Toddlers are like little cave people—and as they explore and learn how the civilized world works, they can push their parents’ buttons. But their natural defiance can sometimes veer into dangerous territory, which you need to stop fast. One dangerous behavior you may have to deal with is when your child darts away from you in a crowded mall or parking lot. Obviously, running away in public is totally unacceptable and must be stopped immediately.

When it comes to tantrums or annoying behaviors (think: dawdling and car seat struggles), your first move should always be to acknowledge your child’s feelings, letting them share before you jump in. But in dangerous situations, there is just no time to respectfully acknowledge your child’s feelings. When there’s a danger or your child is breaking an important family rule . . . you get to go first! 

First, issue a clap-growl warning.

Give a loud clap and growl then demand, “No! Stop! Now!” You may have to raise your voice, or you may be able to get his attention with a stern voice and frown. (If your child doesn’t stop immediately and you have to run after him, keep a serious face so he doesn’t confuse this with a game of chase.)

Then, connect with respect.

Once your child is safe, then it’s their turn to have their feelings validated: “You wanted the ball. You said, ‘Kick ball!’ You ran, ran, ran . . . but nooo! No street, no! Cars! Cars hurt kids! Ouch!” 

If it happens again, it’s time for a consequence.

If your child tries to run away again, you’ll need to hand out a “take-charge” consequence. One take charge consequence is giving a fine. This could be losing extra time at the park. Or it might mean they don’t get to pick out a special snack at the grocery store (read more about giving fines here).

Another take-charge consequence you could try is a time-out…but these can be tricky to issue on-the-go. If you need to give a time-out while you’re not at home, the car could be a handy time-out spot. Here’s what to do: As always, start out by connecting with respect and offering a win-win compromise or distraction. If these fail, try a clap-growl, or proceed directly to counting to three, and if that doesn’t stop the behavior go immediately to the car for the time-out. 

Deposit your child in the childproofed car (windows open a tiny bit, doors locked). Then, stand right outside the car with your back turned to him. (NEVER walk away even for a second!

After time-out is up, take your child out and use Toddler-ese to show you know how upset they were. Once they have calmed down, do not immediately return to your errands. First, give a small time-in to grease the wheels of cooperation. Then quickly finish your shopping or just go home.

Warning: Don’t strap your child in the car seat during the time-out. You don’t want him to associate this safety device with punishment. Also, NEVER give your child a time-out in a hot car.

About Dr. Harvey Karp

Dr. Harvey Karp, one of America’s most trusted pediatricians, is the founder of Happiest Baby and the inventor of the groundbreaking SNOO Smart Sleeper. After years of treating patients in Los Angeles, Dr. Karp vaulted to global prominence with the release of the bestselling Happiest Baby on the Block and Happiest Toddler on the Block. His celebrated books and videos have since become standard pediatric practice, translated into more than 20 languages and have helped millions of parents. Dr. Karp’s landmark methods, including the 5 S’s for soothing babies, guide parents to understand and nurture their children and relieve stressful issues, like new-parent exhaustion, infant crying, and toddler tantrums.

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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.