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Whether it is a trip to your local park, a familiar family holiday location, shopping or the wilds of Mongolia, keeping your children safe inevitably causes stress, worry and anxiety.
With mobile phones, instant messaging and GPS trackers, technology can help to keep your children safe but it is not 100% reliable. Constant vigilance and monitoring prevent most safety issues but as all parents know, even with the best care and attention, problems can and do happen – often in a split second.
Travelling with children is not something that should be undertaken lightly or frivolously, and the never-ending high alert parents feel on a trip can be draining and exhausting.
I get nervous about the childrens’ safety before each and every trip we take, no matter where we are going, and regularly had nightmares in the weeks leading up to our round the world trip.
Avoiding risk is impossible – there is a safety risk as soon as you leave your front door – but we believe it is important to mitigate risk as much as possible in advance and to be prepared.
The safety procedures outlined below are measures we take to help ensure our childrens safety and some are easier to implement than others due to the age of our children. It is an essential part of preparing kids for travel. They may seem paranoid and overprotective to some and woefully naïve and inept to others. Whatever actions you choose to implement, do it consistently and safety precautions will become second nature.
Safety Tips For Before You Leave Home.
Create an emergency contact list.
Provide each child with an emergency contact list to keep in their luggage. Explain when and how it should be used; should the unthinkable happen to both parents, the children will know who to contact at home. Encourage the children to memorise at least one number from this list in case they cannot have access to the list. Leave copies of the list with the relevant named people at home so they are able to contact other people on the list. Keep a copy in adult luggage too for third parties to access help for babies and younger children.
Choose a ‘safe word.’
As a family, decide in advance on a safe word; a personal word that has meaning to your family that is not generally used in daily conversation- perhaps the name of a favourite toy, pet or place. When out and about – or particularly in the company of others – if anyone (parent and child) feels unsafe, unsure or uncomfortable, uttering the safe word means everyone drops everything and leaves immediately. No questions asked, no delay. Luckily, we have never had to use our safe word but we have practised using it and have reinforced when, how and why to use it.
Choose a family password.
It is all too easy for someone to learn the name of your child making it appear that they are a friend and someone to be trusted; we hate personalised items of clothing or accessories for this reason!
Drill into your child that they must ask for this password if they are approached by someone they do not know, no matter where they are.
Does your child know that the person supposedly picking them up or waiting at a rendezvous point is a trusted person that you have actually asked to meet them? Is the person telling your child to ‘come this way’ someone to be trusted? Or the person asking them to open the door to the holiday accommodation because a parent has allegedly sent them to fix something?
Sadly, not even friends, colleagues, acquaintances – and the old favourite ‘someone in uniform’ – can be fully trusted. Have a family password and teach your child to ask ‘what is the password?’
I got this password idea from an article I read about a mother who had a car accident with her children and had to go to the hospital. Her unhurt children were waiting in a corridor whilst the mother was being treated. They were approached by someone ‘wearing a white Doctors coat’ who told them to come this way, that their mother had told him to pick up them up. The family had a password system and when the children asked for the password the person ran away. Sadly, most child abductions are not planned, they are opportunistic.
Talk about ‘stranger danger.’
This is a difficult topic to talk about with your children, it shatters a childs’ trusting innocence and I hated discussing it with my children. Plus, when you are travelling and meeting new people daily, you do not want your child to be afraid or distrusting of every new face.
But children need to be aware of their own personal safety, to be alert to any unusual behaviour of others and they need to know what to do if someone, anyone – even a familiar person – is making them feel uncomfortable, unsafe and scared.
Practise what to say and do in these situations. We talked about saying no, finding a parent, how it is acceptable in a possible abduction situation to kick, scratch, bite and scream. We taught them to shout ‘this is not my mum/dad’ to draw attention to their plight.
We have taught our older children never to approach a car if someone inside has a query, to run to a shop or nearby building if they feel they are being followed, to try to walk facing oncoming traffic and so on.
