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We have a very active 4-year-old. She has a will of her own though with what she wants to do, and there's one thing in particular that I find I don't know what to do: she's constantly running away.

It's not that she's being mistreated or wants to "get away", she just wants to do her own thing.

We can be out for a walk, and we try letting her walk by herself instead of holding our hands, she's off running where she wants and won't listen to us to come back. Sometimes when doing this she'll find somewhere to hide, and think it's a game.

The new behavior (as of about a week ago): She can be playing in our fully fenced backyard, and on a whim, she'll climb over the fence and run over (and right into) a neighbor's house to play. So far it's consistently been one neighbor house that has children of a similar age, and they've started texting us when it happens.

When we catch her and ask her why, it's always "because I wanted to". We ask her "are you allowed to run away / climb the fence / etc", she always answers "No, I get in trouble!". We've tried explaining what the punishment will be next time (we ask her afterwards and she remembers) - it's ranged from no TV to no treats/desserts to favorite toys being taken away. All have had no effect on her behavior. She hears what we're saying and can paraphrase it back to us, but either she doesn't care, or constantly forgets when she's "in the moment", and then remembers when the punishment comes.

Short of constantly holding onto her and watching her like a hawk (to which she often ends up in a screaming fit), we are at our wits end. What can we do? Has anyone else had children go through a phase like this and have possible options for addressing this problem?

(More context - she has an older brother (6) who did not go through this kind of phase; at 3 he understood he could go up ahead a bit, and on walks would always wait at the curb/lights. This is not our first child, but is our first time dealing with this problem.)

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    I am not sure of what the problem is. Is this a problem regarding her security? Is this about her not following your rules? Is this specifically about her going to the neighbor's house? Do the neighbor text you to notice you that she is there, or because they do not want her to intrude? – DainDwarf Feb 25 '15 at 6:58
  • I have concerns with her ability to follow rules in general; these particular rules being broken lead to concerns about her safety (and our sanity) – Krease Feb 25 '15 at 17:37
  • My two for year olds do the same exact thing. Great about everything else except running off. Even busting out to the neighbors house! Exactly the same. – user20015 Nov 30 '15 at 18:55
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To me, this is where punishment-centric parenting doesn't really work well. It is indeed difficult to come up with good, immediate consequences or punishments that are directly related to the action ("Natural consequences"-based punishments), and other punishments at this age don't usually work very well.

I see the issue as straightforward. She doesn't understand that it is unsafe and inappropriate to go away from you or to go into a neighbor's yard. If you teach her this, she will stop doing it. And yes, this is possible - at a much younger age than that, even.

My three year old and almost-two year old are given nearly free reign - we walk up the street without holding hands except at street corners, and my three year old reliably stops on every single corner if he gets a bit ahead of me (when it's me and the two of them, this happens periodically). Occasionally he gets more ahead than I feel comfortable with, at which point I tell him that; he reliably stops when I ask.

No, he's not a quiet child or a compliant child. He's a rambunctious ball of energy who is very loud and runs around all the time, and in a safe environment like home he's a holy terror as often as any other child (or more!). But we've taught him how to behave in these areas, because we gave him the necessary information, reinforced why he needs to do these things, and hold him to that level of responsibility.

Some of this was easier to do as a younger child (ie, 1-2), and so for a 4 year old won't be as easy; but it should be possible. This is largely what we do now (but adapted for 4yo reasonable limits).

  • During walks down the street, before you go, make sure she knows what her boundaries are. Those should be whatever you feel comfortable with, and undoubtedly should be more limiting until she's learned to not exceed them. Tell her, explicitly, how far she may roam. If that's 5 feet away, tell her that - and give her a stick or something that is that long. If it's further than a reasonably sized stick, show her by standing that far from her.
  • While walking, if she exceeds that boundary, remind her. She probably won't be able to stay within it, in part because it's hard to judge distance even as an adult - as a kid it's very difficult. Remind her, and if she immediately returns, that's the end of it.
    • If she doesn't immediately return, give her a second reminder, more like "Okay, Anna, I need you to come closer now". If that doesn't work, do something consistent with your other discipline - "1-2-3" or such - to give her a clear timeline to comply in.
    • Of course, this doesn't apply if she's in a dangerous or urgent situation (such as on the street, or continuing to run quickly away from you). In those, physically retrieve her, then give her a chance to comply - for us it's typically one chance every 10 minutes or so (so a second running off 15 minutes later isn't a big deal, but 5 minutes later is).
  • In either of the above cases, let her know that a further issue will mean she needs to hold your hand for a while. Don't put this as a punishment, though. It's necessary for her safety. Explain why - she should be old enough to understand that being hit by a car is bad, that being lost is bad. Repeat this explanation each trip, and after the first time, encourage her to give you the reasons why. My three year old can tell me why he shouldn't run off, and clearly understands it well. He didn't at 1, but by 2 he started to understand, and was able to walk without holding hands. (My second was even younger, but he's both more compliant and has a good example to follow.)

