Promoting Safe and Appropriate Behavior in Public: The Developmental Downside of Using Leashes with Children – Part 1


Promoting Safe and Appropriate Behavior in Public: The Developmental Downside of Using Leashes with Children – Part 1

iStock_000015665625XSmallIt happened again recently while I was at the local shopping mall. I looked across the store to see a child with a long leash attached, and at the other end of the leash was an adult holding on for dear life as the child attempted to race through the store. I encounter this same scene fairly regularly as I’m out and about, and it gives me the same sinking feeling in my stomach every time. As a child development specialist, it is painful to see parents who feel they must resort to this type of approach with their child because they have run out of tools for managing their child’s behavior; and equally painful to see these children who are being denied the experiences and opportunities they desperately need to develop to their fullest potential. Whether the child is typically developing or has some special needs, parents must devote serious thought to the negative implications of using tools such as these.

I am fully aware that there are many reasons parents may feel the need to use leash-type devices with their children. There may have been an occasion when the child was unsafe and came close to being harmed. They may feel that their child doesn’t listen to them, and that they must physically contain him/her in this way in order to make the child obey. Some parents may feel that because their child won’t stay with them in public, a leash is the only way to keep them safe and prevent them from getting lost or hurt. Other parents may resort to these devices to make their lives easier and less stressful while out in public. The child may have some significant special needs, such as autism or cognitive impairment, that create safety issues both in and out of the home; and this may leave parents feeling like it is impossible for the child to learn to be attentive and safe in public.

I’m certain that the root of the issue for many parents is the feeling that they are not competent to guide their child to develop appropriate behavior while in public, and it is out of a feeling of helplessness that they resort to this approach. They have likely tried politely asking the child to stay with them, threatening punishment if s/he doesn’t, holding out incentives or rewards for behaving, yelling, spanking, and many other methods that parents attempt when a child is not doing what is asked. And then one day the magic “child leash” is spotted; and it seems to be the answer to this frustrating problem. It seems the perfect solution for a child who won’t obey, who won’t hold a hand while out in public, who is unaware of safety, or who creates a scene and difficulty every time they leave the house.

The problem, however, is that this seemingly simple solution has a major downside. By attaching a child to a leash and physically containing him/her while out together, the child no longer has the opportunity to learn how to emotionally, behaviorally, and physically self-regulate while in these situations. When a child is attached to something with a parent at the other end, suddenly there is no need to monitor the environment, pay attention to where the parent is, stay within a reasonable boundary area, or attend to parent communication. Without opportunities to learn and practice these skills, there are long-term negative developmental consequences for the child.

This is the case for typically developing children as well as children with special needs. Even children with severe developmental disorders can learn to stay with their parents, hold hands while walking, respond to parent communication, and monitor their immediate environment. Using a leash as a replacement for these skills and abilities only perpetuates the problems. In addition, it sends a message to the child that the parents do not believe s/he can learn to behave appropriately. Even more detrimental is the message it sends that the parent feels a lack of control, and is unable to assist the child with developing behavioral and emotional regulation. These are not messages that serve the child or the parent well. While some parents may choose to use a leash over the short term while they work on these areas of development with their child, it should not be viewed as an appropriate long-term approach. With these considerations in mind, next week’s article will provide some strategies for helping parents and children have safe and successful experiences together in public places.

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