My 3.5 Old Wanders off Routinely and I Need Help

Updated on June 29, 2011
S.M. asks from Portsmouth, NH
21 answers

I have 3.5 year old son who is extremely independent. He knows the rule of when you are in a parking lot you have to hold my hand but in all other cricumstances he takes off. No matter how much I talk to him or yell at him or punish him he doesn't listen and continues to wander off.

Examples: I'm changing out of my bathing suit in the locker room, he leaves the locker room.
We were at the movies, just as everyone stands up he runs up the aisle so he is ahead with a whole bunch of people and you can't even see him.
We took him to a play outdoors at night and he took off to try to find the bathroom and then again when it was time to go.

He is a fast little critter so in the time it takes to stand up and grab your purse, he's gone.

I also have another child so I always have to grab her to go get him.

But the kicker was tonight we were at the library for this story book/music show. He had been sitting on my lap. It ended. We stood up, I turned around grabbed my purse and he was gone in a see of people. I learned he took off OUTSIDE and was crossing the street.

Thank god someone brought him back. But unless I strap him to me 100% of the time, I don't know how to teach him that he cannot wander off like this. Talking, yelling, taking away treats, toys, desserts, books, immediate timeout, immediate bedtime ... nothing works.

Anyone have other ideas?

I need someone to tell me something that will work.

What can I do next?

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So What Happened?

Update: We've decided that handholding is a must at all times. We have discussed earning freedom and trust and until such time, he has to hold mommy's hand.

Finally we've agreed to as much as possible take two cars so that if he wanders, he goes home while his sister gets to continue the fun.

I'll let you know how it goes...

Finally thank you for all of your tips, it really helped in discussing this with my husband ...

Featured Answers



answers from New York on

The harnesses are good in certain circumstances i.e. airport. However, up
until recently no one ever used them. Yes there were harnesses for the
carriage. When I go out with my grandchildren 3 and 1, I take the baby
out first. The 3 yo gets out and holds my hand. I do not let him go. Told
him when he learns to stay beside me, I will let go. He is getting it because
he now will walk very nicely next to me. My hand is always down ready to
grab him if he moved. It takes patience and consistency. By putting the
harness on he does not learn anything. He still bolts but is attached to Mom.
Nothing learned.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from New York on

I'd only take him out strapped in a carriage until he can behave better. For his safety, you cannot have him running outside, going into the street, etc. If he can't listen, then you need to do what is necessary for his safety. Also, he can't run out to the aisle in the theater if you are sitting on the outside. I know some people like these harnesses, I wouldn't have ever used one myself, but I would strap the child into the carriage and not give him freedom, or leave him home when you can. If he runs away at the movies or story time, he doesn't need the privilege of going to those events.

1 mom found this helpful

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answers from New York on

I used a harness on my son at that age until he got the idea. He didn't like it so I would tell him he had to stay with me/hold my hand or be on the harness. He also got put into a stroller or shopping cart for time outs if he misbehaved. Also on a few occasions I held him in time out by sitting behind him and held his arms and legs. I reserved that for running into/ near the street or other very unsafe occasions. Once I let my son get "lost" in the grocery store were we always shop. He wandered off and I let him be lost for a few minutes while I was at the end of the aisle (hiding but watching him). The just about stopped the running away. It also helps to remind him on what is expected behavior when you get someplace. Also teach him his own full name, your full name and what to do if he does get separated from you. As he gets older teach him his home address and phone number. At a few large events I have put a tag on my kids with their name and my cell phone number (for just in case, I've never had to use it). It does get better, it just takes a while.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Omaha on

My son did that too until he reached about 3 years old. He took off across a parking lot. I had my younger daughter in a stroller and was chasing him down the center of it. Needless to say, I just told him how disappointed I was in him and he didn't get to do ANYTHING for the rest of the day. No outside play (our yard is fenced w/ locks on the gates because he can manipulate the latches.), no tv, no music, no treats. It was pretty harsh for both of us, but I had to send a clear message. We too had to avoid storytime and events with large crowds for a time. I am still a bit gun shy to take him to places. My daughter tends to have the same running off trait too....sigh...
I have used the harnesses. My son loved it. It looks like a teddybear backpack. I know they get a bad reputation from people, but I have never had anyone treat me negatively for using one. I wouldn't care if someone did though. My child's safety is more important than someone else's ignorant opinion.
I also am a huge fan of the Jim Fay books, love and logic. It gives really good tips about using choices and other scenarios that make sense to the child and lets them learn from their own situations. Your son sounds like a very bright little guy like my son. Sometimes I just talk to my kids and tell them flat out why their behavior is so dangerous and if they don't follow my directions then they may miss out on some fun opportunities.
Good luck and I am sending you a big hug. I know how frustrating and terrifying this can be! Hang in there!!

