By: Alyson Schäfer

If your child bolts away from you at the first moment of freedom, then you have a real safety issue.

Here’s how you can change this situation.

Purpose of the Behaviour
As always, we must start by trying to understand the child’s motivation. We ask ourselves, “Why do they do it?”

To answer this, we look at what YOU do when then THEY run. Whatever it is, stop doing it. Chances are you’re chasing after them.

STOP participating in this misbehaviour when the situation is safe enough to allow it. You can do this by no longer agreeing to play the “chase me game”.

For example, if your child likes to bolt from you when you are helping them get dressed or when you are changing their diapers, don’t chase them. It takes two to play this game. Let them know “I am not willing to play ‘the chase game’. When you want to get dressed come let me know.” Then go about your business.

TTFT (take time for training)
Practice walking together side by side. Yes, practice walking.

In some safe place practice offering this choice:

“We need to walk together now. Can you walk beside me on your own, or do we need to hold hands?”

Tip: If you are practicing this with preverbal children, assume they’d like to walk alone if they don’t answer.

Then, let go of your toddler’s hand and see if they stay beside you. If they bolt, grab their hand and say calmly “I see you need me to hold your hand”. Walk together holding hands for a short distance and then offer the choice again. Keep repeating this choice until they see that if they would like the freedom of walking alone, they may have it when they also take responsibility for walking safely beside you.

Watch out for the most common pitfall – talking, lecturing, and reminding. If you say anything beyond presenting the choice, you are interfering in the training process by either further discouraging the child with your doubts and disappoints, or by provoking a power struggle.

Give Responsibility
Increase the number of places you let them walk independently and comment only on the success, and say nothing about the times they “make a mistake”.

Give More Responsibility
Help them learn that it is their responsibility to know their parents’ whereabouts. Children have the belief that mom and dad will follow and watch for them, so they need not pay attention.

Of course this is not a safe belief. To help them see that they must watch where YOU are, you can set up a safe learning situation by finding a safe place, safe time and a safe distance to let your toddler experience for a brief moment the effects of wandering away from you. Of course you should be vigilant and know exactly where they are at all times. By letting them experience a small controlled version of “being lost” they will see the benefit of paying attention to where you are.


About the author

Alyson Schäfer is a psychotherapist, parent coach and popular public speaker. She teaches parent education classes and works with parents one-on-one in her parent coaching practice.

Alyson is called on regularly by the media as a parenting expert. She has been featured in articles in Today’s Parent, Chatelaine, Canadian Living and Reader’s Digest. She has also been interviewed by the CBC and has appeared on TV shows like Planet Parent, Agenda, Health on the Line, W-Live with Erin Davis, and the CHCH Morning Show.

April 23, 2003, in In Public & School
Article re-published with permission,