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Toddler Is Disobedient and Engages in Dangerous Behavior

Question:

My 2-year-old ​ignores my instructions and has started doing dangerous things. He’s learned how to unlock the front door, and one day, I found him outside, running around our cul-de-sac. I’m not sure how to change these behaviors and get him to start listening to me.

Answer:

It sounds as if your toddler is draining your energy. The energy a 2-year-old can muster is amazing. In your case, his little escapes really come down to safety issues and learning how to follow instructions, so it is good that you are reaching out for suggestions.

Kids learn best through repetition, so each and every morning, preteach you son the behavior of staying in the house. For example, you can say, "No opening the door. If you stay inside until Mommy us ready, we will go outside to play. If you run out of the house by yourself, Mommy will not take you outside to play.”

Be sure to give him access to toys, books, and other appropriate items in the house so he has activities to keep him occupied. Kids will run away from things they don’t like, but they’ll also run to things they do like. So think about the reasons he’s trying to go outside: Is it to follow older siblings, play with the neighbor kids, or be with a pet? If he is running to these things, make a big deal out of it when he follows your instructions and earns outside play time. You can reward him by having a neighborhood playmate come over for a bit or by enjoying some outside play time together. If he is running outside to avoid your instructions, then practice these steps of “Following Instructions” with him every day:

  • Stop what he is doing.
  • Look at Mommy’s eyes.
  • Do what Mommy says.

If he runs out the door, calmly gather him up (use a firm but even tone of voice), walk back inside, tell him what rule he broke, and deliver a consequence (e.g., no outside play time until later). You also may have to consider a safe way to put up an extra barrier so he can’t get outside. This might involve installing some kind of an alarm system, putting an extra “hotel lock” at the very top of the door, or limiting his access to the door knob with a child safety block.

If you have older children, it may be helpful to get them involved in this situation. Of course, you’re not asking them to parent their little brother, but they can reinforce your parenting requests by modeling good listening skills in front of him. They also can watch their brother and make sure the door is securely closed when they leave the house.

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