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Los Angeles on

my daughter did the same thing when she was 2 and 3, i was 8 mos pregnant at christmas and shopping was a pain as it was, so i ended up putting a leash on her!!
people gave me dirty looks, but if anyone said anything i was just like, "id rather have peoples harsh looks than a dead child."
it was fine, and she hated the leash but that was also an incentive for her to stop running away .

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Honolulu on

Kids at this age, do NOT have fully developed "impulse-control" yet. So... they will do it and you cannot control it 100%.

Because it can be a potentially dangerous situation, you might consider using a Toddler harness or leash.

When my son was 2, I had to use one. Until he matured.
He was a SPRINTER and even if I am a fast runner, I could not catch him.
MANY people, praised me for using the Toddler monkey harness on my son.
One Grandparent even told me "GOOD for you" then he told me about his grandchild, that got RUN over by a car, right on their street... and died.

It is about safety.
Above all.
Especially in public or in crowded areas.

Amazon or other places, if you put in the search words "Toddler Harness" etc., many CUTE ones will come up.

My friend, while at the Mall, lost one of her kids. Because HE was a runner and took off. She had to get the Security Guards and everything. Turns out, her son was HIDING.. and being very quiet about it... and he was going from place to place.
VERY dangerous.
He could have disappeared or been abducted.
She cried her eyes out.

It only takes a split second... for a child to be abducted... or run over by a car.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from San Francisco on

Child leash, he's way too young to be bolting like he does. He could be hurt or worse.


2 moms found this helpful


answers from Denver on

I want to add to the harness recommendation. I have three children with only two years in between each child. Harnesses and strollers were a necessity for me.

My kids are all teenagers now and they have talked to me about how much they loved the harnesses because they were safe and yet still felt like they had a certain amount of freedom. So, for those naysayers that think we are somehow being cruel you can just ignore them. Harnesses do not have negative effects on children. They do not make them feel like animals. They do not damage them psychologically. They do however keep them safe.

I have studied and currently teach parenting techniques and managing the environment is as important as any form of discipline. It is also so important to know about developmental stages and what children are and are not capable of. As another mom mentioned, a 3 year old does not have any impulse control and danger is too abstract a concept for them. It is up to you as the parent to be wise about setting environmental boundaries until your child has more ability to manage his space differently.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Boston on

He's not suffering enough with the consequences. It's still a game to him. He runs, you chase, isn't that fun?

Use a leash or a stroller with a good seatbelt he cannot undo. He'll hate it. Good.

Or, pack him up and put him in the car and take him home. Every time. It's a huge inconvenience to you, I know. But he has no consequences. They must be immediate - not "take away a toy later on" or "no TV for 2 days" - there's too much separation between his action and the consequence. He wants to run free? The consequence is sitting in the car seat. You can also just put him in there for 3.5 minutes (his age) and not actually go home. Don't sit in the car listening to him yell, don't lecture. Stand outside with a book or a crossword puzzle but don't engage him in conversation. Play with the other child. Laugh. He misses out.

Meantime, get something like Mabel's Labels with a non-removable name bracelet with your cell phone number on it.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from St. Louis on

well, I hate harnesses....but I get that he's an issue right now.

The next time you go out, give him the "talk". Make it short & sweet, but let him know the consequence......he will NOT go the next time.

When it's time to transition, never - ever - let go of him! Do not release his hand! Talk him all the way thru it....& never let go.

Start wearing a cross-body purse, or go without one. Do whatever you have to do to keep a handle on him!

