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When Your Toddler Won't Stop Running Away From You

When Your Toddler Won’t Stop Running Away From You

By Amalah

Hi Amy!

Thank you so much for all of your columns. You have been a huge part of my parenting experience, and your sage advice and humor have been so helpful. Now I’ve stumbled onto a problem that I need your help with, and it’s something that has been gnawing in the back of my mind for a while now.

I have a 2.5 year old and a newborn, both boys. The transition to two kids has gone surprisingly well. My oldest seems to adore the baby, and my husband and I have been splitting up responsibilities between the two boys while I’m on maternity leave (my husband stays at home and will have both boys solo in a month). Here’s the problem–my two year old LOVES to run. Loves it. As in, he’ll run older children and my husband ragged at playgrounds and then beg for more games of “get you.” BUT he lacks the common sense to not run into traffic..or off a cliff…or (insert some other horrific scenario here).

In the past, my husband has always been able to catch him before something awful happened…but that won’t be always be doable when he is also responsible for watching the baby. We’ve tried everything you could imagine to get our son to heed our screams of “STOP”!” We’ve discussed “being really careful around cars, because they can really hurt you.” We make a big deal out of holding hands to cross the street. We praise him on the very rare occasion that he does listen to us. Nothing really seems to sink in. It’s still a game to him, and we are totally losing. We want to take him to playgrounds, parks, etc. without constantly worrying about him bolting. Once I go back to work, I don’t see a solution to this problem that doesn’t involve him being a.) constantly on a leash or b.) barricaded at home. Any thoughts?

Ahmahgah, this question gave me a raging bout of toddler-PTSD with a side of hives. Noah went through this phase right after Ezra was born, when he had just turned three. It was…awful and stressful and I can still hear the horrible, angry loud voices his father and I used with him after one particularly bad and dangerous incident in a parking lot, just a few weeks after his brother’s birth.

That parking lot, ironically enough, was attached to our local big-box baby store, where we were attempting to buy a double stroller. We didn’t buy a double stroller before Ezra was born because I didn’t think we needed one — Noah was too big for a stroller and never rode in one! Double strollers are big and bulky and I planned to use slings and carriers for the baby anyway! That way my hands would be free to hold Noah’s and corral him as needed! HA HA THE PERFECT KNOW-IT-ALL-Y PLAN.

We did not buy a double stroller that particular day either. Because NOAH WOULDN’T STOP RUNNING AWAY FROM US and we bailed on the shopping trip in angry, sleep-deprived frustration.

But yeah, we caved and bought a double stroller.

(The Phil & Ted’s, which was face-punchingly expensive. But AT THE TIME [2008], it was the only option that would accommodate both a newborn AND a child Noah’s size. I believe there are other, cheaper models available “these days,” but I’m useless on a more up-to-date recommendation. We reused the Phil & Ted’s stroller a bit for Ezra and Ike, but of course EZRA never did the running-away thing so I actually WAS able to keep Ike in a carrier most of the time and trust Ezra to stay with us and follow Noah’s lead. But I maintain that it was simple peer pressure, not maturity or common sense, that kept Ezra by my side.)

(Though Ezra’s the only one I’ve full-on lost in a store so far, and had to alert the store’s CODE PURPLE or whatever on the employees’ walkie-talkies.)

(I found him trying on sunglasses two minutes later.)

Because here’s the thing: You can teach. You can lecture. You can explain and explain and explain. You can (and will) yell and scold and grab their little shoulders in your shaking hands while you beg through tears that they NEVER DO THAT AGAIN, SO DANGEROUS. You may even decide that a dangerous situation like running into the street justifies a swat on the butt (let’s be clear, not condoning it). None of that will necessarily solve anything or keep them safe, because they just DON’T GET IT YET.

At this age, toddlers have no fear and even less sense. They’ve discovered that they are independent from you and find this independence to be thrilling and tempting and yes, a little scary. So they want to test that independence. What happens when I go this far? What happens if I run over this way? Can she find me? Can she see me? It’s like a game of peekaboo TO THE EXXXTREME.

