How to Stop Your Runaway Toddler

My 2 year old daughter is running off in public and refuses to listen.  I feel like we have tried everything. 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. I am at a breaking point. 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. Any advice you have on this matter would be greatly appreciated. – Ruffled Parent

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.

Get perspective

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)

20 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Janet, have to start by saying your books and blog have made our lives so much easier, and we could never thank you enough for sharing your wisdom with us!!

    My 18.5 month old daughter has started running away as almost a game when she finds herself holding something I don’t want her to have that is usually out of reach. She’s extremely tall and seems to be able to reach all my old hiding places lately. If she grabs my phone, or the roll of toilet paper behind the toilet (which she loves to bite.. Toddlers.. :P), she will make sure I see her with it, and then run away and try to hide. She does this at times when I’m not paying full attention to her — when I get sucked into an email, or am trying to make a new recipe for the first time and having to use extra focus in the kitchen, for example. I try to make it lighthearted because, to be honest, it’s really cute. 🙂 I will calmly acknowledge that she has something she knows I want to keep on the counter/wherever that object normally is placed, and walk toward her. She will then usually peek out behind the bed (favorite “hiding” place) and I say, Boo! And she yelps, laughing and hands me the object. I think it’s just an attention ploy. Is there anything I should be doing to handle this differently? Maybe not get swept up in the cuteness and try to keep more of a poker face? Thankfully this really only happens at home at the moment.

    Also, we’ve implemented “hands on the car” as a rule in parking lots and even in our garage and friends’ driveways for consistency, and the buckled seat in shopping carts/strollers/high chairs as a non-negotiable limit now too, which she actually enjoys now (wants to help buckle herself in every time). We hold hands walking through the house regularly too. All thanks to your previous posts empowering us to set limits! 🙂 Thanks again, Janet!

    1. This all sounds great, Cori! If you want to make the hiding game less interesting for her, you could take your time responding and just be generally slower to the punch. In other words, stay in calm mode.. finish your email or find a place where you can easily pause during cooking and then slowwllly cruise over… “Ah, it seems my phone is missing… Hmmmm… Oh, I thought you might be the culprit! ”

      You might need to sacrifice her holding your phone for a few minutes or possibly taking a bite or two into toilet roll, but after one or two times of you responding in slowww motion without the slightest urgency, this game will lose its power. I’d also keep things you really don’t want her to use up a bit higher (obviously) 😉

  2. Interesting article, but doesn’t answer the question of how to “train” a toddler to not run off or does it?. Surely telling them in a relaxed manner that they will be retrieved won’t “train” them to not run off? One of my toddlers has the habit of bolting when we are at the park and beach, and am thinking about implementing Supernanny’s “STOP” technique, but would rather use a less directive & commanding RIE approach…

    1. You won’t find anything on this site about “training” or tactics or tricks, etc. The RIE approach is about building a relationship of trust and mutual respect and taking your place as your child’s leader, but in a respectful person-to-person manner. The problem with training (besides the fact that it tends to be de-humanizing) is that there is NEVER a guarantee that it will prevent your child from deciding to make a run for it, particularly with toddlers who, like teenagers, have a developmental need to rebel. So, training can give parents a false sense of security (similar to infant swim lessons). We must always be vigilant when there’s the possibility of danger.

      Furthermore, training, tactics and other tricks can definitely work against us and hinder our relationship, because bright children sense when they are being manipulated. The RIE approach works in the short and long term, because children sense through all of our words and actions that we are looking out for them and on their “side”, rather than subtly working against them. We follow through with physical actions to keep them safe, while accepting their objections to our guidance readily. As a result, their need to test is greatly lessened.

  3. Thank you for all the toddler discussions lately! My 18 month old daughter LOVES to run away from me in stores and HATES being strapped into almost anything. I try to just put her into the shopping cart seat w the seatbelt and explain to her that she has to sit there because it’s safe but she always finds a way to climb out of it, even w the seat belt fastened. She also protests the stroller a lot. I don’t blame her because she knows how to walk and run and I think she likes the fact she is bigger and able BUT in busy places she needs to be safe. We are going to Disney World in a week and I am scared to death about having her out of the stroller. She holds my hand for about 30 seconds and then she’s off. What can I do to make her more comfortable with sitting in a stroller and shopping cart? Thanks again 🙂

    1. I’m so glad you’re finding the discussions helpful!

      What’s sticking out for me here is this: “She holds my hand for about 30 seconds and then she’s off.” Why are you letting her decide whether to hold your hand or not? Children need to feel that we have control in these situations or they have no choice but to continue to test. I would hold her hand gently, but with a firm grip. Then, if there’s a stroller available, you can offer her the choice of holding hands or riding in the stroller.

    2. Maybe you could get a child leash for situations like these?

      “I can see you really want to use your legs right now. Would you rather hold my hand or use the leash?”

      Leashes get a bad rap because they are also used with pets. But in a situation where it’s going to be dangerous for her to run off, I find they keep everyone safer and calmer.

      Leashing her doesn’t have to be punitive at all. In fact, one little boy in my care favored the leash over holding hands. He had a little more freedom to explore, scratch his face, stop and pick up a pebble, etc. He also really loved pretending he was a dog. I liked having my hands free and being able to do the same – scratch my face, press the crosswalk button, etc.

  4. Thank you Janet and parent for sharing. I work at a childcare center with a group of 10 two year olds (and two co teachers). Running away happens and is the most frustrating!!!! I really feel for this parent. On returning from an activity, I was alone with 5 children in the hallway. 3 took off running around a corner where I couldn’t see them and one opened the door and went off into another space. It was very scary! The part you talk about how children can make their parents crumble just by running off really struck home with me. That’s what they can do to me and going into another room makes me crumble even more. I’m not sure what to do in situations like this? Safety wasn’t a problem at first but it was when I couldn’t see them and even more so when one went to the next room. Now every time I’m walking by myself with the children I let them know a head of time what’s going to happen, what I expect and that I’m the only teacher, it’s my job to keep them safe and I would like them to stay close to me.

