Why Do Children Run Away From Their Parents?

In the wild, you will see time and time again, the mother of a species forging ahead, with her children following behind her. From ducklings to polar bears, these mothers know without a doubt that their young will follow their lead, and in turn, those tiny ducklings and bears know that they must follow their mother in order to ensure their survival.

We can look on at them in wonder, but it may surprise you to learn that this drive to follow and stay near their parent, is actually a drive that our species is born with too. As infants we cry when separated from our mother, knowing that she is our key to making it in this big new world. As we begin to crawl and feel more brave, we may begin to branch out further and further, however we will always keep tabs on our protectors whereabouts. As we approach our first birthday, we may cry when we loose sight of this important person, experiencing those frightening feelings of separation anxiety, knowing that our rightful place is with the very person we can no longer see.

Given the right circumstances, this drive to follow and keep close to our primary caregiver, remains intact. Children understand that it is in their best interests to go with their parent, though this knowledge comes entirely from their natural instincts, and is not a logical thought process.

So why is it that so many modern parents find that their children run away from them on a regular basis? Why do we see parents chasing toddlers through the park or having a stand off with their pre-teen who won’t leave the beach?

Why aren’t our children following us?

The answers to this question are actually very simple, and when you understand exactly what makes a child run, it becomes very easy to identify the cause.

It all begins during the time when a child begins to move around. In our helicopter parent society, it is normal for parents to hover around their children as they move. As they begin to toddle, parents walk nervously behind or beside them, keeping pace at all times. No matter where they are, the parent is following, never allowing the child to branch out and explore. This confuses the natural balance of things. In no other species will you see a mother following her child. It is not the way nature intended. We are so fearful, though of what I am not entirely sure, that we dare not leave our child’s side to lead the way. This sends them a powerful message, undermining their instinct to follow, and teaching them that they are the leaders.

The next thing we do is that we rush. When we tell our children to follow us, we don’t believe that they will comply. We call half heartedly, again sending a clear message that we don’t expect them to cooperate, and then, before giving them the chance to come of their own volition, we scoop them up or rush over to them, taking away their chance to follow the instruction.

We have to remember that children are beings in their own right. When you say “lets go,” it is unreasonable of you to expect immediate response. Their curiosity will cause them to pause, investigate and take their time. This can be frustrating for parents, and dent their confidence that their child will ever come, but giving them the time and respect to follow slowly will produce the desired result. That doesn’t mean leaving on their schedule. Simply giving a five or ten minute warning to let them finish up their task, then when it is time to go, collecting your things and beginning a slow and unpressurised walk, letting them know it’s time, is all that it takes.

How do I know that given the right circumstances, children WANT to follow? Because my own son does, because I have worked with hundreds of children, and aside from children who had severe disabilities, ALL of them followed when they realised my expectations. From the moment my son began to walk I would take him to a nearby enclosed park, and simply take a walk around the perimeter. I would lead the way, stopping every few steps to enable him to catch up to me. We often walked holding hands, but my role as the leader was clear, and he never questioned it. If he wandered in a different direction, I would wait, catch his eye, then continue on in the direction I was heading, to let him know I expected him to follow. I trusted that he would. Now at two and a half years old, I trust beyond a doubt that he will always follow. I am his safety, his anchor and his instinct tells him that his survival depends on being with me.

If we continue to send these messages of uncertainty, of distrust and fear, our children will pick up on them and act accordingly. The human species is a miraculous being, and it is these survival instincts that have insured we have made it this far.


So now, I would love to hear from you about any issues you are having with your child running away or not following you. Leave me a comment below, and if you know someone who would enjoy this article, please do share it with them. Don’t forget to sign up to follow the blog at the bottom of the page to get more on natural parenting direct to your inbox.

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

10 thoughts on “Why Do Children Run Away From Their Parents?”

