How Do I Get My Toddler to Stop Running Away from Me in Public Places?

Updated on March 22, 2011
M.. asks from Anchorage, AK
26 answers

Hi moms, I have a 2.5 year old. She is over all a very well behaved child. We only have one behavoral issue with her. Sometimes when we are out places (a store, or the park etc) she will just bolt and run away from me like its a game. It doesn't happen that often, but its a safety hazard. We went to a birthday party tonight at a bowling alley. She was so good the whole time, then she just bolted and ran down one of the bowling lanes (towards the pins at the end), I yelled STOP, but she just giggled & ran faster. My first instinct was to run after her, I got halfway down and my fell on my butt (I was wearing nice dress shoes, and they oil those lanes!) I got my foot stuck in the side rail and hurt my foot pretty good (not to mention the embarassment of falling in front of my family and the whole bolwing alley). How do I get her to listen when I yell "stop"? We have played "stop and go" at home to try to make her understand, but in the excitment of the moment she doesn't listen. Like I said, this only happens occasionally, but she could get hurt someday. I'm lucky it was me that got hurt tonight and not her. Anyone else ever delt with this issue and can give me some guidance? Thanks in advance!

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answers from New York on

My toddler likes to walk on her own and there are places where she can and others where she can not and she MUST hold hands and this is not an option (like in the stress or malls) if she doesn't want to then to the stroller or go home.
Places like the bowling party are hard at the beggining because you can't hold hand the whole time or put her in the stroller for the whole time, in places like this is all about to be constant like any other milestone. When she runs away you get her on her level and tell her she can't run and make her sit for a couple minutes. Most of this skills/milestone take some time and the key is to be constant but also understand that they are learning just like they learned to walk, talk eat, it didn't happen in a day.

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answers from Kalamazoo on

I swore, swore, swore that I would never use one of those crazy child leashes. It never was an issue with my first son. Then my daughter came along and when she was a toddler, she wanted to run everywhere. I bought a cute monkey backpack thing that had a "tale" you could clip on. She wore it when we went places and the first signs of "bad behavior" I clipped the tail on. She didn't like to hold hands either so it left me with little options. At one point, we were hiking were it was known to have black bear and cougars and I just couldn't let her run down the trail...........

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answers from Eugene on

My first child wouldn't leave my side more than 2 feet. My second is just over 3 and today she said in the car drop me off here, I want to go for a walk. In an area she didn't know at all. She has no fear and just assumes I am watching her. I have said to her you are going to get lost if you don't stay with mommy. The only thing I can do is carry her, hold her hand or put her in a cart.

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answers from Norfolk on

There's a time and place for running and playing - play grounds, back yard, etc - and other times and places when running and playing is dangerous - parking lots, stores, malls, etc.
Toddlers have zero impulse control. They chase the ball and don't look both ways before crossing the street. They see something that catches their eye and off they go with nary a by your leave while your heart jumps into your throat worrying about cars, getting lost and hurt.
When my son was this age I HAD to put a leash on him for his safety and my sanity.
Nope - child isn't a dog - a child is more important. If leashing a dog for it's safety is a reasonable measure to take - why wouldn't you do the same for someone who is even more important than an animal?

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answers from Redding on

Bolting off like that ISN'T funny and she dang well needs to know it.
You're going to have to get a little mean about it. Sorry.
This time, someone did get hurt. No....not her. She didn't learn anything the hard way. Did you?
You have to be careful popping your kid on the butt in public, but she needs to know you are TICKED OFF when she runs from you.
At the bowling alley, once you caught her, I would have told your husband to get everything gathered up and then taken her into the bathroom and swatted her on the butt. I would have told her that it was for running and not stopping when you said and now you were leaving.
I then would have taken her directly to the car. If she wanted to cry and freak, so what? I would also tell her on the way home that next time she runs away like that, she will get popped on the butt again. And the next time and the next time.
The thing about swatting a kid is it usually only has to happen one time.
I know parents are against "hitting" and I'm not talking about using a belt or a stick or beating a kid. I am talking about a good firm hand popping a kid on the butt. One firm swat.
And let them know you'll do it again if you have to.
It's okay for a child to know they are in trouble. It's okay for them to know Mom is really mad.
That's how they learn things aren't funny.
Mommy falling down in front of everyone isn't funny. Mommy getting hurt isn't funny.
STOP means STOP!

