Controlling a Wandering Toddler

How can I make sure that my three-year-old daughter won't slip away from me when we're in public places? I have to watch her like a hawk because she continually wanders off. It doesn't matter where we are – playground, pool, beach, grocery store, or mall. She simply will not stay with me. I recently lost her – only for a minute, but it was the worst minute of my life! I really don't know what to do about this. I've spanked her, taken things away, tried to explain that she might get lost or that someone might take her – you name it. So far nothing has worked. Will she grow out of this? Please help!

Yes, your daughter will eventually outgrow this stage. Toddlerhood doesn’t last forever. That may sound like cold comfort at the moment, while you’re still in the thick of the frustrating details. But there are some things you can do to confront the challenge you’re facing more effectively.

Bottom line: a three-year-old has to be kept close to her parents at all times when out in public places. In many instances you can achieve this by using some appropriate means of restraint. For example, you might strap the child into a stroller or make her sit in a shopping cart. Most three-year-olds actually prefer this type of arrangement. The average child in this age-group finds a sense of security in her parents’ presence and has a natural tendency to cling to mom and dad in strange situations. That’s not to say that there aren’t exceptions to this rule, of course. It sounds like you’ve got one in your family.

There may be a couple of ways of explaining your daughter’s unusual behavior. On the one hand, it’s possible that she’s just a curious and highly intelligent child who is easily distracted and loves to explore her environment. Curiosity and exploration should be encouraged as long as you can manage it without compromising the child’s safety. But you obviously can’t allow her to go running off whenever she feels like it.

If your daughter simply will not obey when you tell her to stay close by, and if you can’t resolve the problem by talking about it (remember, a three-year-old isn’t yet capable of rational dialogue), it might be helpful to try a role-playing game. Pretend that you’re the child and she’s the mom. Ask her what she would do if you ran away and she couldn’t find you. Try to get her to see things from your point of view. Help her to feel the stress you feel when you look up and she’s nowhere in sight.

Another option is to act out a similar scenario using dolls or figurines. Maybe you could create a situation in which Barbie can’t find Ken, or Raggedy Ann gets separated from Raggedy Andy. You can also practice staying connected by pretending that your living room is the store and then going “shopping.” Use this as an opportunity to rehearse strategies for “sticking together” while making your way from one end of the market to the other. This is a good way to teach attachment and give your child some training in the area of self-restraint.

When planning a trip to the mall, the park, or the county fair, take time beforehand to make a deliberate plan for sticking together. You can turn it into a game by wearing matching colors and playing up the idea that you’re going to do everything as a team. Another idea is to bring along a special stuffed animal and give your child the responsibility of taking care of it and making sure that it doesn’t run away. You can probably come up with lots of other creative ideas of your own.

When you get to your destination, resolve to stay alert and to create and maintain consistent boundaries. Don’t give your daughter an opportunity to slip away by allowing your attention to drift. And bear in mind that wherever you’re going and whatever you’re doing, it’s probably going to take a lot longer with a three-year-old along.

If none of this produces the results you want, you may need to consider the possibility that your daughter’s wandering ways are symptomatic of some deeper-lying problem. Kids with sensory development issues sometimes behave in a flighty or erratic manner as a result of their inability to process sensory input normally. Insufficient attachment between parent and child can also drive a youngster to seek a sense of belonging somewhere else. In cases like this, it’s primarily a matter of ferreting out the underlying function of the outward behavior. That requires professional assessment by a trained and certified psychologist or counselor.

If you think it might be helpful to discuss your concerns, give our Counseling staff a call. Our counselors are all trained and licensed in the field of clinical psychology, and they can also provide you with references to reputable Christian therapists practicing in your area.


If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

Focus on the Family Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care

Busy Mom’s Guide to Parenting Young Children

The Christian Mama’s Guide to Parenting a Toddler

You Can’t Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded)

The New Strong-Willed Child

John Rosemond: Parenting with Love and Leadership

Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS)

Toddler Misbehavior



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