A Mum I Know…The Runaway Toddler


Psychologist, parent consultant and mum, Mish Gittens, shares her client’s stories on child behaviour.*

Client #41: The Runaway Toddler.

A mum I know, Sarah, asked me for advice regarding her 20 month old boy who ran away from her whenever they went to the park.

He would run like the wind, straight toward the road, every single visit. As she gave chase, usually screaming in horror, he ran faster, usually screaming with joyous laughter. She always caught him but now that she was pregnant with number 2 and moving slower than a newborn on a doomoo, things were getting concerning.

Her Goals.

Sarah told me wanted to be able to have a coffee with the other park mums without sprinting off in a panic mid-sentence, burning hot brew pouring down her wrist. She wanted to watch her son enjoy the park play equipment, dig in the sandpit, make friends with other kids. And of course she wanted to avoid watching her beloved little boy get run down by a vehicle.

Wanting to Capture the Moment.

We had an initial conversation and I gave her a few things to try for the following weeks and then asked her a favour – could I document her progress with her boy’s runaway behaviour to show other mums what to try and how it works?

She agreed and I set about organizing a camera, tripod, decent park weather (I had less power than I hoped with that one) and so on. I knew I had to be hasty for one main reason – this behavior was not going to continue and if I wanted to film it I had to be quick.

And so it was; a couple of months later I had the filming equipment, the weather was mild, and all of our children were well. I gave Sarah a call to say it was the perfect day to capture her son’s heart-in-mouth behaviour…and it had stopped. Not only had the little guy stopped running off at every chance, after some practice he was actually reaching out for his mum’s hand when they got to a road. ‘Buggar it all!’ I said, quickly followed by, ‘that is wonderful news for the safety of your child.’

For those of you who are experiencing a runaway toddler right now, I hear you sigh relief. Yes there is hope. Hope that one day you may leave the confines of your house and visit a public place that is not completely gated. Hope that you can put away the leash-disguised-as-an-adorable-backpack.  Hope that soon you will be able to walk from your front door to the car without a 6-kilometre detour around the neighbourhood, chasing your tireless child and screaming ‘STOP RIGHT NOW BEFORE I CATCH YOU AND KICK YOU INTO NEXT TUESDAY!!!!’

The Initial Conversation.

During the first conversation I had with Sarah, I asked her to keep two things in mind.

Firstly, toddlers are at an age where they are finding their legs and their independence – they are not trying to be naughty when they start to run away from you. Toddlers want to explore independently, and usually not too far away, but their exploring will become extra fun if it turns into a game of chasey with mum.

Secondly, he is likely to ‘grow out of it’ to some extent. Most kids begin to realise their behavior can have consequences (like feeling worried, or getting hurt or lost) and that it feels safer to stay fairly close to mum. It is true however, that some toddlers get way-too-hurt before they change their ways.

So why not get started with some strategies?

These are a few things I told Sarah to practice at home, in the backyard and in gated environments for several weeks:

  • Play loads of fun verbal instruction games: ‘RUN, STOP, GO type games’, ‘Dance, and bob down’, follow the leader etc and sing action songs like ‘Teddy Bear Teddy Bear Turn Around’. Join in, take turns giving orders. Praise for good listening.

  • When your toddler is playing, give them some attention but also let them play by themselves. The independent play should start in short bursts (a couple of minutes) and get longer. The attention should not always be interacting or directing, but rather just some commentary on what they are playing.

  • Teach yourself to relax when your toddler goes exploring a few metres away from you, they are ok! Welcome them back when they return.

  • Play races and running games like ‘run as fast as you can to the front door/back fence/red slide’ and stop at the finish line. When you play chasey, include a ‘chase mummy back’ part of the game.

If you are trying these things and they are going well, you are now ready for the park. Go without your mum friends for a couple of weeks to practice (it will be worth it!). When you are at the park:

  • Give your toddler some interaction time with you and some independent playtime just like you practiced. You don’t want them to run toward the road just to get your attention.

  • Give them a 5 minute warning when its time to go then follow that up. Keep a snack for leaving time and say ‘lets walk to the car together – you can eat your mini muffin on the way.’

  • If you are up for it, try some of your games on the way to the car eg ‘its time to go, race you to the tree!’ or ‘I am the leader, lets get jumping.’

Now you are out and about.

When you do start going out with friends, say goodbye to them then collect your child and go. All your hard work will be for nothing if your toddler is left standing next to you while you have a quick last chat about grobags and mojito recipes! Try not to sprint after your child screaming unless you absolutely have to, and a smack after you catch them is not a future deterrent – it just makes them run faster next time. Toddlers love to walk in front of you being big responsible leaders, let them do so whenever you can.

Like Sarah and her boy, the next thing to work on is road safety and encouraging your toddler to hold your hand. Check out the tips for road safety with Client #27 and get your voice ready for all those road safety songs!

Good luck with your runaway toddler and see you next time for the mum I know who asked for advice regarding her toddler who turned into a writhing, slippery, screaming eel every time she even looked at a car seat.

*This article includes a few general quick tips and ideas. If you have concerns regarding your child’s safety, development or behaviour, you should seek individual professional advice.

Copyright Mish Gittens 2013  mishgittens.com.au