"Honey...don't run. It's not funny. You might get hurt."
Those are just words until there is some meaning to them and you don't want the "meaning" to be a truck running over her or getting sucked down the chute at a bowling alley.
It's either that, or a harness.
It would be nice to go to a birthday party or the park without her having to wear one, but if she has to be restrained for her own safety, oh well.
I would be tempted to get one and put it on her a couple of times and just tell her it's because she won't stop when you tell her to.
If she hates it, that's even better.
It's either stop, or wear a harness.
It's stop or a pop.
At her age, there is no point in trying to reason with her, sweet talk her, or negotiate or try to explain what could happen because of danger.
Get FIRM one or two good times and that will likely be the end of it.

Best wishes.

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answers from Spokane on

I just make sure my kids were holding my hands when they were too young to understand that they *had* to stay with me. Once my daughter tried to run off and I just said 'ok, bye!' and made like I was going to go in the opposite direction. She stopped DEAD in her tracks and bolted back to me. She's never taken off since. My older 2 are 4.5 and almost 3 years.

If there's no shopping cart to put her in or stroller, just hold her hand. If she refuses, then go home. You might have to do a few 'trial runs' going to places you don't *need* to go before you get your point across that, if she runs away then you're going straight home. But it'll be worth it.

I personally don't agree with the leashes...but that's just me.

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answers from Pittsburgh on

My daughter went through this phase as a 2yr old as well. Like you it was not an all the time occurrence, but when it happened it was not funny. The hardest part for me is that at the time she became a runner I was 8 months pregnant. The worst day was when I picked her up from preschool and she bolted away from me as we went out the front door. I was never so scared in my life as she ran toward a busy street of traffic. As I yelled for her she too giggled and kept going. Amazingly enough I did catch her just before she went too far but it was a close call. What I did is explain to her that what she had just done was run away from me and that she is not allowed to do that and explained why. From that point on, I made sure to hold tightly to her hand any time we were out. When she tried to squirm or cry her way out of it, I reminded her that some times she runs away and that is not safe so she has to hold mommy's hand now. After making sure to hold her hand for enough outings that she knew what I was going to say, I let her walk beside me with the warning that if she did not listen she would go immediately into the stroller, cart or have to hold my hand. Eventually this process worked, she figured it out that if she wanted to get her way she had to play by my rules. Just stick to your guns if the promise is that if she walks further away than the cart she gets in it, then make sure that is the case. I know it is scary, even though it does not happen all the time, she is old enough to learn. (By the way, I never even considered the leash, it may work for some, but I thought they were awful, she is my child not my pet)

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answers from New York on

I would rather use a leash than have to bury my child after a traffic accident.

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answers from Dallas on

ALL THE TIME!! I look at other people with their toddlers, and they are actually shock horror, facing in the opposite direction, and their toddler is *gasp* not running off. My daughter, if I even take my eyes off her for half a sec runs off, she also did the bowling lane thing not so long back - but managed to stay on my feet!
I want to know - is it the kids that are just generally calmer, or is it our parenting style that causes them to run off. I know that I can never take my eyes off my daughter, so I don't. I never allow her to get far enough from me that she could run somewhere that I can't catch her - only happens to you occasionally? happens to me every day! - I have a runner, what can I say
leashes do work, Also hold her hand a lot, or the hood of her jacket, I carry her a lot, and have her strapped in to whatever is available.
And what a ridiculous comment about your child not being a dog - if it is a safety issue, then we should use it

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answers from Dallas on

Sorry if I am repeating someone. The leashes or harnesses for kids work great. I had twins running opposite directions at the mall one time and it scared me to death. I found some that looked like our girls had stuffed animals riding on their backs. One was a monkey and the other was a bear, I think. I put them on their backs at home without the leashes attached to practice and they loved them. I got them at Wal-Mart. At first I worried about what other people would think and soon realized who gives a c**p. Their safety is more important than what other people think. I was surprised when people began asking me where I found them because they wanted them for their own toddlers.

