Have you ever worked with a therapist or attended a seminar where the professional told you something and in your mind all you could think was: “No shit, if it were that easy, I wouldn’t be here talking to you …”?
I most recently felt that way at a conference on behavioral strategies. Don’t get me wrong, it was great and I learned a lot. But the underlining theme was: in order to stop or correct unwanted behaviors, you need to figure out why your child does them. If only it were that easy.
I have a child who runs off. It’s common for kids with Down syndrome (which he has) and autism and other developmental delays to do this. My son is 5 and he’s always been fond of choosing his own path. But he’s getting faster and stronger and sneakier; so it’s getting more dangerous. The first time I realized it was a big problem was a couple of years ago. A new occupational therapist was visiting and we were talking about his needs. About a minute passed and I realized it was eerily quiet. My son had figured out how to open the door and he was gone. Just like that. I sprinted out the front of my house and didn’t see him anywhere. In that short time he managed to get more than two blocks away and was headed toward a main road. A saint of a woman got out of her car, picked him up and looked for me. She saved his life.
Needless to say, we were on high alert after that. There have been many moments when he’s run off but someone always noticed. Then came our annual Buddy Walk. He was 3. Huge crowd. I was 8 months pregnant. I took my eye off of him for maybe 30 seconds and he was GONE. In a flash. Someone spotted him sprinting off behind the stage, headed away from the event. I dashed after him. If we hadn’t noticed at that very moment, who knows where he would have ended up. Emergency services would have been called for sure.
I have no idea why he does this. Sometimes it’s for the thrill of the chase. Other times he wants to go home. Other times I imagine he just wants to explore. He has no sense of how dangerous it is and it is terrifying.
Between seminars and personal trial and error, however, I have developed strategies to cope with this scary behavior known as elopement.
LOCKS, LOCKS, LOCKS
Every door exiting our house has a lock that our children cannot open. Our main door has a deadbolt that can only be unlocked with a key from the inside and out. Yes, it’s a fire hazard. But you gotta do what you gotta do. When my children figure out how to open that one, we’ll take the next step in additional locks.
You can work with a security company to install a chime system on your doors. Some chimes will even indicate which door is being opened. If you can’t afford something that elaborate you can find battery powered door chimes/alarms similar to what you hear in stores or doctors offices. We actually use one of those on our screen door for added safety. Just be sure to check the batteries regularly. You can find them on Amazon for as little as $10. Here’s one example:
I am always on high alert when I’m out with my little eloper. I cannot relax unless he’s in my sight. I annoy my husband with my constant prodding. I’m pretty sure friends and family think I’m overreacting. I’m not. I’ve almost lost my child several times despite being vigilant. The second you let your guard down is the second they slip off. It is exhausting but necessary. If you’re at a playground, make sure the gate is closed. If you’re at someone else’s house, be sure to keep your child in sight at all times. If you’re walking down the street, do not let your child get too far away or be sure you have hold of their hand. There have been times where I’ve stayed in because I knew I didn’t have it in me to watch him by myself.
FIND SAFE PLACES
Since you’re always on high alert, it helps to find places where you can relax. I avoid playgrounds near busy streets. I find play areas fenced in. When we go on hikes, we find places away from traffic and dangerous terrain. We rarely eat outside in case my son decides to run off. But it’s not the end of the world. For days when I just don’t have the energy to really keep a close eye on him, I’ve found a few playgrounds that are completely fenced in with only one gate. There’s a café in my neighborhood that has a kids’ room so I can catch up with a friend while he’s occupied and in sight. Understanding friends will be happy to meet you at these places so you can actually have a conversation without being on edge.
ALERT NEIGHBORS, SCHOOLS, CAREGIVERS
This was one great piece of advice from that behavioral seminar: create a letter or email explaining your situation. Include a picture of your child along with your contact information. Distribute it to your neighbors. Let them know that if they see your child out without an adult, to please take him or her in and call you. It’s also a good idea to have a few numbers of your neighbors programmed in your phone so if your child does escape or go missing you can send a group text to let them know to look. It really does take a village.
Make sure anyone watching your child is aware of the elopement issue. We have family members that don’t understand how serious this is, so we don’t leave our son alone with them. Alert your child’s school and make sure they know this is a major concern. Our son escaped from his preschool playground once despite us warning the staff. Now I am sure to drill this concern into everyone at the IEP meeting. Oftentimes people don’t take elopement seriously, and that can end tragically.
Try to think strategically at all times. If you know you’re going to be in a big crowd, dress your child in clothing that will stand out so you can pick them out of a crowd. Depending where you are, consider taking shoes off to maybe slow your child down. And think about what you’re wearing too. I rarely wear skirts or heels because I need to be ready to sprint or crawl or get dirty whenever I’m with my kids.
If you have multiple children, think about what you need to get them places. I almost always have a stroller and an ergo carrier with me so I have options. I have strapped my little on in the stroller so I could dash off to get my son when he’s escaped from one of our favorite playgrounds.
Take your child’s elopement tendencies into consideration when planning trips or visiting family. When booking vacation, I always try to get a house far off the main road. I think about the doors and where they are placed. I take a bag filled with child locks and alarms so we can make the stay as enjoyable and laid back as possible.
The same goes with visiting family or friends. Let them know about your needs. Ask about locks and see what you might need to bring to make sure your child is safe.
I know families that place large STOP signs on their doors so their child gets a visual cue before trying to leave. Others use baby monitors or video monitoring systems to keep an eye and ear out and prevent an escape.
And of course, there are plenty of tracking devices out there to alert you if your child has wandered off and even tell you where they are. You can find plenty with a simple search. Here are a few lists of the top trackers on the market:
What about you? What are some strategies your family has developed to deal with elopement?