#292 - Eloping: The Why and How for Kids Who Run Away

by Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC January 23, 2024

#292 - Eloping: The Why and How for Kids Who Run Away

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Eloping: The Why and How for Kids Who Run Away

What is eloping? When we’re in therapy talking about eloping, it’s when the child runs. They run away from the task, they run away from the situation, or even run out of the building. There can be a variety of reasons for elopement - we dive into these reasons PLUS specific strategies for each potential reason, including: sensory strategies to help calm the nervous system, building rapport and providing positive reinforcement, using visuals, and more!

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Ep. 256 Fight-Flight-Freeze

Ep. 187 Meeting the Sensory Threshold

Ep. 4 Using Visual Schedules

Ep. 223 Strategies for Pre-Verbal Children

Ep. 74 Building Rapport


Eloping: The Why And How For Kids Who Run Away

When a child elopes, they are attempting to evade a task or situation by swiftly departing from their immediate surroundings. Some children may flee out of fear of consequences, while others seek adventure or simply yearn to explore their environment.

However, it is important for parents not to always view elopement as disobedience or rebellion, as this can be worrisome. In fact, there are legitimate reasons why children may choose to elope, and it is crucial for adults to understand these motivations in order to effectively prevent and address this behavior.

Why Children Elope

Children may elope for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Fight or Flight: If a child is facing a stressful or overwhelming situation, they may try to escape from it by running away. This could be due to fear of punishment or consequences, as well as other factors such as anxiety or sensory overload.
  • Curiosity: Young children are naturally curious and often have an insatiable desire to explore their surroundings. This can lead them to wander off, especially if they are unsupervised.
  • Sensory seeking: Children with sensory processing issues may elope in order to seek out the specific sensory input they crave. For example, a child who craves movement may run away in order to satisfy this need.
  • Communication difficulties: Some children who struggle with communication may use elopement as a way to express their needs or desires. They may not have the words to communicate, so they resort to running away.
  • Attention-seeking behavior: Children may find eloping amusing or use it as a deliberate strategy to avoid a given task. Their instinctive response is to escape, leading them to choose to run away, and the act of being chased may reinforce this behavior as a recurring pattern.

Preventing Elopement

Before effectively addressing and resolving the issues that lead a child to run away, it is crucial to understand the underlying reasons behind their actions. To accomplish this, consider the following approaches:

  • Provide Alternative Coping Mechanisms: Instead of solely relying on punishment, provide children with alternative ways to cope with their emotions and needs. This could include teaching them calming techniques, meeting their sensory needs, using visual supports to help them communicate, or creating a safe and predictable environment.
  • Building Connections: Engage in enjoyable activities with your child, allowing them the freedom to choose what truly brings them joy. Be fully present in those moments, as sometimes, this is all a child needs to feel secure and curb the urge to run away.
  • Establish Clear Rules: It is important for children to understand the boundaries in place and the consequences of elopement. By clearly communicating expectations and consistently enforcing rules, children will have a better understanding of what is expected of them.
  • Create a Safe Environment: Take steps to ensure your child's safety, both within and outside of the home. This could include securing doors and windows, using monitoring devices such as GPS trackers, or enrolling in a specialized program for children who elope.
  • Seek Professional Help: If your child's elopement is causing significant distress or impacting their daily life, it may be beneficial to seek professional help. A therapist can work with both the child and parents to identify triggers and develop effective strategies for managing elopement behavior.

Addressing Elopement In The Moment

In addition to preventive measures, it is also important to have strategies in place for dealing with elopement if and when it occurs:

  • Remain Calm: It can be frightening and stressful when a child runs away, but it is crucial for adults to remain calm in order to effectively handle the situation. Panicking or becoming upset may further escalate the child's behavior.
  • Use Positive Language: Instead of using phrases like "don't run", use positive language to encourage children to stay close. For example, saying "stay with me" or "hold my hand" can be more effective in getting a child to comply.
  • Practice Redirection: If a child is seeking sensory input or attention through elopement, redirect their behavior to a more appropriate activity. For example, if they are running away in order to seek movement, try engaging them in a game of tag or having them help with physical tasks.
  • Reward Positive Behavior: When a child successfully stays close or follows directions during a potentially triggering situation, make sure to praise and reward their positive behavior. This can reinforce the desired behavior and encourage it to continue in the future.
  • Supporting During Transitions: Transitions can be challenging for children and may increase the likelihood of elopement. During these times, it is important to provide extra support and structure, such as using visual schedules or preparing them for upcoming changes either with verbal warnings or a visual timer.


Parents play a crucial role in nurturing their children and guiding them towards healthier ways to cope with stress and challenges. Additionally, educating teachers and caregivers about elopement and its prevention contributes to ensuring children's safety.

Remember, every child is unique and may require tailored strategies to manage elopement behavior effectively. It is important to remain patient and persistent in finding what works best for your child. Therefore, parents should take a proactive approach in addressing this behavior and seek appropriate resources or professional assistance if necessary.





While we make every effort to share correct information, we are still learning. We will double check all of our facts but realize that medicine is a constantly changing science and art. One doctor / therapist may have a different way of doing things from another. We are simply presenting our views and opinions on how to address common sensory challenges, health related difficulties and what we have found to be beneficial that will be as evidenced based as possible. By listening to this podcast, you agree not to use this podcast as medical advice to treat any medical condition in either yourself or your children. Consult your child’s pediatrician/ therapist for any medical issues that he or she may be having. This entire disclaimer also applies to any guests or contributors to the podcast. Under no circumstances shall Rachel Harrington, Harkla, Jessica Hill, or any guests or contributors to the podcast, as well as any employees, associates, or affiliates of Harkla, be responsible for damages arising from use of the podcast.

Keep in mind that we may receive commissions when you click our links and make purchases. However, this does not impact our reviews and comparisons. We try our best to keep things fair and balanced, in order to help you make the best choice for you.

This podcast should not be used in any legal capacity whatsoever, including but not limited to establishing “standard of care” in a legal sense or as a basis for expert witness testimony. No guarantee is given regarding the accuracy of any statements or opinions made on the podcast.

Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC
Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC

Rachel Harrington, COTA/l, AC, CPRCS, and Jessica Hill, COTA/L, CPRCS are Harkla's in-house Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants (COTA) and Certified Primitive Reflex Clinical Specialists. They have been working with children for over 6 years in outpatient settings. They specialize in creating easy-to-digest, actionable content that families can use to help their child's progress at home. Jessica and Rachel are the in-house experts, content creators, and podcast hosts at Harkla! To learn more about Jessica and Rachel, visit the Harkla About Us Page. Make sure to listen to their weekly podcast, All Things Sensory by Harkla for actionable, fun advice on child development.

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