If you have a toddler the chances are you have watched them run away from you a time or two. Toddlers can be so fast as they bolt into the street, parking lot or busy store and this can be incredibly scary (and frustrating) as a parent.
Learn here exactly what to do about toddlers running away so you can handle it with care, plus the 10 easy ways to prevent it.
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Why do toddlers run away?
It might seem like toddlers run away just to terrify us, a special kind of torture, but toddlers often run away because they don’t have a reason not to. They’re impulsive.
Toddlers have very little sense of danger. They’re not going to think about oncoming cars or the risk of being separated from you in a crowd full of strangers.
Toddlers like to run and play. Running is freedom. It’s just fun.
They might also be running to avoid something that’s about to happen that they want to avoid, such as being strapped into their car seat.
Your toddler might run away because they know they’ll get a dramatic reaction out of you, and they’re testing limits to see how that works. We’ll get into that later.
Toddlers running away is normal, but also dangerous. So it’s important to know what to do when it happens, and how to prevent it in the first place.
The most important thing to remember about toddlers running away
It’s extremely important to remember that it’s your responsibility to keep your toddler safe.
It’s not your toddler’s responsibility to not run into the street. Of course I’m going to teach you ways to prevent it and skills you can give your toddler, but in the end it’s still 100% up to you to keep them safe.
At this age they still lack self control, and no amount of special talks or games can guarantee that they won’t race off.
Over time their cooperation and impulse control will increase, but for now it’s an important part of your mindset to know that their safety is up to you, and not up to them.
What to do when your toddler runs away
Your response to your toddler running away is very important. It sets the tone for the future.
Here are 4 steps to take in the moment that your toddler runs away.
#1. Stay calm
#2. Catch them
#3. Firmly state boundary
#4. Try again
#1. Stay calm
You will of course be taking the safety of your toddler very seriously, but it’s important that you stay calm. Avoid shouting out anything like,
“Oh my God, where are you going!!!? What’s wrong with you!!!??”
This isn’t even a helpful thing to say, it’s not like you need the answer to this question.
If you freak out or panic (either with your words, facial expressions or body language) it tells your toddler that running away can get a big (and possibly interesting) reaction from you. They might want to experiment with this dramatic response again in the future.
#2. Catch them
This will probably be happening at the same time as #1. The amount of danger they’re in will probably determine exactly how you’re catching them.
Sometimes toddlers run away in a fairly safe setting and you can let out a whole sigh before you go get them, whereas other times you literally drop everything and run as fast as you can to catch them.
If necessary and you feel it’s safe to do so, you might want to consider yelling out, “Stop him, please!” A lot of times passing adults might not realize how far away the parent actually is from this toddler running by and that you need help to stop them.
#3. Firmly state the boundary
Once they’re safe and you know you’re calm (and not going to say something unhelpful) you can state the boundary. If you’re angry and speak with anger then the emotion of the moment is going to increase a lot which might not be helpful. Being calm but firm and straight to the point is important.
Get down to their level and look them in the eyes if appropriate.
Here are some examples of some of the things you might say in this moment.
“Staying close to me is safe.”
“I know it looks really fun to go over there, but it’s my job to keep you safe.”
“I know running can be really fun, like when we play tag. But running away from me is not ok and not safe.”
“When I say stop it’s very important for you to stop.”
“Oops, looks like you forgot to stick with me. Let’s hold hands so you won’t forget.”
Firm boundaries help kids to know exactly where the line is drawn between what is and isn’t ok. You can read more about the use of firm boundaries here.
#4. Try again
Now try again to walk to your destination or to stay in the designated area. Hold hands or carry them if necessary, and stay on alert.
Once you two have been successful with this second attempt you can say something like, “We did it! I knew we could get to the car without you running away. Thank you for holding my hand!”
This will help cap the experience with a positive note, something they might want to relive in the future, rather than wanting to relive the excitement of being chased and seeing their parent freak out.
10 Strategies to Stop Toddler from Running Away ⭐️
Here are some easy strategies to use to prevent your toddler from running away.
You are the expert of your child, so try the strategies you think will work for your toddler.
#1. Mandatory hand holding ⭐️
Even if they love being independent and usually don’t run away, it might be time to make hand holding a firm boundary for your toddler.
You can say something like this: “I know you really like walking beside me, but it’s my job to keep you safe and I need us to hold hands in order to do that. If you let go I will remind you that you need to hold my hand.”
#2. Pocket holding ⭐️
Some parents have had great success by teaching their child to hold onto their pocket, this is especially helpful when their hands are full.
Pocket holding keeps your toddler close but it’s also a very specific instruction, whereas “stay close” can be too vague for a toddler. “Hold on to my pocket,” is much more tangible.
