Why Do Toddlers Wander Off? — Good Parenting

 

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Our toddler gave us a scare at the mall today. He was walking between my husband and me when something caught his attention and he started off in another direction. We both called to him and he immediately picked up speed so we had to chase him down. It seemed like he thought it was a fun game. This has happened a few times recently. I’m not sure how to respond because he is not catching on to our panic. Is he just too young to understand that he shouldn’t be on his own?

Thinking About Getting a Leash

 

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Dear TAGaL,

There is a logical reason for this behavior according to child development theory. And yes, his view of the situation is very different from yours. He is demonstrating his understanding that he is a separate entity from his caregivers.

There’s Me and There’s You
Margaret Mahler (1897-1985) described the process of “Separation and Individuation” as a necessary stage of psychological development. A newborn does not recognize that that another person is responsible for the warm milk soothing his pangs of hunger. He quickly learns, however, to associate that his crying is followed by his stomach’s appeasement. Gradually, starting around 4 months, he shapes a mental image of his caregiver as being separate from him, although he and she are tightly connected through his cries and other forms of communication. This is the attachment relationship. Peek-a-boo and other back and forth games are a great way to build a baby’s comprehension of the concept of “Me and You.”

Under My Own Power
Concurrent with being able to walk steadily, a toddler experiences the reality that his little body is under his control, to a great extent, which is both frightening and exhilarating. Around this stage – 18 months of age or so – he may be very clingy, not wanting you to be out of his sight more than a moment.

A typical behavior during this phase is for the confident toddler to meander just far enough away to satisfy himself that he is physically independent of you. This is about 30 feet, give or take. As long as the adult stays put, the toddler will look back at you, smile, and toddle to your open arms for a hug.

Parameters of Safety
Unfortunately, the mall may not be the best place for him to do this. This foreboding landscape includes hard surfaces, unanchored signboards, strangers who may not be toddler-friendly, and open doorways into crowded stores and the parking lot. What other spaces might you use for this exercise? The key is for YOU to feel that there aren’t any dangers requiring you to follow him as he ventures off. Maybe there’s a play group or moms’ meetup in the community room of your local library, church, or other “public” yet protected place. Think of places that are open enough that you can easily watch him, and of course, that allow him to readily spot you when he turns back around. Your own backyard would work. If it isn’t safe for your child to explore, make that an early spring project. If you don’t have a backyard, it’s time to locate a fenced public playground. Both you and he will enjoy the freedom.

Dr. Debbie

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