Going to public places can be a nightmare for many parents due to their child being a runner’- running from shops, car parks, beaches, the park, or anywhere where there is an open space. No behaviour is ever random. It is essential that we don’t judge the behaviour to be wrong and just try and stop it.
The first goal is to develop understanding because we know that every behaviour is happening for a reason. Sometimes it is hard to identify exactly what the reason is, especially when there can be a number of them for one specific behaviour.
At the core of it, it is important to understand that the child is experiencing anxiety around something that is happening in their life and they don’t feel like they have all the required skills to manage that aspect of life effectively.
Your child may be running off because:
- They have hypersensitivities to any one of their senses and their environment has resulted in sensory overload. Children sometimes see running (and escaping) as their
- only option to relieve the sensory overload.
- They become anxious around crowds and do not feel like they have the required skills to manage when there are lots of people.
- They had a picture in their head that something would happen in a certain way and that hasn’t happened.
- They simply did not want to go where you were taking them: their agenda was different to yours, they are upset that you are not considering what they wanted to do and they don’t know when/if what they wanted to do will happen.
- They like to control the emotional reactions of other people and they have learnt that by running away the adults around change their behaviour.
The list of possible reasons is endless and these are but a few. The key is to know that running away in public is not random. It is happening for a reason. Without investigating this reason, we are simply judging the behaviour to be wrong and not understanding from the child’s perspective.
Some questions you could ask yourself include:
- What could actually be happening for them?
- What might they be experiencing in life that is causing them to run?
- What are they trying to escape from?
In the moment, what can I do?
When your child is already anxious, chasing will typically make them run faster, become less aware of where they are actually running and thus increase the safety issues. When your child is too far ahead and uncatchable, running after them is not be advisable, instead try to keep an eye on where they are and walk slowly towards them!
If they are in close proximity and catchable, then hold them firmly in your arms, sending them a message that you are there to support them.
Plan ahead. If your child runs off often, have a safe place for your child to run to. For example, a chair on the outside of the shopping centre is a place they can go to that will:
- Relieve them partially of their sensory overload
- Provide a safe place to run to if the shopping centre becomes overwhelming
- Allow the child to know there is somewhere they can go to where they will be found and won’t be in trouble
- Allow the carer to feel less anxious as they know where their child is going when they do run.
Put strategies in place for yourself to remain calm (gentle breathing), knowing that as your own anxiety levels increase you are actually adding to the situation by either providing the reaction your child was after, or adding to your child’s anxiety and thus increasing the intensity of the behaviour.