Do you release your toddler from his car seat, turn to grab the grocery bags, and suddenly see your child darting across the parking lot? This is certainly a heart-pounding challenge that many parents face.
Stopping your young child from running away from you takes coaching, patience, and knowing when your child’s natural desires are taking over his ability to keep himself safe.
Toddlers run away because they are excited and love the freedom of running. They certainly are NOT doing this to “be bad” or “make you mad.” They don’t have the brain power to associate running away with danger—they just don’t realize the risks they take doing this.
I remember one day when our family was at the beach. Focused on shoving the umbrella into the ground, I didn’t see that my toddler had run after a tractor that was cleaning the sand. I’m sure he just saw the tractor and went, “YAY! TRACTOR!!!!” rather than, “Danger! Water—drowning! Stranger abduction! Go back!”
Here are the steps to controlling your sprinting child:
Ask this: Is staying close a skill my child is unable to use right now?
Your toddler will not be as careful as you need him to be: it is your responsibility to keep him safe. This means that you will need to decide if taking him out in open public areas is not in his best interest. It’s okay to admit that your child just can’t handle being out of enclosed areas or unrestrained for the time being—it won’t always be this way. Stick to controlled areas until he demonstrates that when you shout, “Freeze!” he will.
Try, and try again. When you think your child might be ready to try following your instructions, you can try to release him from any restraints to see how he does. If he isn’t ready, put him back in some form of control, or go home, and try again later.
Give your child an opportunity to run in an enclosed space or controlled area where you can see him at all times. As often as you think your child needs it, find a safe area for your child to run around of his own free will. You can gauge if taking him out for a hike in the forest or to a park is a good idea. Often, children will run away, eventually look to see where you are, and return. When he comes back, offer big hugs so he learns that coming back is a good idea.
Coach your child to stay away from areas that might be hazardous. To prevent a power struggle, use “You can…” rather than “Don’t do…” like this, “You can run in this spot away from the thick bushes.” Also coach your child not to pick up things from the ground (like a discarded piece of food)!
Use the word, “Freeze” instead of “Careful” or “Stop.” Freeze is a specific word that tells your child what you need him to do. “Careful” or “Stop” aren’t actually clear instructions.
If your child gets upset because you won’t let him out of the stroller to run free, you can use this parenting gem: “People who run away aren’t safe—they have to stay in the stroller. People who stay close can walk.” Another application is, “Everyone wearing life jackets can go on the dock.”
I like this one, too: “People who run in parking lots can’t come along. People who hold hands can.” I believe that a holding-hands rule is a great idea for parking lots, crowded areas and crossing the street. If your child refuses to hold your hand, you can try an “either/ or” there: “Holding hands keeps you safe. Are you going to be able to hold my hand or are we going back?”
Oftentimes, toddlers try to cut and run when you’re out because they’re at the end of their ability to be cooperative or they don’t feel they are getting enough of your attention. Spend your one-on-one time with them just before you need to head out. If you are out doing errands, find a job that your toddler can do: they love to feel helpful. Perhaps they can pick a banana bunch or help push the stroller.
Tell your toddler where you are going and how you expect him to behave. Use clear, simple words like, “We are going to the mall to get a birthday present for Simon. We will hold hands in the parking lot and when we are in the mall.” Remember not to phrase your instructions as “yes/ no” questions, or put “OK?” at the end: these both give your child an opportunity to shout, “NO!” Rather than saying, “OK?” you can ask, “Do you understand what I said?” Oh, and don’t use expressions like, “I need you to be careful/ good or a big boy” because that doesn’t actually tell them what actions you expect from them.
If your child does run away and won’t come back when you call, use the puppy technique: make him want to chase you! You can try shouting, “I bet you can’t catch me?” and then start running in a goofy zigzag pattern.
Encourage your child when he does what you have asked of him. Saying, “You held my hand so nicely today. Thank you for that,” helps him feel he is capable and doing well. Another example of that is: “You ran ahead and came back when I called. Thank you!” Use simple language to describe what he did and how you feel about his actions.
Make being safe a common topic of conversation and/ or the books you are reading. When you see someone else doing something “unsafe,” talk about with your child. For example, if you see a child riding a bike without a helmet on, you can say, “Oh, I hope that child doesn’t fall. His head isn’t protected if it hits something. That would really hurt!” Turn to your child and ask, “What can he do to be more safe?”
Also, if you happen to hurt yourself because of a silly mistake, you can tell your child. I just whacked my leg on the corner of the bed. After I finished hollering, I said, “Whew. I made a mistake. I should have been looking where I put my leg. Ouch!” Another one I’m adamant about is going down the stairs. We have a little sing-song we use when on stairs: “Slow and careful on the stairs, on the stairs, on the stairs. Slow and careful on the stairs: let’s be safe.” (To the tune of London Bridge)