It is, without doubt, a horrible conversation to have with children but sadly, it is an essential one.
Create identity cards
Over the years we have tried different methods of the children carrying identification information. We tried velcro wristbands (the kids found them itchy and sweaty and never kept them on), we used permanent markers to write our phone numbers on their arms (I disliked using such ink on their bodies) and we tried stickers (which kept falling off). We felt GPS trackers would give us information but not our child.
Currently, I make identity cards before each trip and slip them inside small plastic lanyards I bought from Amazon. They clip or tie onto our childrens’ clothing – we haven’t yet lost a lanyard and they have proved very versatile and durable. I include ‘I am lost, please call my parents’, our mobile phone numbers and add the phone number of our accommodation or host. I translate these into the language of the country or countries we are visiting and bring blank copies for unexpected accommodation choices.
Practise what to do if someone is lost.
Agree as a family what to do if someone gets lost or separated and role play the procedure. Each family will have their own preferred way of doing this – stay still and wait, go back to the last place you were at, find someone in uniform but we feel each of these comes with its own risk.
Right or wrong, we teach our children to go to the nearest shop and tell the person behind the counter that they need help, to ask them to phone us using the information on their lanyard but not to go anywhere with that person.
Practise what to do if you get separated on public transport.
Know what to do if you get separated on public transport. Trains, trams, buses and underground trains are so busy and doors shut very quickly! It is frighteningly easy for families to get separated. We have agreed that whoever is on the transport continues on to the next stop, gets off and wait for us to collect them at the ticket office. We will either be following on the next train/tram or will make the trip in a taxi, whichever is quickest. Make sure adults know the system too!!!
Do your research.
Check your country’s foreign office travel advice and warnings for the country you will be visiting.
Research safe areas to visit and to stay. Check reviews for accommodation particularly those written by other families. Cross reference with other sites – we have found family reviews on Tripadvisor to be more accurate than those on booking sites.
Research current scams – not to frighten yourself but to be prepared. It can really help when the situation arises.
Check seasonal weather conditions and any potential natural disaster risks. If you are visiting an earthquake-prone country, the chances of experiencing one are tiny, but would you know what to do if you are there at the wrong time? Are you staying in a tsunami risk area – what would you do? The right action, taken without delay, could save you and your family.
Research flora and fauna -this is where my husband thinks I get paranoid! But to a non local how do you know what poison ivy looks like, which spider is poisonous or whether the local cats carry rabies? Again, the chances of anything happening are very slim but knowledge is a valuable preparation tool particularly when travelling with children.
Travel safety tips for on the road.
Carry an identity card
Give each child the laminated ID card/lanyard to carry daily. If you are staying in an Airbnb or private accommodation, add the address and telephone number of the host. We never travel without them.
Carry a business card from your accommodation.
If you are staying at a hotel or hostel, give each family member a business card from the hotel/hostel with the name, address and phone number of the accommodation in the local dialect. Add to the ID lanyard. Attach one to a stroller or car seat and slip one into your passport holder and money belt. If the reception desk does not have cards, ask the manager/owner to write one out for you.
Set a meeting point.
In crowded shops, malls, airports, train stations and so on where you may be for several hours, designate a meeting point as soon as you arrive, in case you get separated. And make sure all the adults know it too!
Report a lost child IMMEDIATELY.
Report a lost child immediately, before you search for them yourself. Time is so important, don’t waste it! Many department stores, theme parks, transport hubs etc have a lock down system – when a child is reported missing, the venue goes ‘into lock down’ to prevent anyone from exiting until a full, accurate description is given of the missing child.
Do not waste time looking yourself – instigate the lock down. It is better to be embarrassed due to finding your mischievous child hiding under a display unit (number three child!) than to have missed the chance of preventing your child being taken off the site.
If you do not think or know that the venue has a lock down system – and if it is possible to safely do so – split up and one adult head immediately for the exit to create your own ‘lockdown’ observance.