    It's important to keep this in the forefront: this is not a punishment. This is doing what needs to be done to keep her safe. If and when she can prove to be safe without holding your hand, she doesn't have to. For my older son, this is usually a very short time: if he's running off, it's because he's out of control. Once he is back in control, we let him go, assuming he doesn't immediately run off again.

    You also should make it clear to her that as she proves herself capable of walking with you in control and within a reasonable distance, that distance will increase, because you'll feel safe with her being further away. There are certainly times when my almost-2 year old doesn't get to walk without holding my hand, and some streets where he has to walk "inside" of me (away from the street) because they're too busy (though we plan walks to be on quiet residential streets whenever possible). This will be less true as he gets older, and his older brother is much more free to walk on his own than he is.


For the specific climbing into the neighbor's yard, the issue is the same - she needs to know why it's not okay, and she also needs to know how to make it okay.

I would talk to her about why it's not okay; write out ahead of time all of the reasons. There are two major sets in my mind: safety, and propriety.

  • Safety:
    • Your job is to know she's safe. As such, you need to know where she is at all times.
    • If she leaves the house without you knowing, she could get hurt or lost.
  • Propriety:
    • It is illegal and improper to go into someone's house or land without their permission.
    • If she gets hurt on someone else's land, that person may be held liable in some cases.
    • Someone could be doing something dangerous, like cutting down a tree or driving a car or playing baseball, and if they don't know she's there she could get hurt.

Then, find out why she's going over there. Possible reasons:

  • She doesn't have enough space in your yard to play in.
  • The neighbors have better toys.
  • She is playing with the neighbor's children.
  • She likes climbing.

The first one may not be fixable, but you can make an effort to go out to parks more often. The second? Get better toys (perhaps by selling the current ones to pay for them, or doing some chores or otherwise helping to make the money). The third can be addressed by setting up playdates. The last, get a playgym for your backyard, go to parks, etc.

Additionally, you can let her know what she should do if she wants to go over there. Instead of just going over (in which case it's a problem for reasons above), ask you. Tell her why you may or may not say yes - for example, you may need to call your neighbor and ask if it's okay to go. Show her how to do this with your cell phone, so she feels in some control (but remind her you need to be involved). Your neighbor may not be there. Your neighbor may have friends over. Make sure she understands the answer will sometimes be no - but also sometimes yes.

Finally, if this doesn't help, you will need to restrict her leaving your sight until she can be trusted not to leave; again, this is for safety reasons, and not a punishment- just a fact. If she can't stay inside the backyard without being watched, then she can only go out when you can afford time to watch her. If she can't even stay in the house without leaving, then she has to stay in the room you're in; or get better locks for the doors that she can't operate (or get one of those chimes retail stores sometimes have that alert you when the door is opened). This won't be easy for you, but there's not much you can do - except help her learn why it's a safety issue. Then loosen the restrictions when it is safe to do so; don't make a big deal of it, just tell her you're going to let her outside today and remind her you need to know where she is if she wants to go next door.


Ultimately, you want to encourage her to understand safety rules. A child who knows why she needs to stay close to you or let you know when she is going next door will keep doing that as she gets older - and will not have the arguments as a teenager about telling you when she's at a friend's house, either. Empowering her by giving her the tools she needs to understand why she should do what she does will pay off both now and in the future.

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Based on the punishments you are applying (losing TV, deserts, etc.), it sounds like the punishments come long after she has misbehaved. The punishment may be too far removed time-wise to trigger any sort of hesitation in her.

Since it sounds like she really hates the lack of freedom when you hold her hand, that can be a perfect logical consequence of her actions. Before a walk have a conversation with her that might go something like this: "Ok, we are going to go on a walk. You can go ahead of us as long as you stay close and come back the first time I call you. If you don't you have to hold my hand the rest of the walk." She seems like a bright child and is very capable of understanding what is expected and what the consequences are. Just make sure you follow through consistently. The threat of having her hand held alone will probably not work the first time. Or the second. But after a few times of consistently doing exactly what you told her will happen, she will learn that 1) you mean it when you tell her not to run off and 2) it's not a game.