Edited: After reading Julie AC's comment I started thinking about the whole leash thing. I realized once again, who gives a c**p what other people think. I witnessed my Yorkie getting hit by a car last year and had nightmares for a long time after. I can't imagine the horror of having my child get hit by a car when moments before I was running behind her yelling I'm gonna whoop you when I get hold of you! Sometimes there are no second chances.

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answers from Kansas City on

she understands, don't be fooled. she's playing with you. stop being "patient" stop trying to be the "good mom" - when it's s safety issue it's okay to get MAD and let them see it - they do need to have some fear, even if it's only fear of you being angry. make SURE she understands you are SERIOUS. immediate end of any fun. take her straight home, give her a good earful on the ride home. that behavior should shut down ANY and ALL fun she is having. do it EVERY time, and she will learn.

also, you don't mention this specifically, but if she is not a big enough girl to be safe (i would word it like this to her), she will be carried or hold a hand EVERY time she is outside or in a public place (ESPECIALLY PARKING LOTS!). she has to learn to be safe, it's not a joke and it's NOT an option. get harda*** on her, mom. she needs it, this is part of our job.

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answers from Las Vegas on

When my children were younger, I got them both both toddler-sized backpacks which I loaded up with their favorite toys and coloring books. I had them wear them everywhere we went because I found that they couldn't run very fast or very far when they had something heavy like that to tote around. The other good thing about it is, because there's a lot of things for them to do or play with in there, it always gave them things to do when we were at a restaurant or a doctors office -- basically places where they have a lot of sitting down and waiting to do (think bowling alley).

I would also recommend maybe putting her in time out or the naughty corner for 2 minutes. As you correctly pointed out, it is a safety hazard although, right now, she is thinking it is a game. If you put her in time out for running away, she will learn that it is a big no-no with mommy. There were two things that my children got automatic time-outs for when they were younger: physical agression and breaking a safety rule. I wanted to impress upon them the seriousness of the infraction so that they would be less likely to do it again.

Hope this helps.

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answers from San Francisco on

I have four kids and have never been able to bring myself to use a leash. I know I will probably get a lot of flack from those leash users on this site but my husband and I would always say oh, what a cute doggie when we saw a kid on a leash, just looks odd. My youngest was a runner. We had the hand holding rule and would use the stroller if he wasn't agreeable or in cases (like the bowling alley) where it wasn't reasonable to hold his hand the entire time. I do feel for you, running in the street was one of my biggest fears so we were really diligent about carrying him or having a firm grip on his hand. I'm sorry you got hurt, you poor thing! Someday you will be able to laugh about it and enjoy watching her chase her own little stinker!

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answers from Williamsport on

Toddlers can be trained not to run away (it's called training at this age since they're too young for sophisticated reasoning and empathy to how you feel about it). She needs a consequence for doing it after you have warned her to "come here" or whatever command you use. On the second warning, when she doesn't, you administer the consequence (pop on the butt-right there, or in bathroom, depending on venue). Be calm and consistent. You're teaching her to respond to your spoken request, not yelling, and not after ten warnings. Some people train at home by setting up scenarios so the kids get used to it before the public situations, but even being diligent at home when you call her will suffice. You're right, this is extremely dangerous, and it greatly enhances self control and maturity at this age to teach to come when called, so don't feel bad for using discipline. I would never have been able to function out and about alone with all 3 of mine all the time without this training, and I've never needed a leash (but did buy one for an airport once so no one escaped in the security line under the ropes when my hands were full, can you imagine?) The stop and go game is great, and she does "understand" at this age, but with no consequence for deciding to ignore you, she has no reason to stop, and will actually learn she is allowed to ignore you if you keep giving empty "no's". Be firm. It's a safety issue. Restraining works by force in the moment, but doesn't teach her to stay with you and do what you say going forward. This is a life saver for the times you don't have a stroller with you etc. My kids say with me, and I don't have to yell.