    1. Telling them what to expect is really important, Becky, and I should have included that in my post. Thank you for mentioning it! But then if the children do get away into one of the other rooms, I would be as nonchalant as possible when retrieving them. You might consider…what’s the worst that happen in the minute or two it might take for you to walk over to where they are? And your manner is what will decide whether this becomes an interesting adventure that they want to repeat.

      In regard to the parent picking his or her child up… I would encourage them to take their child’s hand immediately, while the child is still in a secure place, and then maybe offer the choice of being carried. If the child runs away inside the preschool, I would encourage the parent to patiently wait for a minute or two. The child is very likely to return.

  5. You’re welcome! I hadn’t thought of that before. What is the worst that could happen? I’m sure I could come up with lots of things but in reality I’m sure the child is just as surprised as I am. Like “wow I really made it to the next room! Now what?” That’s the hardest part for me, reacting in a way that isn’t exciting or interesting to the child. You’re right, most often the children do come back. This was actually the only situations I’ve had where the children didn’t come back.

    Thank you Janet! For writing this post and for helping me think about things a little differently!

    1. My pleasure, Becky. Thank you for sharing with me.

  6. For the parents who want to prevent the running away, I don’t think this works for all toddlers, but with my son I explain that if he runs away we will have to go home/inside & then I follow through IMMEDIATELY. Yes, it is inconvenient, but I have to trust him & he learned very quickly that it is not a game. When he is upset that we’re going home, then I explain he can try again next time. I have no problems. Again, this may just be his personality, but I find that toddlers are smart & can ‘get’ these conversations.

  7. Oh and I do this very calmly, matter-of-factly. No shaming (hence the ‘try again next time’)

  8. I’m a home cbildcare provider and one of the mantras I frequently repeat with the kids is “what’s my FIRST job?” And ones with enough language know to reply “to keep us safe!” Repeating it even in smaller conflicts, where they don’t want to do something but are not having a total meltdown, makes it something they know well when a bigger one does occur.

    My other ‘jobs’ that they know are to take care of them and to have fun with them! But keepin them safe is always #1.

  9. My other big toddler go to is to not oy say ‘tables are not for standing on, please get down’ but if they don’t, to then offer a choice ‘would you like to get down by yourself or should I help you?’ Ditto ‘come back here’ etc. Little ones value their independence so much that most often they quickly choose to do it on their own!

  10. Hello. When my 26 month old runs off at the park I am slow to get her but it’s the other places that don’t allow time for a slow reaction. For example: we live about a half block from my 5 year olds school and walk him to and from school each day. The road we walk a busy main road with buses, fire trucks and lots of cars. (Fortunately it’s been closed off for a bridge remodel and not as busy but due to re open in a month.) I do require hand holding in a parking lot but not when we’re walking on the sidewalk to the school. Yesterday we were walking to school (her a few paces in front of me) and she stopped, looked at me, smiled and took off straight into the street full speed. By the time I grabbed her she was in the middle of this 4 lane wide street. This is not the first time she has ran into the street (we live on it) but it is the farthest she has gone into it. She has had spanking, time outs, stern talking to but nothing seems to sink in with her. Help! -Kim

  11. Janet-
    I love your blog!
    I have a very independent and strong willed one year old with whom I am having trouble getting to listen to me to take my hand and not run ahead of me when in public. Even at home I try to practice hand holding – which he will not do- so even if I am the one holding his hand he immediately fights to free his hand either by yanking his arm free, using his free hand to take my hand off, or if I do not let go, he sits down and will not move. I have tried explaining to him why we need to hold hands and have even tried asking him just to stay close to me, but it isn’t working. This is especially worisome out in public. I know he just wants to explore, but I worry about his safety, of course, since I can’t let him walk around unless we are in a confined space because he will always wander/run off, curious to explore and show his independence. I almost feel like I will have to resort to putting one of those backpack “leashes” on him to keep him close, but I am concerned that is not the best way to handle this and will make him never learn to stay close or make him want to run off even more! I was wondering if you have any advice and also any opinion about the backpack leash type things.

  12. Hi, I am single and have a 3.5 year old and almost 2 year old twins and can’t or won’t take the twins anywhere that isn’t fenced which is very limiting. They are happy enough in the stroller to a point but then want to run free… Always in opposite directions
    I can’t calmly wait for them to come back because they don’t. If I chase after one I leave 2 others alone then I can’t calmly take their hand as they drop on the floor so I have to pick them up and then run for the other.
    Any suggestions???

  13. Hi Janet, I was wondering at what age should we be expecting our toddlers to stay by our side rather than run off? I have a 21 month old who is still okay with being in a cart or stroller while we are out on errands. However, when we do play dates and events geared towards him, he is constantly running all over the place and I just follow him around and let him explore because I thought it was best to let him direct the play. Should I not be doing that? For example, we go to a trampoline park and after awhile, he runs away from me down the ramp to the lockers and wants to explore down there. Or if we are at a friends house, rather than playing in the playroom, he wants to explore their entire house. It’s a exhausting for me to keep up with him and I guess I’m just not sure what is normal for this age and what I should or shouldn’t allow. I would never let him walk free out at a store because there is zero chance he would listen or stay next to me!

  14. Hi Janet,

    Thank you for your words about why one wouldn’t find training / tactics on your site. I love that RIE works for short and long term because of the focus on the relationship and trust. I’ll be referring to those words when explaining RIE to family and friends in the future.

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