Consistently applying an immediate consequence is what will win the battle. Holding the hand of a screaming child won't be fun for either of you but it will get better as she learns that you mean business every single time.

  • The punishment may be too far removed time-wise - while the actual repercussions may be further away, she is told what the punishment is immediately (when we catch her). Holding the hand of a screaming chlid won't be fun for either of you - quite right :) This has been our default punishment for a while (several months), and we branched out to try other things when it seemed to not have any effect. Maybe this is still the best option and it just takes longer for it to sink in... – Krease Feb 25 '15 at 17:41
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    @Chris Being told what the punishment is immediately versus receiving it immediately makes a difference. Immediately having an undesirable consequence happen makes the relationship between the action and unhappy things much more closely related. – Becuzz Feb 25 '15 at 17:45
  • any thoughts on how to have immediate consequences with the climbing the fence? The only "immediate" thing I can think of is bringing her back inside and making her sit in her timeout corner. – Krease Feb 25 '15 at 17:49
  • @Chris That's the best thing I can think of. If she tries to climb the fence, end the fun outside time. Of course this means that when she goes outside you probably need to go with her and watch her like a hawk. – Becuzz Feb 25 '15 at 18:01
  • I know you can get harnesses and leads for toddlers. Maybe you could find or make something similar and use that as the punishment: "If you get too far away again you will have to wear the harness for 10 minutes". That ties the punishment to the behaviour in a logical way, and its immediate. – Paul Johnson Nov 30 '15 at 20:58
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It sounds like she already knows she's not allowed to run away, but the urge is stronger than the consequences, from her perspective. I would set up a safe way for her to satisfy her urge for "getting away", that might reduce her need to do it when it's less safe (when out and about). For example, put in a play house in the backyard that is only for her. Invite some of her friends over and put on a big game of hide and seek or sardines. http://www.wikihow.com/Play-Sardines

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    The urge is stronger than the consequences - this is well said. I need to find a way of either reducing the urge or coming up with consequences she actually cares about. On the other part - she's much more interested in playing in the dirt by herself than any actual structured play. She's still at the age where hide-and-seek involves lots of direction from adults on how to play, and she treats it like peek-a-boo where half the fun is popping out of your hiding place to surprise someone. – Krease Feb 25 '15 at 17:45
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Not a long term solution, and I agree with those who answered about explaining rules, but for allowing a child some freedom to roam without safety issues, I've found those backpack/harness combinations to be a lifesaver. I've used those for trips where the kids want to run around and see things, but there is a crowd and it would be too easy to get lost (like at the zoo). With the backpack style, the child can even carry a snack and drink for themselves, which my kids always loved getting to do.

  • Agreed! I think your first solution has to be a short term fix. Something that tells her, and yourself, that this won't be happening anymore, and you are there to keep her safe. Physically retaining her, with a harness or by holding her hand, while walking, and not allowing her outside alone, are your first go-tos here. Then you move on to teaching, impulse control, etc. – naomisl Dec 14 '16 at 20:08
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I need to ask how this child is out of someone@ sight long enough to climb over a fence and go into a neighbor's house. This is a nonnegotiable item for safety.it is not okay for a child do out of any adults sight at the age of three. They do not have a reliable sense of problem solving to keep themselves safe.Ypu can have them 2alk by your side and if they bolt, immediate calm and put in a carriage or return to home. You may need to stick to gated parks, drive there or use a stroller. There is no room for error. As a nurse I have seen so many horrible injuries which just happen, never mind leaving the rules for kid to actually follow through on. Set the limits and enforce them. It is for their safety- like letting kids stand in a carriage and multiple head injuries. Life ending g possibilities as well'- stray kid blots off the corner and car speeding. Tough and hard work to be a parent(Parent of 4)

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    Hi and welcome to Parenting.SE! If you want to add information to a post of yours, you can edit it (see the lower left corner of the post). Please don't post a seond, almost identical answer. – Anne Daunted GoFundMonica Jan 1 at 16:58
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Why does everybody seem to be so afraid to suggest the 1 consequence that is immediate amd says "this will not be tolerated"? Time out doesn't work. Saying "No no little Johnny! We don't do that." does not work. This is serious business. If you tell them once and it happens again, a swat on the outside of the leg gets their attention and says that we aren't playing around.

I say the leg because it eliminates the risk of accidentally hurting their back from the motion plus the leg stings just enough to let them know you mean business! Spanking is not abuse! Fine the line and draw it! As long as you don't leave welts, bruising or break the skin nobody has any place sticking their nose in your business.

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