Circulate a description loudly and immediately.
If possible to do so, make it known loudly and immediately to those around you that you have lost your child. Be loud and descriptive. Word will spread quickly.
I read a horrifying article about a child lost on a beach. The parents followed a military-style search technique shouting a full description of their lost child. The accurate description, rather than just ‘a lost child’ spread quickly. Thankfully the child was found soon afterwards further down the beach; he had been led away by a man who quietly dropped the child’s hand and walked away when he had overheard the child’s description being shouted around.
Take a photo for the day.
For trips to very crowded places – beach, theme park, sporting event etc – consider taking a ‘start of the day’ photo of your children. They don’t need to know that the reason for the photos is that if they get lost you know exactly what they are wearing to aid searchers.
Make your children easy to spot!
Consider dressing children in bright colours or patterns making them easy to spot in a crowd. I wouldn’t stand a chance doing this with my eldest children but my youngest child is still agreeable enough to be dressed in tartan trousers and a bright yellow fleece! You could spot him a mile away!!!
Think about how you move around.
Move in pairs to prevent someone being separated alone. Encourage your children to look out for each other, to never leave someone alone. Always go to a public toilet together and leave together.
In very busy places, and particularly when boarding public transport, we try to walk ‘one in front, one behind.’ This means one adult with children is in front but one adult is always behind. This prevents you losing a child who has stopped to gawp at a shop window or tie their shoelaces. It also prevents the tube or train doors closing thereby trapping one child inside alone and the rest of you outside!
Look like a local.
Try not to stand out. Try to blend into your surroundings with what you wear and how you behave. Don’t wear inappropriate clothing for your surroundings, don’t carry your camera over your shoulder, don’t stand on the street checking your phone or a map (pop into a shop and do it discreetly). Try not to look lost, even when you are!
Be confident, look like you know what you are doing and where you are going.
Carry money carefully and sensibly.
Divide your money between your family when out and about. Consider giving your children some emergency money – enough to make a phone call or to get a taxi back to your accommodation.
Use money belts or neck wallets, preferably with RFID blocking. Hide money under an insole in your shoe (for a cheesy flavour!) or inside the lining of your underwear – just don’t forget it is there on laundry day! Be prepared so that if you loose a bag, or are pick pocketed or robbed, you still have enough money to get back to your accommodation.
Keep in regular contact with people at home.
Travelling without ties or commitments is alluring but keeping in contact with someone at home is essential. If you have an accident, get sick – or worse – someone will know your most recent location. If you are in regular contact which suddenly ceases, the person at home will know it is out of character and can raise the alarm quickly.
Keep an eye on the local and national news and weather.
Unrest, disputes and potential bad weather situations arise quickly and at anytime creating risks and travel disruption.
Avoid the ‘safe holiday’ bubble.
It is easy to fall into the ‘everything is wonderful on holiday’ trap. Constantly remind yourself ‘would I do this at home?’
Just because locals can ride as a family on a scooter doesn’t mean you and your family should or could.
If you use a car seat for each and every journey at home, why stop when abroad?
Before leaving home, research the car seat regulations for the country you are travelling to – they vary a lot from country to country! If you bring your car seat from home, will it be legal in the country you are visiting?
Based on this information, decide whether you want to travel with your own car seat, purchase a travel car seat or hire a seat at your destination.
We used a lightweight, portable Bubble Bum inflatable booster seat for our youngest son throughout our family gap year. It packed up very small and was tough and durable.
Travelling safely is a major concern for all travellers but it is greatly enhanced when you are responsible for the safety of your children. Unfortunately, nowhere is safe – there are risks and dangers associated with every activity or destination. And whilst you can prepare yourself against possible man-made dangers, there is still the unpredictability of nature to contend with.
Do your research. Have uncomfortable discussions as a family. Be prepared.
Above all, trust your instincts about people and places. Your children’s safety and your own comes before being polite.