On the Run: Dealing with Children’s Elopement in Real Time
Dealing with Children’s Elopement
Have you ever had that feeling? The one where you are in the grocery store and your child is not where you thought they would be…
Safeguarding our children’s wellbeing is a sacred responsibility for a caregiver. This fact can enable super-human strength in a time of crisis. It can also cause us to unwittingly reward some severe problem behaviors. That’s right, putting on our capes and flying to the rescue can in some cases make the problem worse. In this article, we’ll examine how elopement fits this pattern and what you can do about it. We will provide stories and practical tips on how to use your powers for good and gain positive outcomes.
Elopement Can be a Diabolical Trap
Elopement is a very thorny behavioral problem. Not only are the potential side effects unsafe, but it’s also hard to respond in a planned manner when your child is not where you expect them to be. Going all out to prevent elopement requires constant vigilance that can wear a person down. Powering up when the problem inevitably happens
at the worst possible time) can unintentionally reinforce the behavior. While it may occasionally feel hopeless, there is a way out of this trap.
Using our Super-vision
Our first step is to survey the scene. Remind yourself that elopement is controlled by its environment and the payoff for your child works just like any other problem behavior. That is, the behavior serves a purpose. By carefully paying attention to the circumstances when elopement happens, we can better understand why it’s happening and how to address it. For example, wandering or running away when unattended might be a way to get an interesting item or just simply to escape boredom. It could be a way to get away from a loud noise, difficult work task, or a situation that just doesn’t make any sense. Also, we shouldn’t forget that elopement is also a very effective way to gain intense interest and attention from caregivers. Further down, we provide examples of strategies tailored to the different purposes elopement can serve for children. For now, we want to encourage you to relate to what your child is trying to communicate through their behavior.
Using our Super-empathy
During this time of strange events (that are also difficult to understand), we are uniquely positioned to empathize with our kids. We can truly understand a desire to do anything when we feel that events are out of our control. Harnessing this feeling can help us focus on strategies that improve our kids’ daily lives while also building new behavior patterns without elopement. Think about teaching your child a better way to get your attention, participate in a shared activity, earn their favorite things, or to safely get away from things that are bothering them. By providing our kids with learning opportunities like these, we can help them develop the superpowers they need to stick out tough circumstances a bit longer and solve problems.
Conserving our Powers
Did you know that even superheroes have to do laundry? Since you can’t be everywhere at once, you will also want to consider making some practical changes to reduce the opportunities and impact of elopement. Lay the groundwork for your success and theirs by taking some of the following steps: lockdown unnecessary sources of risk like broken garden gates and unlocked car doors, build flexibility into your routines by involving your child in a household schedule, focus on opportunities to communicate before things get bad (including just saying, “No”). Don’t forget to enlist your team of super friends. The plan you develop will help them help you and in turn, conserve the superpowers you need to stick out tough circumstances for a bit longer.
When parents see elopement happen, it’s always best to reflect on the circumstances surrounding it. What did the child want in that moment, and how can we address it to prevent it moving forward? Below are some examples of these super-tools in action.
Meme Hieneman, has a Ph.D. in Special Education and is nationally certified as a behavior analyst. She has published a variety of articles, chapters, and books including “Parenting with Positive Behavior Support: A Practical Guide to Resolving Your Child’s Difficult Behavior.” In her professional career, Meme has worked with children with severe behavior problems for more than 30 years. She is the President of the Home and Community PBS Network, faculty member at Purdue University Global, and a consultant.
Holly Downs the Director of Ethical Compliance at PBS Corporation an adjunct instructor at Capella University. She is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) with experience in various settings and populations including ages 2 to 67 with mental illness, co-morbid developmental disabilities, and autism. She has worked extensively with families.
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This post originally appeared on our March/April 2021 Magazine