So the idea is to find places that let them explore that independence in a safe way, like at playgrounds (obviously with closed gates). Obviously these places have limits too — don’t go into the woods, don’t sit in the mud, etc. — but for the MOST part you can loosen your helicopter goggles a bit and not freak out if he isn’t in your direct line of sight for a couple minutes. When Noah was most prone to running, we found that indoor playgrounds and toddler-friendly museums were our best bet. Even if he completely vanished, there was a DOOR and STAFF and WRISTBANDS and UV STAMPS and such. We always, always found him.

And honestly, it was a good experience for US, too. To get used to his independence and the realization that we couldn’t shadow him 24 hours a day now that we had another child. And that maybe we shouldn’t even feel so compelled to do that anyway. Let him go a little more free-range, within reason. And hope that the times when we did let him roam more free would help curb the temptation to break away from us in more dangerous situations.

That said, we went pretty hardcore when it came to curbing the running in places/situations where it simply WASN’T safe or acceptable. I didn’t trust him to stay on one of those sibling caboose/scooter stroller attachments and figured a toddler leash would just result in him sitting down or going “boneless” in protest. So I put his giant self into a stroller with a full harness. He hated it; I wasn’t a fan either. But it got the job done and the point across. He’d ask to get out and walk and I’d agree and re-explain the rules for the millionth time: No running away. Stay where I can see you. Keep one hand on the stroller, etc.

If he obeyed, he got to stay out of the stroller. If he didn’t, he went back in. (Although no, I have no advice for how to deal with all the judgmental glares and looks from other adults as you forcibly wrestle an oversized, protesting toddler back into a stroller. Just prepare to be humbled and regret every time you ever judged another parent out in public. Bonus points if you’ve ever thought, “That child is too old to be in a stroller.” HAHAHAHAHA.)

The thing is, this IS just a phase. It WILL pass. The common sense thing about traffic and cliffs and strangers DOES eventually click for them and they realize that their own fool self-preservation kind of depends on staying with you. The best way through it is through.

Put him back in a stroller for awhile and keep doing everything else that you’re already doing. Preserve your grown-up sanity by dividing up the errands so one of you goes shopping WITHOUT your Thelma-and-Louise-ing toddler, and only take him along when it’s absolutely essential. (We were also fans of the “one parent and kids stays in the car while the other goes to the store for the damn batteries/diapers/whatever thing we just remembered we’re completely out of.”) Take him places where he is free to run and bolt to his heart’s content, and practice letting him do exactly that and with being okay that he might be hiding in a tunnel or behind a tree. Work on reminding your brain that a kid on a playground is PROBABLY going to stay on the playground, rather than letting it immediately jump to the worst-case scenario that he ran back to the parking lot or into a non-existent ravine or a reality TV producer in the 15 seconds you spent wiping spit-up off your infant. Take the baby out solo in a sling and laugh at how “easy” you had it and didn’t even KNOW how “easy” you had it.

And don’t feel guilty if you decide to pass on some awesome activity (street fair! circus! etc.!) because you can’t keep him in a stroller and don’t feel like chasing him the whole time. We made that mistake because we were totally overcompensating for…I don’t know…ruining Noah’s young life by giving him a sibling. In hindsight, WHATEVER. We should have stayed home and done those awesome activities after he outgrew the running phase, since we all would have had more fun and yelled/chased/bailed less.

