Today, Dr. Jacob Boney, owner and clinical director of Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services, talks about a concept called “elopement”. This is in response to a question from a mom…
“How do I keep my child close to me when we’re out in public? My daughter has a tendency to run away from me, frequently when we’re out in public or at a store and she wants to look for things. She also runs away from me when she thinks she’s in trouble.”
This is a very common issue and can also be a very serious one depending upon when and where the child elopes. Running out into traffic or into parking lots, running away in a store or other similar environments can be dangerous. This type of behavior can be a very big deal and definitely something to be mindful of and prep for.
The technical definition for elopement is leaving a designated space or area without consent or permission from an adult. The most common functions for this behavior are an attention function and access to tangible items. Running away can be seen by the child as a sure way to get attention, or, if there is something they want that is not in the immediate vicinity, they may leave the designated area to try and go get it. Some children may do this to avoid being in trouble, but this is not as common as for attention and access to tangible items.
Knowing the motivation behind the behavior is important to be able to treat with a function-based intervention. The most important question to ask is “What does my child typically get after they try to elope?” Is it attention? Is it access to a favorite toy? Look for the patterns. If you have trouble identifying the motivation, you will want to consider consulting a professional to figure out functionally why your child is doing what they are doing.
Prerequisites for Your Child Being Able to Consistently Stay Close in Public
These are things that you child must be able to do and parents should start working on these as early as possible.
- Your child needs to be able to follow directions and be compliant at least 70% of the time. (Look for other videos on how to help your child with compliance issues.)
- Your child should like to hold your hand and should like to be close to you when you are walking. If they do not and act out by screaming and always pulling away, this is an issue that will need to be addressed. There are times when it will be very important for your child to stay right by your side in public situations.
- There needs to be a very basic sense of safety awareness on the part of your child. They need to know not to run out into the street or talk to a stranger without parental permission. They need to know that they have to hold your hand while crossing the street and that is it not okay to wander out of your eyesight. Without a basic awareness of safety rules, they are probably not ready to be able to stay close to you in public.
Parents ask Dr. Boney for guidance in knowing when a child is ready to walk around by themselves in public. How do they know it’s safe for them to not constantly be within arm’s reach? The following list can be used as a guide. If your child can do most of these, they are probably okay.
- Ability to fluently communicate with random adults. If they cannot walk up to someone and ask for directions or help in finding a parent, then that is a red flag.
- Quickly communicate with parents or emergency services using a cell phone.
- Knowledge and awareness of safety behaviors. They have to know what is safe and what is not and what is dangerous and what is not.
- Must be able to read and understand basic signage.
- Able to navigate around the environment without getting lost or confused.
- Ability to escape, protect themselves or notify others for help. If they can’t protect themselves then they need to be able to run away, and, if they can’t do that, they at least need to be able to call for help quickly.
Preventing and Managing Elopement Behavior
Dr. Boney offers ideas for preventing and managing elopement behavior. These include:
- Classic techniques like using a stroller, having them sit in the cart while in a store and holding them in your arms, at least for a while, as this can quickly be exhausting.
- GPS trackers, which can either be wearable technology like something that is worn around the wrist or small tiles that can be sewn into the child’s clothing. These are proving to be accurate and reliable as GPS locators. There are tons of new devices and Dr. Boney believes this is a great idea, especially for a child that has a history of elopement. The risk far outweighs the expenditure. Some things to keep in mind are that the child should probably not know about the device because you don’t want them removing it, and it should be inconspicuous so someone else won’t take it out of your child’s clothing.
- Least favorite preventative measure is the harness or leash. Not a very transferable intervention as the child gets older. Certainly understandable why some parents feel the need to use these, but there are other techniques that are just as effective.
What is really important is to motivate your child to want to stay close to you. Because attention and access to tangible items are the main reasons for elopement, parents are encouraged to give children lots of positive attention when they are staying close in public. Praise them. Involve them in what’s going on. As long as they are getting attention for doing appropriate behavior they won’t need to seek it by running away. Also, while they are staying close, give them access to a favorite item, like let them hold a favorite toy or let them earn it for staying close and not running away.
Provide clear signs and boundaries while out in public. Sometimes children simply do not know what they can and cannot do. Your child needs to know when it’s okay to be a little farther away from mom and dad and when it’s not. For example, at the park playing with other children is probably a time when it is okay. However, they need to know that when they are near traffic or in crowds of people it is not okay to be out of arm’s length. These are rules that your child needs to know well enough to repeat back to you.
Shape your child’s behavior in public by immediately correcting when they wander more than a few feet away. Praise them and provide positive attention when they stay close to make that the behavior that gets them what they want. Consequences of continuing to run away should be prompted, but only once or twice. After that, physically put them in a stroller, cart, hold them or leave the space. This sends the message that this is behavior that will not be tolerated. For constant noncompliance, start small with brief excursions in small spaces. Always be decisive and quick with consequences. Say as little as possible and be consistent.
Parents should not get distracted while in public with their child. Talking, texting or similar distractions teaches your child that their safety is not your number one priority. Children model behavior: if you don’t feel paying attention to them is important, they will not feel that paying attention to you is important.
Utilizing evidence-based practices and the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, the Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services team provides assessment, treatment, and consultation for a wide range of behavioral issues. We work with a variety of children, families, schools, hospitals, mental health agencies, and local community organizations to provide these services. If you have any questions about how to keep your child close in public or would like more information about any of the services offered by our team, please feel free to contact us by phone at 480.410.4040, email us at [email protected], or click here for our convenient online form.