& I totally get your angst: been there, done this! The worst was the time my 4yo hopped onto the elevator & the doors closed! We were at the Crowne Center in KC, & thank goodness one of the families on the elevator knew what was up......they rode up & back down with him to deliver him to us! Well, to me.....because my Mom dashed up the emergency stairs to get to him on the upper level..... talk about scary!

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Portland on

I would keep strapping him in. He's 3.5, right? He's old enough to know to stay close, and you will have to help him with this.

First, make sure your house is hard for him to get out of. We installed a simple spring-latch hook and eye for our front door, because the deadbold can be flipped.If this is not possible, use the magnetic chimes that will make noise if the connection is broken.

When you are out, here are his choices: "you hold my hand or you ride in the stroller"/"you stay with me or you ride in the stroller". My son went through a phase of wanting to run into the road, and this worked well for me. That's the trick, by the way, it MUST work for you. When you have another child to consider, it's essential your son stay with you. I found that I had to use the stroller for containment of my son for what felt like a long while.

I would take a break on the outings until he can show you he can be safe. It's okay to present that as an outcome to him if he asks to go. "I need to you to learn how to stay close to me before we can go back to storytime." You don't have to belabor it, but if he asks again, you can just stick with that simple explanation. "When you've learned how to stay close, we can try it again."

You are right not to want to overtalk it, that won't help. Going to bed doesn't make sense to a child, it isn't a natural consequence and will likely be more confusing. I'd have an umbrella stroller on hand for outings. When you are out, have him sit on your lap as much as possible, so you'll know immediately when he's getting up to go. I also wonder, how old is your other child? Could this be his bid for attention? Ponder that, because if it is just that, strapping him in and *completely ignoring him* for a while-- no explanations on why what he did was wrong-- might be more effective. Give him the choice of staying close and when he doesn't, no words, just put him in the stroller and strap him in until *you* are ready for him to come out.

I wish you plenty of patience with this one.



answers from San Francisco on

I just had to read this... My son is 3.5 and always does this to me UGG!!
My daughter is 2 (as of yesterday) when she is alone with me she listens better than he does... but when there together I'm in HELL!!


answers from Los Angeles on

1) A harness or stroller, and 2) consistent consequences.


answers from Houston on

II do think in this instance.. he needs a harness like the other moms suggested. Especially since you have another young child, you cannot let one run off and hold the other running after him.

During other times, use a stroller. My children are young and are runners as well, it's very difficult and unsafe, they tend to take off in opposite directions. The stroller helps. When they act up, I tell them if they run off then we are going home. And we do. They are learning to stay close and hold hands.



answers from Boston on

Not as helpful as some of the other posts, but before we leave anyplace I say "And remember, if I can't see you, you're not ____" and my kids complete the sentence with a nice loud "SAFE!" If anyone starts getting a little too far ahead of me, I repeat it.


answers from Las Vegas on

I'd find a stroller for his weight and put him in it. It is inconvenient but it is better than him getting kidnapped or hit by a car. <hugs> from long distance. That must be scary.

I had a problem with my 2 yr old running away when we'd leave my babysitter's house. She'd be all content, we'd say bye, go down the drive way, and she would bolt and laugh like it was a game. I started holding her hand from inside the house to the car or carry her. What worked was I taught her about strangers and how "mommy worries when you run off because a stranger could take you." I worry about that, I had an older guy at walmart try to hug her when she was right in front of me and was taken back when I said no, we don't hug strangers. Maybe it was the extremely dirty look I gave him, but who the hell tries to hug someone's child when they don't know them at all?!

Anyways, maybe you should teach him about the dangers of strangers. Not all people are nice and maybe him knowing will help. Tangled reinforced it with my daughter because we talked about Mother Gothel who stole Rapunzel. I talked with my daughter about how that was not her mom, that was a stranger who took her. It doesn't scare her (she doesn't act scared) and she isn't scared of strangers, she waves to everyone. The movie doesn't scare her either, she just reiterates to me, mommy she's not nice. She shouldn't take Punzel (rapunzel).

Good luck :)



answers from Phoenix on

I didn't see anything in your post about consequences. He will continue to do this until you regain control.

