Child therapist reveals why threatening to leave a toddler during a tantrum is never a good idea

little girl tantrum swings
Instead, a simple four-step process will help get them to cooperate - with your sanity intact. Photo credit: Getty Images.

It's a tactic many parents and caregivers will know well: When your young child is screaming and refusing to leave the park, playground or friend's house, tell them "I'm leaving now" as you start to walk away. 

More often than not, it will see your toddler or child come running after you, scared of being abandoned, and you can gather them up and get them home in time for dinner. 

But while the method might be effective, it turns out it's probably not the best thing for their development.

Child therapists Kristin Gallan and Deena Margolin, the experts behind parenting guidebook Big Little Feelings, advise that threatening to abandon your kids is a "trigger zone", and could lead to future trauma. 

"Real talk, even WE have been guilty of this in a pushed-to-our-limits moment," the pair wrote in a recent Facebook post. 

"[But] leaving the park - or somewhere fun - is trigger-zone-city for toddlers. They don't want to leave the park, they feel sad, and they want to stay."

The pair went on to explain that "when we tell our kids 'I'm leaving you, bye!' we're accidentally telling them: 'Your feelings about wanting to stay don't matter, I'm leaving now, get over it'. 

"And, 'there's a chance I might leave you for real one day'.⁠"

They added this concept was "pretty scary for their little brains". 

Instead, the therapists and mums listed four alternative steps to take when you're trying to get home from a fun activity in one piece. 

  1. ⁠See them → "You're having so much fun."⁠ ⁠
  2. OK their feelings → "It's hard to leave when you're having fun."⁠ 
  3. Hold the boundary → "But it's time to go home."⁠ ⁠
  4. Orient towards the fun → Mention a fun thing to do together once home⁠ ⁠

"The key is boundaries," the post explained. 

"Don't wait until we're in full meltdown mode.

"After the first two warnings, firmly, confidently hold the boundary by gently removing your toddler and helping them home.

"And yes, they may be VERY upset at this boundary. It's okay for them to be upset. We're okay with that feeling. ⁠

⁠"But we're keeping their emotional (and physical) security intact, while showing them that it is time to go home now. No fear involved."