Life can be tough when you have a runner. They get a whiff of the open road and before you can blink they have made a bid for freedom and a dash for whatever has taken their fancy. Oh and what a great game it is too! “Walking along calmly beside Mummy or Daddy – boring! Running off as fast as you can and watching them have a mini breakdown – much more fun! Definitely going to do that again!” It can be a challenging behaviour to manage. Do you decide that the best option is never to set foot outside of the front door again, or do you set about mastering the ancient but noble art of lasso? There’s no doubt about it – life with a runner is stressful and exhausting.
So what do we do? How do we teach a child to stay close, while ensuring they are safe in the interim? How do we instil in our children the need and desire to remain close without putting the fear of God in them or quashing their natural need to explore and experience the world around them? Not easy. Remember that children do not link their running to danger, they just don’t realise that if they run off you can’t see them or keep them safe. Sometimes they run because they have just learnt a new skill and they want to practise it; sometimes they just want to test their newly found independence and enjoy a sense of freedom and sometimes it may just be good old fashioned attention seeking behaviour. Understanding that running off can be dangerous takes time and maturity to grasp.
Firstly – and we need to discuss them – reins and those little back pack thingies with the option of attaching a little strap. For some parents they are amazing, they give peace of mind and allow for a great day out without the fear of a child suddenly bolting. They can be a good way to give a child some limited freedom whilst making sure they remain safe. They can also be useful when, for safety’s sake, there appears to be no other immediate alternative. For other parents it feels like they have put their child on a leash, it feels uncomfortable and it is not the answer they are looking for. As ever – it should be your personal choice (free from judgement) whether you decide to use them or not. They definitely work – your child is safe and can’t run off. Quite often, they are introduced once a child has already bunked several times, but this is often too late – that horse has already bolted (so to speak). Once children have had a taste of freedom, they naturally find it hard to accept anything that might curtail their movement and it can cause a whole heap of other problems. If you feel you do want to use them, introduce them early on, but try not to use them all the time. Constantly wearing reins means a child pays less attention to their surroundings and is not learning how to stay safe.
For many parents, the back pack and strap (sorry – realise that sounds like a completely different blog), is not an option. So what else can we do to change this behaviour? How can we teach our children to be safe, but also confident to explore the world around them and be adventurous? It’s important to acknowledge here, that change takes time. If a child has got used to running off, then it will take a while for this behaviour to shift – and the wait can be stressful as they will continue to run when they can.
Here are our top tips for the habitual runner:
- Watch and observe your child. Minimise the situations when they are able to run e.g. unload the car before you take them out of the car seat or unstrap them from the buggy after everything else is done. This means they have your full attention and you are not distracted by other jobs.
- Before venturing out, let your child know exactly how you want them to behave. If you say, “Don’t run off when we are out” – it can prompt and reinforce the very behaviour we are trying to avoid. Instead try, “Hold my hand and walk nicely”. This obviously has no guarantees, but it does increase the chances of a child staying with you. Praise your child for their behaviour as you go along. “You’re holding my hand really well”. Use language that is simple and straight forward. Less words means greater understanding.
- Involve your child in a simple game. E.g. “How many blue cars can you see?” or “Can you make little/big/giant steps?” perhaps. Using “first” and “then” can also be really helpful. E.g. “First hold my hand, then count steps to the red car”. Play the game with them and make it fun. It does not have to be complicated, just a distraction from the game of running off.
- Children enjoy being the centre of attention – giving lots of attention for running off can be counter-productive. Yes, we want our children to stop running and yes we want to let them know it’s wrong and to be safe, but if we constantly give loads of attention to the running – it will be repeated over and over again, becoming a bit of a game. Giving praise and positive attention when your child walks with you encourages the positive behaviour.
- Practise a game of “Freeze”. Do this in a safe space at first – a garden or an enclosed park. Make a game of running around and whenever you shout “freeze”, everyone has to stand still – including you. Practise this frequently. If you are out and they start to run you can shout “freeze” and they will respond.
- Give limited choices as this helps a child to feel more in control. Obviously you need to be happy with the choices you give, E.g. “Hold on to the buggy, or hold my hand” Or “Hold my hand to stay safe, or we go home” If both are refused – it may be that you do have to return home. This is hard as it will spoil a family time, but once a child realises that you have put a firm boundary in place that will be carried out – they come on board with it much better.
- Remember – teaching a child to stay close and not to run, takes persistence and consistency – it doesn’t change overnight. Practising in safe spaces is crucial, so that when you are in less controlled areas, the strategies you have put in place will work and your child remains safe and secure.
Sarah and Michelle run a company called Purple Parenting, offering behaviour and sleep support through individual work, groupwork and workshops. Email email@example.com to arrange your free telephone consultation to help with behaviour, selective feeding and fussy eating, sleep, tantrums, aggression, anger, anxiety and more.