  1. Hmm I love this article and it brings up ideas that I had never considered, and will definitely be considering! I am glad I have read this before BabBee starts to walk and I will try to be the leader and not helicopter parent! I love this – thank you, Bee x

  2. Did you know that this rule applies to dogs as well? It is completely absurd in my mind, that any dog should need to be tethered to anything, even their owner.
    I have applied this “method” that you have just described with dogs, and my children,
    and when you are the leader, they will follow.
    As soon as you turn this around, and pursue them, they will run!
    I have had dogs that I could walk in New York City, off leash, and when we came to the end of the sidewalk, I would say to stop, and they also knew the words left, right, wrong way, and get to the side, and they listened. I could take dogs to a crowded outdoor event, and they wouldn’t think of letting me get out of their site!!!
    I’ve applied this same leader method with my children, and it is the same. Although, I hate to say it, but the dogs listened better, and responded much quicker! 🙂

    1. I did! There is a dog that lives by me and I often see him out walking without a lead. He will run ahead then sit at the curb and wait for his owner to catch up. If they turn another direction, they don’t have to call him or chase him, they just go. He pays attention and follows accordingly. He follows instructions to the letter and seems incredibly happy with his freedom. Much nicer for both dog and owner I think!

  3. So, what do we do when our kids aren’t toddlers but rather 8 and 9 years old, who walk away from me whenever they get mad. In stores or public markets, etc. because they know that I don’t let them wander alone so I end up following them for their own safety, which is completely ridiculous that I have to chase after my kids? How do I deal with that?

    1. It is entirely possible for this to work with older children too and I have used it for many of the children I have worked with over the years. Recently I had an 8 year old who came to me, and I was warned by her parents that she would run away, or refuse to come home from school/the park etc. When I started working with her I decided to not have a talk with her about it as I felt it would start our relationship off on the wrong foot, and instead made my expectations clear in my actions. At the park I would give her a 10 and then a five minute warning that we were leaving out of respect for her and to enable her to finish her game gradually, then I would tell her it was time to go and I would leave. She sometimes said no or ran the opposite way expecting a chase, but I would catch her eye so she could see me going, then continue on my way. She always followed. At school she would hang around the doorway refusing to come out, but I would again, catch her eye and then turn to leave. She never doubted that I would go as I always followed through with my words.

      It is easier to implement this when you are new to the child as they have not yet learned your expectations and have no reason to doubt your words, but it is still possible for a parent to change the way things are done. I would sit down with your children and let them know that you will no longer be chasing them and that you trust them to follow when it is time to leave. Don’t say it unless you mean it as this simply undermines your words if they know you won’t follow through. Avoid busy places where you might lose sight of them for a while – they can’t follow you if they cant see you, and be prepared to hold your ground when they challenge your instructions. It will take a little while and if you are not consistent it will take longer, but I have no doubt you can get there!

  4. I would love to try it more often…But the price of child running into the traffic is too much for me. I do what you say in the park sometimes, but it is not really enough and it is pretty unnatural there, because I don’t have a specific place in mind in the park and it’s natural to follow my son there rather than the other way around (exception when just passing through). 2 of my friends sons just don’t seem to run. I don’t know why, I can’t say they are using vastly different parenting. However their babies were naturally more chilled out before walking anywhere was even in the picture…and mine was never still. So I think temperament comes in to. I long for the days where I won’t be terrified of him running away…but a bit stuck in what to do. I live in the city, I work full-time, it is a far cry from natural continuum parenting…

  5. My son always runs away from me -and yes- I did exactly as you describe. My intention was to be the opposite of a helicopter parent, rather to sit on the sidelines (at the park, or at home) and let him explore independently. I intervene if he is in danger, or become involved if he wants to show me something. When we’re on a walk he tries to lead the way – and I only let him choose our path if I’ve offered him the choice. That said, he loves to bolt and watch me chase him. Or, just bolt. He loves to explore the grocery store like it’s a playground (and my whole time is spent encouraging him to stay close-by, trying to force a hand-hold, etc) (it’s a small local grocery w/no room for carts fyi). He just wants to run and explore. I’m not sure how to set a more clear boundary/expectation so that running away can be avoided in dangerous situations. Maybe I should practice what you’ve suggested? My experience is that he’s happy to run far, far away and doesn’t look back. I get scared and react pretty strongly and we end up in conflict. I don’t like it.

  6. While what you say is true, and very important, children will still run away from their parents, because they are much, much more intelligent than ducklings: they realize they are being manipulated through cultural concepts such as “father”, “mother” and “love” that have remained constant for thousands of years, even if mating systems have changed.

  7. Our four and a half year-old ran out of a restaurant today, exited the shopping mall and got on a bus by himself. The bus driver took him to a police station. While he was getting on the bus, we were madly searching the mall. We live in a city of 20 million people who don’t speak English, so as you can imagine we’re very upset.

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