Teenagers who run away are not “bad” individuals, however, they are clearly making bad decisions which puts their safety at significant risk. I have worked with a lot of teens who have run away and their reasons for doing so are varied. Some of the reasons teens have said they run away include: not feeling like they belong in school or in their family, not feeling like anyone cares, trying to escape a dangerous situation (i.e. they are being abused or a caretaker is abusing substances), they are trying to let others know how much they are struggling, they were frustrated and felt like they did not have any freedom, they thought it would be fun and exciting, they thought a boyfriend / girlfriend or older peer would take care of them, they were using drugs or alcohol, they wanted to get out of a punishment and peer pressure. This is only a sampling of reasons why teens may run away so you can see that there are a lot of reasons and regardless of the reason, running away can lead to very serious and dangerous situations for teenagers.
Once teenagers run away they become dependent on others for food and shelter. Most teenagers are accustomed to having these basic necessities provided for them and have not thought their runaway plan through thoroughly. Once teens realize they need a place to stay and need food they can begin making unsafe decisions. Research shows that girls who run away are likely to be approached by a pimp looking to sexually exploit them within the first forty-eight hours of being on the run (see my blog post on this topic for more information about the sexual exploitation of teens). Other teens may be approached by other individuals who appear to be very nice and caring but who are planning to use the teen to commit a crime, buy or sell drugs or engage in other activities which place them at risk. Some teens become hungry pretty quickly (because they are not used to ever skipping a meal) and resort to stealing which can lead them to legal trouble. Some teens become cold or scared and trespass as a means of finding shelter which can also lead them to legal trouble. Many teens resort to hitchhiking because they have not thought their plan through and have no idea how to get anywhere without a parent to drive them. I have worked with teenagers who have run away and after about twenty minutes realize they are scared or cold and return back home with an apology, however, I have also worked with teenagers who have faced some of the scenarios above which have caused them some pretty significant trauma and which have caused their parents indescribable stress, worry and heartbreak.
As a parent, there are some things you can do that may help prevent your teenager from running away. You will notice that on the list below there is not anything about “giving in” to your teen or “buying off” your teenager. It can be very dangerous if teenagers learn that they can play on their parent’s fear to get what they want. In the beginning, this can be fun and feel good to teenagers, however, ultimately it makes them feel like you as the parent, are not in control which can feel scary for them. So…if your teenager says, “If you don’t let me go to the all night party I am just going to take off” and you give into this demand, you are likely in for a very stressful, uphill battle with your teen who will continue to use this tactic to get what they want. The tips below are suggestions, however, knowing your teenager will be critical in your deciding which tips may be most effective.
Tips For Parents Which May Help Prevent Your Teenager From Running Away:
Educate your children about the dangerous of running away (before this becomes and issue for them). Doing this can cut down on the fantasies that some teens have that running away will bring them freedom, excitement and a great life.
Be consistent with your teenager. This is often a struggle but it is extremely helpful when parents are consistent in both their expectations as well as the consequences for breaking the rules. By having open conversations with your children about your rules and consequences for breaking the rules, you reduce the likelihood that your teen will be shocked and overly emotional (which can lead to drastic behaviors) when you set a limit or issue a consequence.
Allow your teen some control during times when you are not having a conflict. This expands on tip #2. It is a good idea to allow your teenager some control in setting the rules and expectations of the home (within reason of course) because then they are less able to argue these rules when they violate them. Having your teen be a part of the process increases the chances they will follow the expectations you have set and if they don’t that they will accept the consequences of their actions.
Don’t allow your teenager to coerce you by making threats. As is stated above, don’t let your teenager’s threats to do something irresponsible or unsafe drive your decision-making. Many teens will attempt this at some point however, if you stand your ground, they are likely to try this only a couple times or even just once before they realize it will not work.
Be clear about what the consequences are for your teen’s behavior. To build upon tip #4, if your teenager says, “If you don’t let me go on the weekend trip I am going to take off and you will be sorry”, I would suggest you say, “Well, that would be your decision which you know is against the rules. You should also know that I will call the police and they will issue a warrant for your arrest as a runaway if you choose to make that decision”. This puts the ball back in their court and the bonus is that it makes it hard for them to continue to argue because you are not telling them they can’t “take off”, you are simply informing them of the consequences of taking off.
Keep your teen connected as much as possible. As I have stated in other blogs, staying connected to your teen is a critical way of avoiding a lot of problematic behaviors. Ask about their day, show interest in what they like (even if you can’t stand their music or choice of movies), ask about their friends, ask them to be involved in dinners or choosing what they would like for dinner and make sure you talk to them about yourself as well. This is not always received well by teens, however by doing these things your teen will feel like you continue to take an interest in their life, which is very important to their self worth.
Don’t downplay behavioral changes you may notice. As always, it is important for parents to notice changes in their teen. A suspicion that they are involved in alcohol or drugs, being abused, with an older boyfriend / girlfriend, with a peer group that is involved in criminal activity or that they have significantly withdrawn from the family as well as from school are all warning signs that they may run away.
If your teenager does run away, it is very important that you contact the police and file a report. Even though this may seem embarrassing, it will be important in sending your teen a clear message about how you will respond to such behaviors as well as help keep them safe when they are making poor decisions. If your teen runs away it is also helpful to call any family or friends who they may reach out to and alert them of the situation which may help you locate them sooner. This can be a very stressful and scary situation for a parent so as always, it is important that you have your own support during such difficult times.