 

 

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Danielle
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Danielle

We actually did have good luck with a toddler harness. Our son was a runner between 1.5 and 2, and sometimes he just would not consent to be in a stroller. We used the harness in conjunction with holding his hand, as a precaution in case he broke free; that way, he learned to walk with us and hold hands in environments with all kinds of exciting distractions, but in a context in which we weren’t super high-strung about what would happen to him if he broke away. He’s now 4.5 and we’re kind of going through the same thing… Read more »

Myriam
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Myriam

Danielle, who said they need to consent! Bring the stroller and remind them that if they don’t behave, they’ll go in. And act if they do run! After a block or two, they will probably “consent” to walk properly instead of being strapped in the stroller! At least, let’s hope 😉

nimmy
Guest
nimmy

My problem is my son is a special needs SEVEN YEAR OLD and HE is in this stage. I had to pull him out of school and homeschool him because THEY can’t find an aide willing to work with him because of THIS behavior, particularly.  One day he almost got out of the gym doors and out into the parking lot.  Another time he ran and hid in another classroom.  My older teen daughter AND one of her friends has lost him twice while they were watching him TOGETHER.  He’s run OUT of grocery stores, libraries, and laundromats (I don’t… Read more »

Hi, I'm Natalie.
Guest

Shoot, I’m not supposed to let my kid sit in the mud?!  My kid is a runner, too & I’m also a big fan indoor and/or fenced places where I can see her when she wants some space. One of our favourite “games” is at our local fitness centre – I’ll sit with the baby at the end of the LONG and mostly empty hallway & let her race to the other side and back. She loves it because it’s kinda scary (it’s far away from me and she sometimes has to go around and/or talk to ppl she doesn’t… Read more »

JCF
Guest
JCF

All three of my kids have gone through (and outgrown–thank goodness) the running away stage.  I totally feel for you.  It is so stressful to chase down a toddler while juggling a baby. A couple of tips that helped with my three at that stage: 1. Be absolutely serious about hand-holding while crossing streets and parking lots.  My rule for a toddler who can’t be trusted to stick right by my side is that they choose between holding my hand and being carried/riding in the stroller.  Every time.  No exceptions. 2. Make a game out of the words “stop” and… Read more »

Natalie
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Natalie

This reminds me, I had a friend who used the word “danger” on her kids. They hear “no” so much that it doesn’t phase them, but she taught them that “danger” meant they immediately stop, go still, and put their hands above their heads. I thought it was genius (not having kids myself, I would never have thought of such a thing).

Also hilarious when one of them overheard a daycare teacher use the word “danger” to another teacher and they were bewildered when the kid immediately stopped what she was doing and put her hands up.

Erin
Guest
Erin

The Chase Game thing from number 3 sounds so much like my dog, I’m sorry to say.  She looooves to run and be chased, which is very inconvenient if she escapes the yard!  So we make her Sit and Wait, and she knows that something good always happens when she waits.  (Never had much luck with Come, unfortunately.)

Martha
Guest
Martha

We did “danger,” too, as a differentiator with my daughter. Too often she thought “NO” was an admonition about naughty behavior rather than a warning about something that could harm her. We didn’t have a running kid, but in a narrow kitchen with a gas range, it was key to teach her the difference between no and danger when the stove was on.

Angela
Guest
Angela

I was going to suggest this very thing. We use the word “freeze” because it’s not a word they regularly hear so it doesn’t get tuned out. We hold regular drills and make a game out of it. Right before we head out to anywhere crowded we hold a drill for practice.  The other important piece of this is not to overuse it. Outside of drills it is ONLY used in situations where there is a legitimate safety concern like running into traffic or getting lost. It’s not for situations of convenience where you can safely chase him down but… Read more »

Ann
Guest
Ann

We have also found that fenced in playgrounds are the greatest thing EVER when you’re wrangling multiple kids.  We found two in our town and, whenever I take the kids out to a playground by myself, it’s always to one of those two.  I don’t have to worry about either kiddo running away or getting into the street so it’s low-stress for me, which makes me much more patient and makes it a more fun experience for both kids.