#3. Utilize the baby carrier ⭐️
If you have a baby and a toddler than using a baby carrier can be a great way to make sure your hands are free for your toddler.
If your toddler is still pretty small you might even want to use the baby carrier for them.
#4. Toddler first in, last out ⭐️
When you’re getting in and out of the car, if this is the time they usually run, you can try making sure your toddler is the first in and the last out.
This could mean as soon as you get to the car you put down your bags or coffee in the closet spot (ground, roof of car) and first strap in your toddler. If you have a baby it can mean the toddler gets strapped first.
When getting out of the car the idea is the same but reversed, make sure you have everything else you need so it’s a smooth transition from unclipping them to then walking to your destination.
Your toddler of course might hate this but you can say something like, “I know you wish you didn’t have to sit in your car seat for so long. How annoying! But it’s really important that I keep you safe, and when you’re in the car seat I’m able to put everything else inside the car without worrying about you running away.”
#5. Pack up the car before bringing out the toddler ⭐️
If your toddler is safe inside the house without you (because they’re busy, they’re sleeping, another adult is with them, etc) you can try loading up the car before taking them out.
When you get home you can also take your toddler inside right away if there is another adult at home, and then unload the car instead of trying to juggle everything at once.
#6. Maximize use of the shopping cart seat ⭐️
Most shopping carts have a seat for kids. Even if they’ve gotten used to walking beside you it might be best to start using the seat more.
Even if you’re going into a store for just a few things and you don’t really “need” a cart you can still use one just for the sake of keeping your toddler contained with you.
#7. Play “Slow Down – Come Back” ⭐️
This isn’t a real game, but basically you can find a way to practice these important skills but in a fun way for your toddler.
Do it somewhere safe like your backyard and have them walk or run across the yard and they have to practice the instructions of either, “Slow down,” or, “Come back.” You can also add, “Stop” or “Wait for me,” if you’d like.
What’s important about this is that it’s good practice for their body to learn to do these things, and you can celebrate with them when they get good at it and acknowledge that they know how to do it. This will help to build their confidence and their skills.
#8. Take a friend with you ⭐️
If say you’re going somewhere like to a street fair or the beach with your kids and you know it’s going to be crowded and hard to keep them with you then why not invite a friend to come with you, or one of your toddler’s grandparents.
This can help you to actually enjoy the experience instead of feeling like you spent the entire time making sure they wouldn’t run away.
#9. Use a backpack leash ⭐️
I know a lot of parents just cringed even at the suggestion, but the truth is sometimes as parents we have to do what we have to do.
Remember, it’s your job to keep your toddler safe, even if that means you feel self conscious about how you do it.
Using a child leash doesn’t mean you think your child is an animal, but that you are going to make sure they’re safe.
A situation where you might definitely want to consider using a backpack leash for your toddler would be when you are travelling through an airport. Airports can be busy with a lot of open spaces and restricted areas your toddler can dash to, and it doesn’t help that you’re usually sleep-deprived and have so much else to focus on.
Here are a few great options currently available on Amazon.
#10. Avoid opportunities for your toddler to run away ⭐️
This one is easier said than done, but if possible consider not taking your toddler with you on errands or to the playground close to the street with no fence.
This isn’t always ideal or practical, but sometimes it’s necessary just to avoid these situations altogether. This might mean getting someone to watch your toddler while you run errands, paying extra for grocery delivery, or just waiting until they’re older before doing certain fun activities.
Not all situations can be avoided though which is why it will be important to implement some of the other tips as well.
When do toddlers stop running away?
This can be a really frustrating time so you might wonder when your toddler will outgrow this whole running away from you thing.
This isn’t about the age of toddlers though, personality plays a big part here and other developmental milestones like gaining more impulse control, listening to instructions, etc.
It is impossible to say when your toddler will outgrow running away from you, but following all the tips above will help you decrease the amount of time it takes them to outgrow it.
How often you actually go out and practice staying close and becoming more aware of the environment will also play a role in how long it takes until they stop.
Not all children are the same, some might stop running away at 3 years old, others at 6 years old. If this is still an issue at 6 years old you can start teaching them new skills like checking if the environment is safe, learning to ask for permission to go ahead of you, safe street crossing practices, etc.
Conclusion of What To Do When Toddlers Run Away
These tips of what to do when your toddler runs away are all in line with gentle parenting, meaning they are effective while also respectful to your child.
Toddlers can’t be responsible for their own safety, and it’s up to the parents to make sure they are always safe.
Use these tips to keep your toddler safe next time you are out and about. Toddlers running away is normal behaviour at their age, and they will outgrow it, especially if you don’t give them a big, dramatic reaction that they might want to recreate.