Teens run away for multiple reasons: some they create themselves, some are victimized, some find home life unbearable, and some are mentally ill or addicted. It is an emotional shock when teens run away the first time. Parents’ feelings are complex: anger at his or her rebelliousness; fear for his or her safety; shame that they failed as a parent or that it’s their fault.
Why teens run away
Typical teenage development leads to a desire for freedom and autonomy. All teens start defining themselves as unique, and begin to imagine adulthood. This is normal and necessary for maturity—some do it gracefully and some don’t. Even troubled teens with a mental illness or addiction will go through this phase.
Rebellion. Rebellious teens with these risk factors often run away:
- Emotionally behind their peers
- Abuse drugs, alcohol, and marijuana
- Have risky and rebellious friends who undermine parents’ authority and encourage them to run
- Are lured by an adult who promises a (supposedly) better life
Mental disorders. Whether genetically-based or a result of trauma, mental health problems magnify any and all negative aspects of rebellion and immaturity, and specific plans to run away may not be made rationally. Disordered thinking and desperation overrides survival instincts.
Family stress. “65% of youth reported running away because of family conflict.”* Is there anything going on at home that your teenager can’t handle (they may not be as strong as they seem). It could be non-stop fighting between any family members; repeated nagging or criticizing or threatening in the household; hyper-strictness; feeling neglected or ignored; or abuse in the form of bullying or physical or sexual abuse.
*National Runaway Switchboard, 1-800-RUNAWAY
Signs of risk for running away
- Changes in behaviors or normal patterns mean something is wrong.
- Teens who suddenly stop eating or begin to overeat, sleep all day or never sleep, or spend all their time on social media or with friends.
- Sudden mood swings which may be due to restlessness, stress, or fear.
- Outward rebellious behavior is often the start of trouble, but not always. Inward ‘rebellion’ is also a problem, such as from depression. Running away could be a rebellion against a family’s appeals to live.
- Falling grades, truancy, school behavior, and breaking house rules are all symptoms that your child is having problems.
- Substance use, mostly alcohol and marijuana. Both cause paranoia, depression and irritability. I discovered many parents don’t think marijuana is a problem, but research shows the opposite. THC is damaging to the adolescent brain until about age 25, and THC content is higher than in all of history! See Marijuana is uniquely dangerous for troubled teens and Marijuana and psychosis in teens.
- Disclosure of intentions to run away. Some teens will hint that they want to run away and some will outright threaten their family with running.
- Expressed fantasies that they will ‘divorce’ their family and be free. Teens often believe they can be legally emancipated before age 18. A juvenile court judge told me otherwise, only in very rare cases. Teens will believe they can skip high school and get a GED* and then a good job. *A online General Educational Development diploma in the US is less valuable than a high school one.
- Accumulation of money and possessions. To survive, teens who run away need resources. Some prepare by saving money and preparing for life on their own with a backpack of clothes and food and camping items for example.
- Risky friends have a very powerful influence on a decision to run away. Relationships like these almost always include substance abuse. Risky associates include adults who undermine the parents and coach teens how to get away from home. They lure them with cigarettes or drugs or false promises of money or a better life.
- Full time access to unmonitored and unrestricted communication
- Easy access to transportation, especially a car or an at-risk person with a car.
What to do if you suspect your teen might run away
“Clearly and calmly let your teen know you are concerned about them, and that their behavior makes you afraid they might run away from home. Invite them to talk with you or someone else about what is troubling them and be supportive of finding positive ways of dealing with their stress.”
Let them know you don’t want them to run away and that you are concerned about their safety. Prove you’re committed to working things out,
If your teen is intent on running away, give them the phone number of the National Runaway Switchboard* so that they can find safe sources of help while out on their own. This does not mean you approve. A good analogy is informing your kids about contraceptives even though you don’t want them to have sex. *1-800-RUNAWAY
Give your teen some facts: Your teen should know the laws, and they should know about youth shelters. This may prove to them that you are concerned for their safety… just like you told them.
↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ Provide this to your teen ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓
Are you thinking about running away?
Are you worried about staying with a friend and getting your friend or their parents into trouble? Does it matter if you’re reported as a runaway or not? Deciding on whether or not to run away and where to go can be difficult. Here’s what you should know:
- In most states it is not illegal to run away.
- If you leave home without permission or stay away longer than you’re supposed to, and you are under the age of 18, your parents can file you as a runaway with the police.
- If the police find you, you will be taken home or to police headquarters, and your parents will be called to pick you up.
- If you are staying at a friend’s house or somewhere your parents didn’t give you permission to be, they can face possibly legal consequences.
- If you are filed as a runaway, your parents can press charges against those allowing you stay with them or abiding you.
