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What to do if your child goes missing

It is common to worry about your child running away. Young people have a lot going on in their lives and each year thousands go missing. The good news is that most missing child cases end with the child returning home safely. If you're worried a child is thinking about or has gone missing, read our advice so you know what to do. 

Why does a child run away? 

Young people go missing for different reasons. No case is the same. However, some reasons are more common than others:

  • Problems at school: they might be getting bullied or feeling the pressure of school work.
  • They're being groomed: young people who are being exploited, either in-person or online, can be manipulated into running away with an abuser.
  • Family problems: if parents are fighting a lot with each other or their children, this can make a young person want to escape from home.
  • Alcohol and drugs: if parents are addicted to drugs or alcohol, they may find it hard to provide proper care for their child and home becomes a stressful place to be.
  • Abuse: physical or mental abuse can make a child feel like they have no choice but to run away.

Sometimes they might not come home simply because they need some space. Being open and present with a child can help them talk about their problems, before they reach a point where they feel like running away.

What to do if you are worried they might run away

girl at train station looking at phone

I'm worried my child will run away

A young person considering running away might feel like they have no one to talk to. The first step is to let them know you are there for them. Be open and non-judgemental. Give them a safe space to share whatever is on their mind. If they open up, you can work out a plan together.

If a young person doesn't feel comfortable talking to family, we have advice for those thinking of running away or you could check if their school has a counsellor they could talk to.

If you are worried your child is being exploited, you should read our child exploitation information and contact the appropriate authority.

boy looking worried on train

Signs of exploitation

Signs of exploitation aren't obvious but knowing what to look for is the first step. Do they have more than one phone? Unexplained gifts? Are they acting more secretive than usual?

What to do if a child goes missing 

When a child runs away or goes missing it can be very upsetting for any parent or carer. Try not to panic. Instead, follow these three steps:

  1. Check: check for signs of where they might have gone. Check their room, check social media, call their friends, check their friends' social media.
  2. Think: Has there been a change in behaviour recently? Have they been wearing different clothes, using substances, changing their friends or circumstances in any way?
  3. Call: Call the police. You don't have to wait 24 hours. Keep a log of the police officer you have spoken to and dial 101 for updates.

There will be no judgement. Your child will be looked for and offered support and advice if they need it. They will also advise you on things you can do in the meantime. 

teenager talking online smiling headphones around neck

It’s helped me knowing there’s someone I can talk to It’s helped meknowing there’ssomeone I cantalk to

What happens when you report a missing child?

Some of this is dependent on your local authority but first the police will file a report. Tell them any details you think might help find your child. Have they been behaving differently? Are they spending time with people they don’t usually?

Most missing people are found or return in the first few days. If someone is missing for longer, more officers will be assigned to help find your child. They will keep in touch throughout the search and update you if there are any updates.

What happens when a child is found? 

girl lies on bed smiling while looking at her mobile phone

What happens when a child is found? 

Too often, when a young person is found they're sent home without question. But we need to understand why they went missing so it doesn't happen again.

Once they have been found, a Return home interview (RHI) should be offered to the young person. If this doesn’t happen, you can request it. However, the child doesn’t have to do the interview if they don’t want to.


What is a Return Home Interview?

A Return Home Interview (RHI) is an opportunity to listen to the young person, understand why they went missing, what happened whilst they were away, and discuss what they need to stop them going missing again. It's also a chance to identify any additional support the young person may need. 

We fought for 25 years so young people would be better supported after going missing. Now, every child should be offered an RHI within 72 hours of returning home.

Young boy asleep on the bus

Our work with missing children

Every year thousands of young people go missing. We work across the country to change this. We help them work through their problems and make safe choices - so no child feels like running away is the answer.

What to do when a child returns home 

When a young person returns home after being missing, the most important thing is, they know they have done nothing wrong. Show them you’re happy to have them back home. 

Give them space if they need it. They might be shaken up and need time to settle. Try and create an environment where they feel listened to, loved and supported.

If an appeal has been shared about the missing person this can be legally removed from the internet. It is not illegal to go missing and there is no reason for the public to be able to find out information about people who are no longer missing. It is also unsafe to leave personal information about children online.