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How to Keep Toddlers from Running Away When in Public

by
author image Maura Wolf
Maura Wolf's published online articles focus on women, children, parenting, non-traditional families, companion animals and mental health. A licensed psychotherapist since 2000, Wolf counsels individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, body image, parenting, aging and LGBTQ issues. Wolf has two Master of Arts degrees: in English, from San Francisco State University and in clinical psychology, from New College.
How to Keep Toddlers from Running Away When in Public
Don't let him get away from you. Photo Credit joshuaraineyphotography/iStock/Getty Images

Children ages 1 to 3 tend to be impulsive, so you cannot expect your teachings to ensure that your toddler always will do what is best for her. Toddlers who wander or run away for any reason are at risk and need the adults in their lives to protect them. For example, because of their small size and limited traffic experience, toddlers suffer the greatest number of pedestrian injuries, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. However, parents can take steps to keep young children safe while allowing them freedom to grow and explore.

Why Toddlers Run Away

Most children begin to walk, talk, socialize and solve problems during the toddler years. Toddlers naturally are inclined to discover and experiment with independence. However, they are not yet able to determine what is safe and have not learned to stop and think about consequences. Curiosity and lack of impulse control lead some toddlers to test their new freedom by running away, while others might wander off to look at something interesting. Children at department stores, for example, may delight in hiding behind clothing racks -- even as their panicky parents search for them.

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Set Limits, Follow Though

Parents must make clear to toddlers that there are consequences for running away or being wild in public. Tell your child ahead of time that if she cannot stay close or hold you hand, then she must ride in her stroller for a while. Explain that when she is calm and ready to hold your hand while walking beside you, she will be allowed to get out of the stroller and try again. If she tries to run away again, put her back in the stroller and do not waiver, even if she has a tantrum. Follow through with the consequences and remember to encourage your toddler to succeed.

Distract and Divert

Young children may not remember their parents’ rules and expectations while on an outing, and they might suddenly run off. Instead of chasing a runaway toddler, call his name or say a familiar word or concrete phrase that will stop and distract him. Give him a hug for coming back to your side. Then immediately direct his attention to a safe diversion before reminding him of the rules.

Make Errands Fun

Singing, rhyming, dancing, marching or jumping can encourage toddlers to stay near you while going from one place to another. To focus her attention while out in public, engage your child by playing simple games, asking her to copy your funny movements, saying silly words to each other or playing "Can You See What I See?"

Toddlers as Helpers

Toddlers often try to run away because they are bored. Tell your child you need her help picking out groceries, returning library books or taking your dog to the veterinarian. Most toddlers love to help, so give your child a specific job and she will be less likely to wander. Before you arrive at your destination, remind your toddler how you expect her to act. Remember to praise your child's good behavior.

Limits and Boundaries

Parents must provide the limits and boundaries toddlers need to feel safe, and toddlers reassure themselves by checking to see if they can depend on you to protect them. While young children practice independence, they also test to see how you react. Your toddler is not running away to be bad or defiant, notes Patricia Shimm, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development. Your child is excited and emboldened by his new sense of freedom and mobility, and it is natural to want to try these out. The parent's role is to be right there when the toddler looks back or to come find him and bring him back when the big world suddenly feels scary.

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