Myriam
Guest
Myriam

That’s a really good question, and I’m on my way to finding out if my daughter will become a runner once a have the second one. Roght now, she’s 2 1/2 and really good at walking a short distance in front of me, and waiting for me and holding hands when crossing the street. However, the rules are strict and if she bolts, she knows she will get her little butt strapped to that stroller! I will forcibly hold her down and strap her in if I need to. After a block or so, I will release her is she… Read more »

Megan @ Mama Bub
Guest

I can vividly remember being VERY pregnant and chasing my two year old into a parking lot. Also being not pregnant and chasing him as he ran into the street and other dangerous situations. It’s only within the last year (he’s 5) that we haven’t had to have a death grip on his hands at all times when he steps from the car.

juliew
Guest
juliew

Twin parenting meant we practiced a lot it situations that were really safe! From the time that they were barely toddling we practiced crossing the street. If you didn’t hold hands you got carried like a sack of potatoes. in stores etc you could be free but only if you did ‘secret service’ (always touching cart with a hand) otherwise back into the dreaded cart. Practiced at a park that wasn’t gated but had a lot of natural barriers to slow them down. This is now segueing into bike safety and crossing streets on their 16″ bikes. They just stop… Read more »

Kimberly
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Kimberly

A good double stroller option is the Combi. It is a side by side stroller, so a little wide, but it has a bassinet option (side goes all the way down) for a newborn and the other side is perfect for a toddler. Works for my 3yo and 1yo. Plus it folds up easy and it’s too heavy.

My best friend had to buy a double stroller for this very reason. Her 2.5 yo daughter kept running away. It’s been working well for her.

IrishCream
Guest
IrishCream

We got a handmedown Uppababy Vista. My girls are 22 months apart, and with the Uppababy we could use it from day one–the little one’s car seat snapped into the frame, and big sis rode the jumper seat. We’re hoping to add the running board and ditch the jumper seat soon, because it’s annoyingly long and doesn’t handle that well (that’s what she said…). It’s served its purpose for the last year, though, so not too many complaints.

Olivia
Guest
Olivia

My first was not a runner, but my toddler looks like he will be soon and I will have no problem bringing out the leash in crowed, unsafe areas. 

For a reasonably priced double stroller check out the Graco Stand & Ride http://www.target.com/p/graco-roomfor2-classic-connect-stand-ride-stroller-metropolis/-/A-13932456 The bench seat has a belt if you need it, and my 3 yr old loves to ride on the back. It’s also not so big that I feel weird when only the baby is in it. There is also a version with a detachable infant seat. http://www.target.com/p/graco-ready2grow-classic-connect-stand-ride-stroller-viceroy/-/A-13773930

Diana
Guest
Diana

This was my life for 18 months.

Autumn
Guest
Autumn

I’m worried this will be us.  Just a 19 month old but she loves to run.  I carry her now in parking lots, etc cause she’s a petite thing and it keeps her shoes/my car clean cause there’s still 2 inches of snow on the ground!  GAHH (off topic but still!) When she is running around (in the yard in the snow) I do play on some of her fears.  She’s terrified of snow plows, so we keep telling her snow plows go in the street and that stops her fast.  We also told her the snow blower is a… Read more »

Erin
Guest
Erin

Yes. Stroller. Yes. I agree. My 3.5 year old is still corralled in a stroller at times (he has a BIG brother, not a little), and still sleeps in a crib . . . Stroller. Do it. Good luck.

Amy
Guest
Amy

We practiced a lot of Red Light/Green Light . We also set running limits- run to the driveway, run to the tree etc. Depending on situation, they can run 4 steps or half a block. Let’s them feel some freedom but set the boundaries.

Janet Dubac
Guest
Janet Dubac

Thank you so much for this post. I have the same problem with my little boy and I am really learning a lot of new things from this. I am sure that like me, a lot of parents will find this very helpful. Thanks for sharing this.

