Educational and developmental psychologist Dr Penny Tok explains that it is in the nature of toddlers to want to explore, since everything is new and exciting to them. “They are still egocentric in their view of things, and often do not realise that they are moving too far from their parents,” she says.
It is in the nature of toddlers to want to explore, since everything is new and exciting to them.
In addition, some do it for the thrill of being chased, while others do it purely for fun, as they love the engagement and fun it brings. “Some toddlers simply have their own agenda and want to fulfil them, so they wander off wherever they want to!” Dr Tok adds.
Mum of three, Dawn Wong, is quite familiar with this. Her second son, James, was 3 when she almost lost him in a public space, “I was getting his sister to try on some shoes at the department store, and I told him to stay close to us. I must have been distracted for a couple of minutes and then I realised he wasn’t near us.” With the help of the store manager, she later found him “one floor up”, at the toy section.
Horrified that he had managed to go up the escalator on his own, she vowed to keep a closer eye on her kids and sets ground rules for them when they go out.
Dr Tok notes that toddlers often do not realise or anticipate potential dangers, such as from an escalator. “Their brains are still developing, so they tend to be more impulsive and can’t think too many steps ahead,” she says.
Plus, they may not be able to handle big emotions, and they react in big ways, like running away, when they aren’t able to rationalise well in certain situations. “It’s not too different from an adult who is emotionally overwhelmed, or teenagers who engage in risky behaviour,” Dr Tok explains.
If you have a tot who’s forever doing a vanishing act, follow these strategie to keep your child safe.
1. Teach safety
It is important to teach your child how to keep himself safe in a public space, and what dangers lurk out there. Your toddler may not realise how essential it is to stay close, or to hold your hand, unless you spell it out for him. “Use videos, role play, or puppet play to create potential scenarios to show them how important it is for them to stay close,” Dr Tok advises.
Talk about safety as you go about your day. For instance, if you see a toddler who isn’t holding his mum’s hand on the escalator, or if a child is riding a bike without a helmet, point out to your child, “That isn’t safe, I hope the child doesn’t fall, it would really hurt!”
2. Teach consequences
Toddlers don’t understand the idea of cause and effect entirely. It may not occur to your mini-explorer that if he does something unsafe, harm can come to him. In the same way, consequences can keep your child safe, if he knows how to use them positively. Help them to see the potential consequences, says Dr Tok. “Use the structure ‘if…then’,” she says. “If you cannot see mummy or daddy, then you must stop, raise your hands in the air, and call out for us,” she explains.
“If you cannot see mummy or daddy, then you must stop, raise your hands in the air, and call out for us.”
3. Be specific
Remember to use specific words when teaching your mini-me what he should or should not do. Avoid using words or phrases like “Don’t do that”, or “stop”― these terms are vague and don’t give him an accurate idea of what he should be doing. Instead, use words and phrases like “freeze” or “stop your feet” if he is wandering away from you.
4. Practise and role play situations
Rehearse and have dry runs in a safe, enclosed environment as practice is the key to getting your tot to understand safety, dangers and its consequences. Dr Tok says, “Practise a safe word ― tell your toddler that she can walk or run on her own but she needs to stop when you yell stop. Let her know that this is for her safety, so that you know you can trust her.”
Dr Tok also suggests the “First… Then” approach ― “First, you can walk away, then you must turn and look for mummy and daddy. If you can see us, and we wave to you, you can keep walking. Then, stop and check again.”
5. Engage your child
A grocery run to the nearby supermarket, or picking up dinner is honestly far more engaging for mum than her toddler. To prevent your tot from feeling that he is simply “along for the ride”, engage him. Toddlers often act out, try running away, or simply fail to listen to instructions when they are bored or tired and are unable to cooperate. For instance, play games like, “I spy”, or just point out the colours, fruits or veggies that you see at the supermarket.
If junior refuses to stay close to you, try a simple game of “Copy Me”: March, do bunny hops or wriggle away as you complete your errands, and you may find that your little one sticks with you willingly!
6. Go to tot-appropriate places
If you dread going to the crowded mall on weekends, or queueing to pay at the grocery store while trying to manage junior, avoid these places or situations ― or go when your tot isn’t with you. Instead, head out to a safe, enclosed space, where you can see him at all times, and he can run around safely. Instead of playing with his rubber ball at the sidewalk (traffic alert!), take him to the park where he can play safely.
7. Explain your expectations
It would help your tot to understand and remember the behaviour that’s expected of him when you explain it clearly. Let him know beforehand where you are going and what he can expect ― for example, “Luke, we are going to the supermarket to pick up eggs, bananas and milk. I need you to hold my hand once we get out of the car, as there will be other cars on the road. When we get to the supermarket, stay close to me and you can help me pick out the three items we are looking for.”
Head out to a safe, enclosed space, where you can see him at all times, and he can run around safely.
8. Offer encouragement
If you do lose your child in public, or if he hurts himself accidentally, try not to be too harsh on him. He will likely already be hurting, ashamed of his actions and terrified. Speak to him calmly while comforting him, and gently remind him of the consequences of his actions.
However, when he does meet your expectations, for example, he holds your hand when you are at the mall and on the escalator, and keeps within the boundaries that you set him, let him know how pleased you are at the end of the day.
9. Use safety equipment
Some parents use baby or toddler gear to keep their little ones safe ― and it’s a perfectly good solution. If you’ve got a stroller with you, you can tell your toddler that he can walk with you, but if he wanders, he’ll need to go into the stroller.
Alternatively, some parents use safety straps, or child leashes. Dr Tok says that while this can be controversial, the main thing to note is that parents should not be complacent while using them. “Children learn to take them off and they can be quick about it! Also, make sure you don’t become too reliant on it and miss out on potential danger signs that may be present,” she points out.
She asserts that even with safety gear in place, parents should not neglect to teach their toddlers safety rules.
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