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answers from Kansas City on

I second the leash. We have a backpack one and one that attaches to he wrist. She's 4 now and we dont have to use it anymore, but when she was 2-3, often just the threat of the leash would be good enough to keep her from running.

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answers from Rochester on

My own oldest didn't run (and my second isn't quite there yet, so we'll see...) but I had a friend whose son ALWAYS ran, and boy, as they get older, threeish, they can run VERY fast. I remember watching her chase him all through the mall, and I just remember how embarrasing it was.

Honestly, my best advice is a leash. They seem to work, I don't see any silly moral problem with them, I don't think it's treating a child like a dog, and I think for safety reasons it's your best option until she learns to "heel" (sorry the joke, but that's basically it! She just needs training.)

And I am so with you, because I have a feeling my little one is going to be a runner.

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answers from Oklahoma City on

See if you can find someplace local that is having Love and Logic parenting classes. They teach you how to address things like this.

I give my little one a swat when this happens but his has advanced from simple running off inside the store. To where one time when we were getting out of our vehicle he took off, ran through the gate behind our house that goes into the back (truck/semi's) area of Walmart, ran all the way to the front of the store, went inside to visit with the door greeter people who I had just called on my cell phone to yell I had a 3 year old on the loose and to please restrain him, he took off when they tried to get him to stop, and when I finally got around the block driving to try and catch him I pulled right in front of him as he tried to get on the busy street in front of Walmart where there are several deaths a year because it is a very dangerous intersection.

Even though it was funny to see all those older door greeters and Walmart managers running around chasing a 3 year old...his life was in serious danger.

Love and Logic teaches that kids need to learn to be responsible and learn to make choices. One of the sessions addresses not stopping when asked or going to where asked.

In Walmart he is given the choice "Do you want to sit in this part of the basket or the top in the little seat?". He chooses the large area in the basket. When he stands or gets on his knees he is moved immed. to the seat area and buckled in. Screaming, kicking, etc...he gets moved. The next time we go ame thing. He will sit down more and eventually sit all the time in the area he chooses.

One of the teachings says that the next time you are going somewhere you act as if everything is normal by saying "I am going to...(where ever)" but when it is time for the litte one to go out the door you say "I have some sad/bad news sweetie, you know when you ran off at the bowling alley? Well, since you can't stop when I ask you too I afraid I am not taking you with me this time". Then don't take them. Leave them with the worst babysitter possible so they will hate staying at home...not a careless babysitter but one that doesn't make staying at home fun. Someone who only lets them play in their room and maybe not outside or something like that.

We have used this and it really works. Our older girl sometimes acted out in the store and I had a plan ready where if she did something not allowed I would take her to the door and my hubby would take her to the car. One time I finally had enough of the "I want this/I want that" and I told her she was going to the car and I literally had to drag her from theTV area up the isles, pulling her hands off racks of clothes, through the check out area, the whole gamit of temper tandrum time. She has never run off from me one time since. And when I ask her if she wants to go to the car, for instance if she is whining about wanting a toy, because she is not helping the shopping time to be fun, she will immed. stop the behavior and start doing what I have asked.

Love and Logis is very good for teaching us how to turn the behavior on to the child and them understanding how they need to act differently. It works on kids and grownups alike. It even works on husbands.

Some of our elementary schools offer the classes once a semester, local mental health facilities offer them for people needing to learn better parenting skills, local social services offer them to parents whose children may be in foster care, those would of course be confidential classes but they may know of some in the community, or just call around to local youth shelters or organizations. Someone may even be able to tell you something about starting a class at the website too.

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answers from Johnstown on

Get a leash and put on her. They make really cute animal backpack style ones now. Gives her some freedom, gives you some peace of mind.

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answers from Indianapolis on

I don't know about a bowling alley, but most the time you could keep her strapped in a shopping cart or stroller if she isn't good at holding hands. You can also get one of those back packs with the straps like a leash. One of these days it's going to be into the street instead of down the bowling lane.