Jimmy
Guest

Double strollers are basically impossible in my day to day.  I need something I can fold up and carry on a bus or down long escalators.  A double stroller plus 2.5y/o and 9mo/o doesn’t work in those situations.   The baby still works in carrier (but not much longer if my shoulders have a say in this), and the toddler can fit in an umbrella stroller without looking too ridiculous (for judgment mitigation purposes).  So lately I’ve taken to starting with the baby in the umbrella stroller and the toddler holding hands, standing close, or with a hand on the… Read more »

Corinne
Guest
Corinne

Do you have a good carrier for back carries (like an Ergo or a Beco?)  I still wear my 2 year old in a back carry with my Beco regularly, including an all day event.  That might buy you enough time to allow the toddler to learn to hold hands.

Meagan
Guest
Meagan

I know this is a little extreme, but point out road kill.  Explain that the animal wasn’t holding its parent’s hand.  

Susan
Guest
Susan

This totally worked for my 4 and 2.5 year old boys – I didn’t mean to do it but there is a massive field of prairie dogs near “our” Costco and we saw one squished in the road.  We talked about how it ran out in front of a car and the car didn’t see it because it was small and now it’s gone and its mama is very sad. Now anytime we’re in a parking lot I say, “Do you want to be a squished prairie dog?” and they both shout NO! and grab my hand.  I did use… Read more »

emah
Guest

Jimmy, have you looked at the Maclaren double strollers? They’re not super-light, but I can carry mine and my 1-year-old and have my 3-year-old hold my hand. I’ve got a carry strap hooked to it. Might be better than your current arrangement.

christine
Guest
christine

We went through this with our oldest, too, and I ended up having to carry him in a toddler backpack or ergo around the neighborhood until he was 3 or so.  Not ideal, of course — if I could have had anything I wanted, he would have learned to hold hands and walk calmly through the neighborhood with us whenever we were out and around.  But, since I couldn’t get my wish (no matter how hard I tried to train him), I finally let go of all my angst over the fact that he wasn’t going to walk nicely even… Read more »

Katie
Guest
Katie

Owner of the aforementioned Graco Ready to Grow stroller here.  Purchased for $179 at Target after my son bolted from me in a combination Walmart/Trader Joe’s busy parking lot while I was wearing a newborn and carrying a bag of groceries.  (and received the only butt-swatting I have ever given.  Not my finest parenting moment). The good news:  I was able to sell the stroller for $100 less than 10 months after I bought it–because the bolting stage does pass 🙂  But until the common sense kicked in, if you’re looking for a good option, it got the job done.… Read more »

c
Guest
c

I have a 2 and 4 year old, and both were/are runners at ~2. Ihaven’t read all the comments, but hand holding crossing roads and in parking lots is non-negotiable, or they get carried (luckily my 4 year old knows the drill so I can hold her hand while man-handling my screaming two year old across the street, if necessary). Also, we say (well, scream) “red light” if they need to stop because they’re headed for danger. For some reason it works wonders and they freeze as soon as we say it. They can’t (and don’t) move until we say… Read more »

KAren
Guest
KAren

My daughter was like this from about 15 months on. Still does not have good impulse control, even at 3.5. Fenced parks, fenced parks, fenced parks. I don’t trust her in parking lots or other hazardous areas so we hold hands. No double stroller, even after we had #2.

Donna @ Little Lilypad Co
Guest

My eldest daughter was the “perfect” child and did everything when she was supposed to. My youngest child however has arrived to remind me that I am not the perfect mother! 🙂 My spirited toddler is a runner, so I have read your post with interest and humour. Thanks for sharing!!

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Mona
Guest
Mona

Our oldest was totally a runner up until about 3… We had a harness for him that looked like a monkey with a tail / leash. He LOVED that thing, he even gave it a name (Opie), and got excited every time we got it out because it meant he was going for a walk. Sure, it sounds like we were raising him like a puppy, but he also got onto the trash all the time and referred to a game of catch as “fetch.”.
He’s also still in one piece, so we win this round of parenting!

