Reining In A Runaway Preschooler

On occasion, we answer reader questions on our blog. We choose questions based on the issues we frequently hear about from families we work with. In today’s post, I answer a reader’s question about how to keep their runaway kiddo safe!


Help! Every time we walk to the park, my adventurous three-year-old bolts away from me. When I ask her to come back, she just ignores me. When I yell, she laughs in my face. The other day I totally lost it and screamed that we are never going to the park again. It’s been a week and we are both going stir crazy, but I am terrified to try again. How do I help her understand how dangerous this is and get her to stay with me?


Stuck At Home Mama


Dear Reader,

I am so glad you asked this question! While it may be a common problem with young children, it is certainly one of the scarier ones to go through. A little one running away from us is sure to send any parent or caregiver in to a state of panic. The good news is, with some patience and persistence, we can help our children learn to stay safe when we are out and about in the world.

1) Share your feelings. When you are playing or having a calm moment, say something like, "I feel scared when you run away from me when we are out and about. I am worried you might get hurt.”

2) Ask your child how they are feeling when they run away. When we want our children to work with us to solve a problem, it is essential to let them have a voice in the matter. Ask them how they feel when they run away and you call them back. They may say, “I don’t know.” You might make a guess and say, “I bet its hard staying with grownups all the time, I wonder if you are wanting some freedom.” Another guess might be, “I wonder if it feels powerful to take charge and run off.” And yet another, “I wonder if it feels kind of like a chase game when I run after you. Does it make you want to keep running?” It’s so important to show empathy for their feelings if you want them to show empathy for yours.

3) Create a plan. You might say, “When we are out of the house, we need to stay where we can see each other. Do you have any ideas about how you can feel some freedom but still stay safe?” Give them a little time to think and see if you can brainstorm some ideas together.

One idea that has worked really well for families I have worked with is to let your child walk a certain number of steps ahead of you. It’s amazing how just giving them the freedom to be a few steps ahead can help them feel a sense of self control. This is most successful if we give them some choice in the matter. Ask her what she thinks a fair number of steps ahead would be. If it is more than you are comfortable with, you can say, “That feels to far for me, what about X steps?” Then say "when you go further than x steps away from me, I will remind you of our agreement. If you continue to go too far, we will need to come home if it is somewhere we can leave (or ride in the stroller, whatever works for you)."

This would also be the time to create some agreements about what happens at street corners. Could she sing a song while she waits for you to catch up? Could you do a little call and response where she says, “corner” and then you both count how many steps it takes you to get there? It really doesn’t matter what you choose, just creating a ritual together around what happens then will really help you guys both feel some sense of control over the situation.

4) Check for understanding. This is a really important step. Once you guys have come up with a plan together, ask her some probing questions, such as, “Ok, what’s our plan for staying safe when we walk to the park?” “How many steps ahead of me will you be?” “What will I do if I am concerned you are further ahead?” and finally, “What will we do if we are not able to stay safe and follow our plan?”

The next few times you go out, run through these questions beforehand so that you both are clear. You can even get silly and say, “How many steps ahead of you am I supposed to walk?” or “You are going to take me home if I am not keeping our agreement, right?”

5) Plan on her testing the new agreement, it’s how children make sure we mean what we say. As soon as she is further ahead than agreed upon, ask, "How many steps ahead of me did we agree you could be?” or, “How many steps ahead of me are you?” Most likely, she will come back and then maybe test again. The cool part about asking how many steps ahead they are is that they have to walk back to you to count the distance.

6) Follow Through. If she doesn't keep her end of the deal, then you have to follow through. The follow through should be kind and firm. Just a simple, "Ok honey, we need to leave now. We will try again another time.” No lecture or anger, just the facts. This allows her to learn from the experience without feeling shame.

She is likely to be upset. This is ok! Let her have her feelings, and believe in her ability to get through them. So often, we try to talk our kids out of their emotions, which only makes them more upset. It can send the message, “Wow, this really is a big deal and I am not sure you can handle it.”

What you can do you is say one empathetic statement such as “I can see you are really mad because you wanted to go to the park.” Try offering a hug as well. Then just sit back and let her work through it. If you need to, just chill on the sidewalk until she has calmed down and is ready to go back home.

7) If the agreement was kept, be sure and express some appreciation! Over the top praise is not necessary. A simple, “Thank you for keeping our agreement! I feel excited that we have a way to walk places where you feel some freedom AND we are safe.”

If the agreement was not kept, avoid the urge to dwell. I can’t stress enough how important it is to just let it go. Our urge is to keep talking, to lecture, to say, “I told you so,” or “if you had listened to me this wouldn’t have happened.” When we do that, we send our kids in to resistance and rebellion, which does not make them want to do better next time. Instead, help them let it go. Remind them we all make mistakes and you guys will try again soon.

I hope this helps you and your daughter work through this common challenge in a way that is respectful of both of you. And, this same discussion and follow through process can be used for almost anything. I would recommend only doing one new agreement at a time, letting that issue settle before trying to solve any other big issues.

Happy walking!