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)
Did you know that the most violent beings on earth are two-year-old children? A parent of one is certainly not shocked to hear this!
While gathering information for articles about toddlers, I have discovered desperate posts like this on the Internet, “Two-year-old for sale. Cheap!”
In order to parent children under three, adults need to accept the challenging parts that come during this time (along with the super-cute parts). Toddlers will yell (a lot), throw, kick, break things, climb things, fling food into the air, keep you awake or get you up VERY early. They don’t care if you need them to brush their teeth, stay in their beds or get out the door on time. They can only see to the end of their cute noses—everything revolves around them and belongs to them.
It is not surprising then that the most common complaint I hear from parents of toddler is, “HELP! My toddler is driving me crazy!” or, “I’m frustrated All. THE. TIME. Please make it stop.”
I can’t make parenting easier for you but I can certainly help you feel more able to handle the regular challenges of raising toddlers. I gathered all the posts I have written that are toddler-related and will link to them in the points below.
Here are my suggestions for making parenting a toddler less stressful:
Babies are wired to freak out when they need something—nonviolent communication is actually a learned skill. This wiring stays in place until a child learns how to curb the powerful survival urge to shout, hit, flail, throw or bite.
As we all know, it takes a lot of time and practice to learn how to “catch our mad before it turns to mean,” but this is what parents need to continually do—teach their young children how to respond thoughtfully rather than let the instinctual reaction to freak out take over.
Accept that it takes a lot of energy to hang out with, teach, redirect and soothe emotional, curious toddlers. Open your schedule to allow for quiet alone time or workout time (or both!)—whatever recharges you. Make sure to stay far away from your exhaustion breaking point. There will be time for your ambitious projects when the children are older and more independent.
In order to teach a young child to “listen”—cooperate and follow instructions—parents need to grow the friendly, thoughtful part of the child’s brain. Anytime parents are goofy or silly, toddlers are more apt to buy in.
Harsh treatment is likely to put a child into his or her fight-or-flight response, which usually makes things worse in the long run. In my article, “Thriving With A Toddler,” I list a bunch of ways to use clever language for inviting toddlers to listen.
I often refer to a child’s attachment tank—the capacity with which a child feels seen/ heard/ important by his or her parents. I invite you to click here to learn more about the tank and how to fill it.
Toddlers need to know when it is time to stop playing and shift gears. Please read this article called, “Techniques For Smooth Toddler Transitions” and this one, “Getting Out The Door On Time” for help with both of those.
It is important to respond to tantrums the same way each time—calmly and with a routine. Your children need to know what your response will be each time they lose it. I wrote these articles to handle all things tantrum-related:
The development of positive core beliefs is what helps a person feel capable, important, loved, and safe and that others are trustworthy, caring and are listening. These grow through interactions with others that feel supportive. This is actually how the “attachment” part of “attachment parenting” happens—the growth of positive core beliefs. I explain more in this article.
Please hang in there. I certainly had days where I stared out the window with tears in my eyes, wondering how I was going to make it to the end of the day. Well, I made to the end of that day and so will you. Please know that your child’s rational mind will grow and all your careful nonviolent communication teaching will kick in. Until then, take good care of yourself (and invite your friends/ family members/ other caregivers/ older neighbour kids to come play with your little ones).
I invite you to visit my Facebook page for more information and parenting resources.
Raising young children is hard work. We all have days that are harder than others (as do our children). Sometimes the weather keeps us stuck inside, the babies keep crying, and the toddlers keep hitting. Sometimes we're at our parenting best, and sometimes we're not.
Let’s admit that some days raising little ones can be more grueling than rewarding. Did you know that two-year-olds are the most violent beings on Earth? There’s a reason Seinfeld said, “A two-year-old is kind of like having a blender, but you don’t have a top for it.”
In the challenging moments, we can stop trying to put on a brave face when all we really want to do is cry. We can also stop trying to “have it all,” because doing so at the expense of the rest or our sanity doesn’t prove anything—and it certainly won’t make us feel better.
I have experienced many of those grueling days, and I’d like to share five things that have helped my clients—and me—the most.
Admitting you are exhausted and out of like with your children doesn’t make you a “bad” parent, it makes you a normal one. Reach out to someone who you know can take your hand and lift you up.
Babysitters, neighbourhood big-kids, family members, other moms, or early-years programs can spend time with your children, while you spend time regrouping. Remember, attachment is magnified when young children have more than one caregiver to attach to.
Let go, delegate, or skip whatever you can to make space for rest. If you envy people sick in bed, you know it’s time to find time to get there without the H1N1 virus!
“Laughter releases the same tension as tears,” (Laura Markham, PhD) so create space for time to do that which makes you smile or laugh.
You will believe and pay attention to what you are focused on. Instead of noticing all the hard things happening, look for the light, lovely ones.
I do know that eventually the clouds will part, sleep will happen, and children will laugh. Until then, sending you wishes for strength, and I'll be happy to receive those wishes, too, if you're sending some out to others. Please pop over to my facebook page to get free parenting resources and support. We're all in this together. xo
Other articles I wrote that help when days are challenging are "How To Be An Empathetic Parent Even When That Feels Hard," and "Seven Steps To Being Less Hard On Our Kids," because we can unintentionally pass our low mood onto our children by the way we treat them.