I can’t think of much that’s more unnerving than our toddler getting the urge to bolt in a public space and suddenly making a break for it. It might begin innocently enough. Perhaps she is a younger toddler simply enjoying the newfound sensation of running; or maybe she spots something intriguing and is drawn to investigate. Regardless, in that instant our calm, patience, and reflexes may all be severely tested.
Our response matters a lot, because it can turn a spontaneous, one- time experiment into a routine and deliberate act of defiance. A parenting rule of thumb is that, generally, our children’s undesirable behavior persists because of the way we’ve been handling it. The good news here is that it’s also in our power to handle testing in a helpful manner that eases the need for it.
So in the case of a toddler on the run, the trouble begins when we react with alarm or annoyance (although it’s understandably difficult not to). When our perceptive children sense that their behavior has the power to throw us off balance, it then becomes a focus for them. A spontaneous impulse to wander shifts to a far more intentional interest: How will mommy and daddy handle it when I run away from them? Sheesh, how can it be so easy for little ol’ me to rattle these giants? Whoa, did you see the look on mommy’s face? This is freaky! Better do it again!
To provide the answers that satisfy (and therefore quell the urge to run away):
Give the behavior as little power as possible
This means remaining as calm as possible in our demeanor, which obviously isn’t possible when our children run near traffic or into other dangerous situations. Safety is always #1, and when there’s an emergency a panicked response is unavoidable. But I’ve noticed we have a tendency as parents to over-respond to our children when situations aren’t urgent at all. For instance, we might zoom after our toddler at the park or at the home of a friend or family member when we could just as easily stroll over or, better yet, stay put and casually call our child’s bluff. “Wow! Look how far you can go. I’ll be right here…” Or, “Would you like me to time you running back to me?” Or, “Hmmm… looks like you might be needing a special escort. Okay, I’ll be with you in a moment.” Our word choices don’t matter as much as our relaxed attitude.
It’s admittedly impossible to fake feeling comfortable when we’re discombobulated, but it can help to work on shifting our perspective. This means understanding that running away (like all testing) is typical, normal behavior rather than a sign that we’re inept parents or have an unruly child that hates us. But since a toddler on the run in any situation is potentially unsafe, this is the type of testing we should do all we can to prevent from happening.
Prevent, prevent, prevent
Make holding hands (or riding in the stroller) non-negotiable. Fully accept children’s objections, because this is the way they express feelings they need to share. Acknowledge, “You don’t want to hold my hand. You want to walk on your own. I need to keep you safe. That’s frustrating for you.”
Avoid bringing children on errands whenever possible, particularly late in the day when they’re tired.
Understand why children test limits (explained HERE) and how to be proactive in addressing their needs, so testing in general can be nipped in the bud.
Encourage children to let their feelings flow, allowing them to express intense, explosive feelings in all the random, inconvenient instances they appear. These feelings aren’t manufactured. Children cry, whine, scream, yell, shout and have tantrums because the feelings are already there and need a safe outlet. If these healthy (though often unpleasant to hear) modes of expression are discouraged, children are more likely to act them out through impulsive, unsafe behavior.
For example, Mom holding the new baby close to her on an outing together can be a compelling enough reason for a toddler to make a break for it. Children need us to help them express their fear, anger and sadness around this big transition. (More about that HERE).
To help illustrate specifics, I’ll go over Ruffled Parent’s example:
My 2 year old daughter is running off in public and refuses to listen.
She listened, but she made the choice to keep testing her parent. It’s important not to underestimate our children’s awareness, so that we can recognize testing early and respond to it long before getting exasperated. Toddlers are sharp and perceptive. They usually know they’re doing something they shouldn’t. What they don’t know is why they have this impulse.
I try to be open and patient and allow her to explore, but at times her behavior is dangerous and I worry about her safety.
Again, this has gone far beyond an innocent exploration of her environment. What’s being explored is her parent’s ability to calmly and competently retrieve her, and ideally, prevent this behavior from happening in the first place.
I am at a breaking point.
This is the crux of the issue. Toddlers need parents that don’t break — that don’t even come close to breaking. Imagine being two years on the planet and having the power to crumble your parents just because you can run from them. How can this be so easy? You’d probably need to keep trying this out — hoping they can get their act together — so you can feel the comfort and assurance of their strength.
I don’t even want to take her anywhere because it always ends in her running away and me carrying her to the car screaming.
Sometimes I might need to scream at you while I’m safe in your arms. Please don’t be afraid of me, Mommy.
I share a complete guide to toddler behavior in No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame
(Photo by Florencia&Pe on Flickr)
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