There She Goes Again! Tips for Keeping Your Little Runner Close
Jenny! Jenny! Jenny! JENNIFER!!!!!! Come! Back! Here! RIGHT NOW!
Got a runner?
Running from a place or situation is a common behavior that often shows up between the ages of 2-5, when a child is mobile and exploring her independence. Your little sprinter may be strong and spirited—things that you love about your growing girl—but corralling her is harder and harder to do and the running can be scary, especially if your hands are full or you’re crossing a busy intersection.
What’s a parent to do? To find out, we talked with Stefanie Plebanek, who works at KinderCare Education helping teachers, families, and children address all kinds of challenging behaviors. “We believe that all behavior has meaning,” says Plebanek. “The first step is understanding why the running is happening, so that we can find a solution based on the cause. That way, we’re really responding to the unique needs of each child.”
Here are four common reasons why kids run—and what you can do to help them stay close:
1. Running for LoveIs your little guy racing off when he sees his favorite things, like, say fire trucks?
Try This: Don’t squash his joy, give him a safe way to express his enthusiasm. Help him trade his running reflex for a very specific, safer response: “If you see a fire truck, I want you to tap me on the arm and point to it, and we’ll go see it together!” Remind your ebullient little guy about his new skills before he needs to use them, say, in the car on the way to the playground.
Celebrate This: When he follows through, give him an avalanche of praise. Share his excitement, take time to really check out that fire truck, or brag to his dad over dinner what a great job your little guy did communicating!
2. Running for Attention
At the grocery store, does your little one run down the aisle, pause at the corner to announce, “I’m going around the corner”—and then take off? She may be trying to get your attention.
Try This: Give her the connection she’s asking for, without rewarding the running.
First, find other times to lavish your little with love. Before heading to the store, spend 20 minutes playing tea party or tag or tickle-monster—whatever she wants to do with you. When you are both calm and relaxed, give her specific instructions: “When we’re at the store, I want us to shop together. You can ride in the cart, help me push it, or keep one hand on it.” If she starts to run, use clear, calm language and a neutral response when you remind her: “Hey, that’s not what we talked about. Keep your hand on the cart.”
Reward This: If she sticks by your side for the whole trip, tell her how proud you are! She may also respond well to a reward for her good behavior—like playing a favorite game with a beloved adult.
3. Running for RespiteIs your little love apt to disappear into a quiet corner at his cousin’s birthday? He may be running away from an overstimulating environment.
Try This: Help him explore new places at his own pace. Look for your child’s cues, like covering his ears, or closing eyes, or making blinders with his hands to understand what might be overwhelming him and then give him the tools to alleviate it. This could be as simple as earmuffs to dull the noise at a crowded party, or cool sunglasses to pop on if the lights are too bright. Snuggling up in big brother’s extra-large hoodie can be a cozy way to calm sensory-overload. When you arrive at that big birthday party, scope it out together and decide on a safe, calm place to take a break, when he needs one.
Recognize This: Whether he took a break when he needed one, or shared his earmuffs with a new friend, talk about what he did well on the way home.
4. Running from ConflictDoes your kid bolt out the front door because she’s angry that you told her to stop jumping on the couch? She may be running because she’s trying to escape the conflict between her parent’s request and her own feelings.
Try This: Help her find other ways to express big feelings, like anger or frustration. Designate a calm-down area at home: If she’s angry, she can hide under the dining room table, or throw herself into the beanbag chair in the basement. When you are both calm and relaxed, try out some positive responses to anger: Take three deep breaths, stomp your feet, squeeze playdough, or say, “I’m mad!” (It’s actually pretty fun to do these together.) If she always runs out the door, try hanging bells on the front door or tape stop signs at kid-level to remind her to channel her anger in another direction.
Hear This: When she gets frustrated and holes up under the dining table, acknowledge her feeling and let her know that she’s been heard. “It’s so frustrating when Dad tells you no! Do you want to try taking three deep breaths together?
Whatever your sprinter’s reasons, he’s running because he lacks the skills or ability to express himself differently. (Running usually disappears as children gain more language and more impulse control.) “Waiting skills are also really key,” says Plebanek. Happily, waiting skills can be learned through play. Plebanek recommends turn-taking games like Candy Land or Connect 4 and games with a built-in pause like Red Light/Green Light, Freeze Tag, or Simon Says. These games help your kid practice the patience she’ll need to stay put when it really matters.