Danielle
Guest
Danielle

We had good luck with our harness, too. It gets some judgment — even on this thread — but it’s very effective and doesn’t require one to wrestle a screaming, fighting toddler into a stroller. : ) It was definitely a great back-up for us to teach holding hands in dangerous places, and our son also loved going for walks in his (which was a lion).

Bear
Guest
Bear

Yes, red light/green light helped us.

Also, we started to notice that our runner ran mostly when he was in familiar territory and knew what to expect. That was helpful in figuring out when to admonish and when to just keep him in sight.

Last, just to cheer the OP up, I once froze an entire intersection full of strangers on the streets of a very large city yelling “freeze!” at my then-two-year old. I have a carrying, commanding voice, and at least two dozen adults froze in their tracks one day when I used it on my small person. Oops.

Marissa
Guest
Marissa

When I was a toddler, I was a runner. I regularly ran from my mother at the mall, reducing her to tears on a regular basis. In fact, I was such a hardcore runner, in fact, that I ran away from my parents and leapt into the Delaware River. Just gonna repeat that: as a toddler, I ran into the Delaware River (for non-Americans, that’s a major river on our Eastern Seaboard). My dad’s a strong swimmer, and thankfully it was not the rainy season at the time, hence I’m writing this comment today. That was what prompted my mom… Read more »

Lin
Guest
Lin

We started playing “Red Light/ Green Light”. So if you’ve ever seen a harried, sleep-deprived woman at Safeway with a full cart of groceries and a baby in the cart, screaming “RED LIGHT” down the aisle with a toddler “freezing” in a comical pose, come over and say Hi. Everyone else avoids me ’cause I’m obviously crazy.

Danielle
Guest
Danielle

does anyone have any advice on how to stop a 4 yr.old from running off? He ran away from the line at preschool, and also left the yard twice in the same week. Consequences don’t seem to matter to him and he has no fear. I have enough for the both of us but it still isn’t making an impact.

Jen
Guest
Jen

I have a baby plus a 2 and 3 year old.  They LOVE to run.  Its soo stressful!  The other day I had a friend helping me at my daughters sports and my 2 year old booted it out the door into the parking lot before she could catch him.. Today after swimming my daughter ran away across to the other side of the parking lot while I was trying to buckle my 2 year old in.  I have too many kids and not enough hands.  I feel defeated.  I am scared to go anywhere in public that doesn’t have… Read more »

mum
Guest
mum

What if you go home and the issue continues? Unlocking and opening the doors. My toddler doesn’t get enough action but that isnt going to change drastically until after no more diapers.

Superfather
Guest
Superfather

Maybe the problem is you?

I had the same with my son. When going to a mall I told him to stay close. I had more luck talking to a brick wall. But then I realized it was me who had’t made it clear for him.

Right now I tell him: “you cannot run off to the kiddie ride all by yourself. If you want to go to the kiddie ride you ask me and we’ll go together”.

He does.

Problem solved.

😉

Anne
Guest
Anne

My question is the same as Danielle’s. I have a 4 year old that fights me every time we need to cross the street, because I will hold his hand. I have turned it the other way ” you hold my hand or I will hold yours” that’s an improvement but it does not stop him from protesting the entire way, full blown tantrums… Etc. I am emotionally spent. He also runs away whenever the opportunity arises. This happens every time we go out no matter what I do. He doesn’t seem to understand, and at the same time understands… Read more »

Rowena
Guest
Rowena

I know this is an old post but THANK YOU for this article and also all the comments. My 4 year old is a runner and I didn’t realise it was so common – I thought I was the only parent looking like a sweaty mess chasing after him and freaking out when he nearly runs in to the road. I will definitely try out the red light/green light technique and you know what – I use a double buggy because I can’t chase 2 kids at the same time, but I will break out the harness / back pack… Read more »

Renee Hunt
Guest
Renee Hunt

Well said. I’m going through the same thing with my 4 year old. But he runs away when I say, “it’s time for bath”, or “You need to put your pjs on” or any request. He runs away and thinks it’s game time. 🙁