When my twelve-year-old got a digital Amber Alert

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Text from my husband: “She is (understandably) freaked out by the Amber Alert. Many questions.”

There were reasons we’d hesitated to give our sixth-grade daughter on the cusp of twelve a phone, like how to set limits on its use without daily battles. We envisioned her freedom: she could reach us from town or tell us dance class was ending early. We had not considered Amber Alerts.

The girl was near her age. She was abducted in a stranger’s car about twenty miles away, in a nearby yet unfamiliar city. The idea that this could happen was enough to create the next logical idea that this could happen… to me.

Talk about unintended consequences. Technology serves as a tool to make it easier to bridge the distance between us. With confidence in her ability to find us easily, our daughter feels more comfortable risking a little more independence. The same technology, though, can also scare her, since the Amber Alert system invites an immediate awareness of danger.

Fortunately, within a few hours, the car was stopped on the highway. The girl, “unharmed,” according to news reports, was returned to her family. (The girl was kidnapped, which, in my book, counts as harm). The man went into police custody. My daughter read the news article the following morning (silver lining: she was interested in the news?).

“I’m so glad the girl is with her family,” I said, as I drove my daughter to school. “What else did you learn from the article?”

“The man’s family explained he had a mental illness starting with ‘S,’” she said.


She nodded.

“It’s is a very hard disease,” I explained. Having just read Esme Wejun Wang’s, The Collected Schizophrenias, in which she chronicles her illness, with its long breaks from reality, I’d taken in how excruciatingly painful the disease can be. Wang has professional help and strong family support; being dangerous to others is not inherent to this disease. “It’s very scary not to be able to know what’s real,” I continued. “He may have thought he needed to take this girl with him, which doesn’t excuse what he did. I’m so glad she was found so quickly. Amber Alert is a good invention.”

“It wasn’t that far away,” my daughter said.

“It’s still not likely to happen to you,” I explained. “Stranger abductions are really rare. Most abductions happen with people the kid knows, which is also scary, but not so random.”

“I’m never walking home alone again, ever, you know that,” she announced. She had been spooked months earlier by someone behind her she felt was “sketchy.” Fortunately, she’d been near home, made a beeline for it, and he didn’t appear to speed up or attempt to follow her.

“Not until you’re more comfortable,” I replied.

I said that because I didn’t (don’t) want to cede her independence so quickly, and not out of fear. At the same time, Amber Alerts inherently require us to acknowledge how vulnerable our children are, and how vulnerable they feel. Between the time my husband alerted me to our daughter’s alarm and driving her to school the next morning, I’d thought a lot about the vulnerability of being twelve. I remembered “sketchy” moments, and flat out scary ones, including the time I was robbed waiting for the bus near my middle school. One kid punched me in the arm. The way I remember it, the stinging was as much from shock and fear as the fist.

“You know some ways to be safe when you’re walking alone, right?” I asked.

“Don’t walk where no one is. Use the busier streets,” she said.

“Smart.” I listed more tips: don’t give directions to someone in a car; if someone’s near you in a way that’s uncomfortable, move toward the street; keep walking; ask for help from others, even flagging someone down.

“I can even just pretend to be talking to you on my phone if I’m worried,” she said.

“Good idea,” I replied. “And if someone pulls up in a car to ask you whether you want to see their puppies, the answer is ‘No, thank you.’”

She laughed.

“I love you, and you are safe,” I said, as we reached school. “I’m glad the girl was reunited with her family.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I was scared.”

Beyond awareness, those alerts expect us to assume collective responsibility, to open our eyes on a child’s behalf. Our hearts, too.

“I understand why you were. I was, too. I love you,” I repeated, as she opened the car door.

Besides the safety tips we revisit, prompted by an event like this, we can help our children when we acknowledge how scary the world can feel, with its Amber Alerts, and school shootings, and constant wildfires, all the things that keep us up at night, all the things we cannot ourselves control. We can help them sometimes less with information and more with love and empathy.

“I love you,” she said, before she slammed the door.

Sarah Buttenwieser is a writer whose work has appeared in Motherwell, Washington Post on Parenting, Paste Magazine and the New York Times, amongst others.

Author’s Note: When I wrote this essay about the Amber Alerts, the roadmap in my mind of what it means to be twelve was entirely different than it appears now, ten weeks into quarantine. I thought of the phone as a tool to assist independence, so my tween daughter could expand “her” territory. Now, we are home. The dangers of the world around us are mostly invisible. Independence is still something I am urging, within the walls of our house. The phone is barely useful as a lifeline to unleash that tether from home. It’s become a line to cast toward other friends, also stuck in their own environments. The danger she became aware of when she got her first Amber Alert, and others like it still exists, but for right now any fear she has, like of the dark, we simply assure her is unnecessary and also that we understand it. Fear has become our ether—and we aren’t judging her need for us. She needs us. And so the independence we’d thought we’d be nurturing is on hold. We just hold her.

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