt to identify with them and gain their trust. The NCMEC advises never putting your child’s name or any identifying information on their clothing.

As your children get older, you may feel it’s time to give them more freedom, perhaps allowing them to shop on their own (with friends, never alone). The NCMEC says with older kids, make sure there’s a clear time and place to pick them up, making sure your child has a means to communicate with you if they’re running late.

And even older kids should know about stranger danger. Not long ago at ABC15, we reported a story of a Chandler man arrested for sexual exploitation of a minor. According to police, he would approach young girls at the Chandler mall, telling them they were beautiful and they “could be a model.” He would then invite them to his “studio” where he would photograph them, telling them they could make more money if they were willing to do swimsuit or lingerie modeling. He convinced some of the girls to even pose nude. When police searched his home, they found thousands of images. Some of the girls were as young as 15.

It’s scary stuff, and trust me, as a dad myself, I’ve had a few of those panicky moments. I’ve always believed as a parent, we’re both protectors and teachers, and safety ultimately depends on what our kids know, and the choices they make. We can’t always be there.

To all the moms, dads, and kids out there, here’s wishing you a happy, and safe, holiday.

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