Has your child ever threatened to run away? They might. Someday you could hear the dreaded claim: “That’s not fair!” or “You are a bad mommy. I’m going to run away.” If this ever happens, how will you handle it? Will you threaten your child with taking away toys or even a spanking? Will you physically stand in front of the door to prevent them from leaving? These options might sound okay, but are they effective? Are they loving?
Recently, one mom sent me her story of how she struggled when her 5-year-old son exclaimed he wanted to run away:
“My son was unhappy with the rules about putting away toys. He announced he didn’t like it around here anymore and wanted to run away. I sort of panicked and was fearful. I stood in front of the door and blocked his way and said, “No. You can’t do that. It is not safe. If you don’t listen to me I will take away all your toys.” When I went to get my cell phone to call his Dad to ask him to come over and help, (we are divorced) my son slipped out the front door! I frantically searched the neighborhood. About 30 minutes later we found him at a neighbor’s house 3 doors down.”
Unfortunately, threats are generally not effective. When you threaten a child, you trigger an angry response. When a child is angry, they are not capable of making a good decision. Instead of threats, here are some tips on how to handle this situation if your child threatens to run away. Please note that this strategy is suggested to be used with young children. With tweens or teens, you may need professional help.
Here is an example:
Child: “I’m going to run away!”
Mom: “That is so sad. I will miss you terribly.”
Responding with empathy and sadness helps the child to see you are on their side and you love them unconditionally. They feel affirmed.
Child: “I’m going!”
Mom: “Well, how is that going to work for you? It is kind of late.
Asking a question helps a child move to a calmer state. Asking questions can also help you, the parent, remain calm as well. When you ask a question to an upset child, you help nudge the brain from the emotional part (brain stem) to the thinking part (frontal lobe). Asking questions ups the odds that the child will pause and start to access and evaluate.
Then you ask another question:
Mom: “Would you like to hear what other kids have tried?”
This question is important because you are asking permission to help. No one likes unsolicited advice — even young children. It is likely your child will respond with a shrug or “I don’t know.” Even if the child doesn’t say anything, you could offer suggestions.
The conversation may go on, and could look like this:
Mom: “Since it is late, some kids decide to wait until morning, so they can sleep in their own cozy bed. How would that work for you?”
Mom: “What are you going to do about food? You will get hungry. Would you like to hear what other kids might do?”
Mom: “Some kids who are upset go to their rooms and yell for a while until they feel better, or some kids wait until they are calm and then have a talk with their parents. How would that work for you?”
Of course you will want to be extra vigilant with making sure the child cannot leave the home. What is important to remember is that threats are not effective. Instead, show empathy and compassion first, and then ask questions that help the child calm down and begin to think instead of just react.
You can use this process in any number of situations. When your child comes to you with a problem that you know they can solve themselves, hand it back to them in a loving way.
Janada Clark teaches Love and Logic throughout our community and has taught at Stanford and a number of schools, churches and organizations. She also teaches at Blossom Birth and Day One Baby. For class information and other resources visit www.janadaclark.com.