When she does run away, stop whatever you're doing and leave. Yes, it sucks for you, but she'll learn that if she runs, she doesn't get to do things. Start every outing by telling her the rules. "You need to stay close to me, holding my hand. If you run, we'll come home." Last night you could have told her, "You need to stay close to me and not run around. If you run away, we'll come home." Then as soon as she ran, you pack up your things and head out. Like I said, you'll miss out on things a few times, but she'll learn the fun ends when she runs.

I don't think hitting children is ever the right answer. There are so many who would rather just get the swat and go on acting out! Find another way to discipline. Spanking is the lazy way out of trying to figure out what your child's "currency" is.

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answers from Houston on

Get that little butt, that is all I can tell you!! For something that can be life or death, I would get that lil booty good!! We have a plastic spoon that we use, not our actual hand. If you are not for spanking, then definitely a fast punishment like time out would work. I have done my share of time outs in public places. But definitely in your position, I would have punished my child, privately of course, well if it was a spanking, hard to do a private time out in public. She could have been injured or she could take off in a parking lot, I am very strict when it comes to running off, electricity and well anything that could be life threatening basically. Good luck!!

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answers from Sherman on

She is a child, not a dog!!! If you have a stroller use that in public places until she understands that she must listen ALL thentime

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answers from New York on

It is worth trying the leash even if you don't use it often. I think the harness around the chest is safer than the wrist ones. When my son was that age he was on the leash in some situations. He understood pretty quickly that if he ran he wound get the leash for the rest of the outing. My daughter is now 26 months and it is sometimes a problem (but she tolerates the stroller much better). Also on a few occasions when he ran I caught him and held him in time out on my lap for 2 minutes wherever we were. It worked well with him since he hates to be restrained.

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answers from Cleveland on

I would get a Beco, Ergo, or other soft structured carrier and wear her. She is still at an age where it will take lots of repetition before she understands.

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answers from Fort Wayne on

I have to say, I feel very passionately, right or wrong, that leashes for children are for parents taking the easy way out, and are made for those who don't want to have to tell their kid no, and don't want to have to deal with the screaming and crying they hear when they make them sit in their stroller. They don't solve the problem of the lack of setting expectations, and I find it disturbing seeing a kid on them......having said that......What kind of punishment do you put into place after she does this? If there's no punishment, then she's not going to worry about getting in trouble, and will continue to do it because she thinks it's fun. I had a friend whose kid did this, and one time when we went to the mall, my friend went into a store and left her with me, and she asked to get out of the stroller. I said "no, I'm sorry, I know you'd like to get out, but the last time you were let out, you ran, and that's not allowed." So, she sat there and cried and tried to squirm her way out, but I ignored her. When my friend came back, her daughter started crying, and I told her what happened, and eventually she let her back out, so......she ran away from her AGAIN! If your child is running, there must be a consequence. Make her sit in a stroller, and no matter what, she stays there. Make her sit beside you and not be allowed to bowl. It may be tough the first couple of times because she's going to cry loudly and try to get her way, but in the long run you won't have to chase her anymore.

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answers from Chicago on

You need to have immediate consequences for running away. I would have grabbed her at the bowling alley (or wherever, really) and taken her right to the car, strapped her in the carseat, and given her a time-out where she wouldn't be able to get away. Then I would have calmly explained why this behavior is unacceptable and what will happen EVERY time she does this. You also need to explain in very clear terms what she's supposed to do- not just what she's NOT supposed to do. Little kids will focus on some of your words, but usually not all, so make sure you tell her what she needs to do when you call her. I don't think parents need to get physical in any situation, but you need to get really serious with her and with the consequences so she learns really quickly what you will tolerate. If that means leaving somewhere or something that she really likes, even better. A few times of that and she'll stop!

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answers from Cleveland on

Check out or his book Making the Terrible Twos Terrific.

One of the best pieces of advice I got from Dr. Rosemond was related to this. I was with my daughter at the library (I think she was about 3). I told her she had to stay with me. She picked out a couple of movies and then she started running through the bookshelves. I put the movies back and left immediately. She cried "I want my movies" the whole way home. But she has never run away from me again. There have to be consequences but they don't have to be monumental - keep it simple.

Next question: We've Got a Runner! (Toddler That Is)