Is there a reason you can't put him in a stroller or use a harness? Those would help a lot. He can't be trusted, so he can't be "free". If he gets mad, oh well. Also, it seems like this happens a lot at fun outings for him - take the outings away & explain to him that only big boys who listen & don't run get to go to those. Again, if he gets mad, oh well. I am not a huge fan of spanking, but I have done so in dangerous situations, which I think running away into a crowd or street qualifies as.

There is not much that is more dangerous or serious than a kid who runs from their parents to that extent. Time to step it up a notch, because he is clearly the one in control right now.



answers from Boston on

It seems to me, if you were able to teach him to hold your hand in a parking lot, he can learn to stay with you. I would prep him well before any outing. Tell him that you will take him home if he doesn't stay with you and follow through with that promise. Then, I would also take a "scorched earth" approach when he runs from you. I would take away every single thing he loves for the day. I don't like leashes because I don't think it teaches anything. It would be an immediate solution to your problem, but will probably just delay the inevitable. He has to learn to stay close on his own at some point. I also don't like the idea of terrifying a child into compliance ( someone will take you, etc.) I would explain to him that rules are there to keep him safe. There is a reason for them and are not meant to be mean and leave it at that.



answers from Seattle on

Don't worry about abductions. Children under 5 are at the single lowest risk of stranger abductions. You are at greater risk of being kidnapped than your child is, unless you have a disgruntled ex-spouse. Strangers don't kidnap young children. Relatives do.

Don't teach stranger danger. If he's ever genuinely lost, he needs to be able to ask a stranger for help.

Do worry about cars. Getting hit by a car is a very real risk.

Harnesses are a fine idea and the easiest to implement immediately.

For a longer term fix, impress on him that it is his job to keep up with you, rather than vice-versa. He needs to be genuinely nervous that if he wanders off, he will be on his own and will miss out on good things. This is not best done through discussion. It is best done through demonstration.

If he runs away from you, start running away from him. Keep running until he realizes there is a problem and starts running back to catch up with you.

The first few times you do this, it obviously needs to be in a safe location. This means far from cars, and not in an area with any animal predators (since small children are snack-sized for cougars). The middle of a large mall might be good. A science center. Something like that.

Since he has a history of running far and fast, you probably want to have a helper for this. Ideally, this is someone you trust, but he is unlikely to notice in a crowd. Their job is to tail him and make sure he doesn't get truly lost, or into a really dangerous situation (like traffic). Perhaps carry cell phones to communicate.

You might also want to give a heads-up to any store security that he is being trained and does not need a rescue. Security guards (or random people planted by you) could be helpful by walking up to him and asking "Hey, where's your mom? You better go find her before she leaves! It gets cold and dark here at night!"

Before this training trip, emphasise to him that it is his job to keep up with you. Tell him that if he wanders off, you won't be chasing him. Remind him that he better keep up with you if he doesn't want to get lost.

When he wanders, take off. Stay out of sight until he notices that you are missing and starts looking for you. Don't wait until he's in hysterics. Let him get a little nervous, then let him "find" you. Don't fuss over his return, just treat it very matter-of-factly. "Oh! I was wondering where you were. Glad you finally found me." If this has taken a long time (20 minutes or more), you might mention something like "I had an ice cream cone while you were gone. I was going to buy you one, but you weren't there. Oh well." Then go on with your day.

Depending on the age of his sister, you can also start giving her a special treat every time her brother vanishes. Explain that she deserves a prize for waiting so patiently for her brother to come back. Make sure he knows that she's getting a special prize for being patient while he is missing. Sibling rivalry is not always a bad thing. Pro-social peer pressure can be very useful.

Convey to him, over and over again, in as many ways as possible, that it is his job to keep track of you and to stick with you. Good things happen when he sticks with you. He misses out on good things when he vanishes.

When you've got him respecting the need to stay close to you, you can start giving him specific boundaries, such as "you can be anywhere between me and that bookshelf." Expand the boundaries as appropriate. Radically tighten the boundaries when he violates them.

Hope this helps. Good luck.



answers from Portland on

I agree with Patty K about holding hands. If you can hold a harness leash, you can certainly hold a hand. When you stand up to get your purse, get his hand first. You know what his behavior is like and the times he most runs off, so anticipate it.

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