- If you go to a youth shelter, generally they have to contact your parents within a certain amount of time to obtain consent for your stay. Often, you are allowed to stay only 72 hours (3 days) before you must return home. This gives you and your parents time to cool off.
- If you are staying with a friend, in most cases the police are only allowed to do a courtesy check; which means they are not allowed to search your friend’s home without a warrant.
- It is always best to check with your local non-emergency police hotline or legal aid when it comes to specifics because the law varies.
Hopefully the information listed here answers questions you may have. It’s always safe to call 1-800-RUNAWAY and ask for help.
The National Runaway Switchboard at 1-800-RUNAWAY operates a 24-hour confidential hotline for teens and their families. Leave a message with them for your child, www.nrscrisisline.org. They also provides bus tickets to get kids back home to their families
(To the parent: Attach a list of the names and addresses of local youth shelters—not adult shelters)
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Ask yourself the hard questions: Is life at home that bad? Is there abuse (emotional or physical)? What changes am I willing to make to reduce my child’s stress at home or at school?
Get to know their friends and their friends’ parents. If anyone who knows them is concerned about your child’s safety, they may help you if there’s a problem. Other parents can keep an eye out for your child, and you can help them keep an eye on theirs.
Statistics show that most children stay in the same general area that they live in. Some go only as far as a friend or relative. You should have a good idea where and be able to communicate with the responsible adult(s).
Get to know the at-risk youth and adults that your teen associates with. At-risk kids hang out together, they know each other’s stories (true or not), protect each other, and keep parents out of the loop.
Get together with other parents and trusted adults. What if parents got together too, shared stories, and supported each other? Everyone has the same goal of protecting their child. Gang up on your kids: Parent networks for tracking at-risk children
Kids’ unsafe plans and activities are no match
for the many eyes and ears (and cleverness and
wisdom) of all their parents working together.
If your teen is staying at a friends’, this may be helpful. You might negotiate with the parent for a friendly arrangement for ‘shelter’ until things calm down. But what if you cannot communicate with this parent? What if they aren’t monitoring or simply don’t care, or blame you? What if they actively harbor your child to ‘protect’ them from you? There is a law against this called “custodial interference”. This is illegal and should be reported to the police, who may come and return your child home. I know of multiple cases where some ‘do-gooder’ parent actively encouraged a teen to run away and stay at their home, some providing them with alcohol and drugs.
What to do if they run away
Notify the police and file a missing persons report. If your teen has a mental disorder, be sure to report this and provide very specific concerns (he needs to take medications, she has a history of assaulting others, he has threatened suicide, she might be unable to respond if you shout at her…). Are you worried that your police report will go on your child’s record? Don’t. Even if your child is charged and convicted as a juvenile, his or her record can be expunged (erased) at age 18 with good behavior.
Spread the word among your child’s friends and their parents that you reported your child as a runaway, and ask them to ask your child to call or to give a message to you if they see them. Also spread the word that protecting a runaway is a crime.
Track. “Friend” or “follow” your child on social media, or find someone who can and will report information they learn. This is a great time to search their room or technology. Get cell phone contacts if possible, track their GPS location, or get every address and phone number of every friend. All of this is legal.
Search yourself. Besides tracking their activities above, drive around and look for them or ask questions at businesses they frequent. It helps if your child or their associates see you. If associates know you are looking, they will avoid your child.
Check in with your child’s teachers or counselor for any information that might be useful.
Take care of yourself and your other children. This is a difficult time and you don’t have to deal with it alone. Turn to people you know and trust for support. The NRS is available 24 hours every day and offers information and support for parents too.
Good news from statistics
- 85% parents reported that the issues that led the youth to run away were somewhat, mostly, or completely resolved within a month.
- Most parents reported that their youth used alcohol or other substances less once they returned (68%).
- Most reported they engaged in physical fights less (64%).
- Most reported they broke the law less (66%).
- Of those who ran once, 75% did not leave home again.
Creative things other parents did that worked
True Story A father made business cards to give to everyone who was ever in contact with his 15-year-old daughter. It had her photo, contact information, and the message that he and her mother loved (name) and wanted to ensure her safety and appropriate behavior. He made a point of personally visiting with her friend parents where daughter went. She hated her dad for this, but never ran again, and every time she visited a friend, the parents always reminded her to call her own parents and report her whereabouts
True story. Two 13-year-old girlfriends decided it would be fun to run away and party. During the week they went missing, their frantic mothers collaborated on a ‘full court press’ to notify others and get their daughters back safe and sound. They printed flyers with photos of their daughters, their phone numbers, and offered a $25 reward, no questions asked. These were given to the police, posted at school, at youth shelters downtown, and at business hangouts the girls were known to frequent (a mall, a fast food place, a big box retailer). Both girls were eventually returned safe and sound, and they were really angry. Apparently, street kids and risky adults spurned the girls because of the flyers, for fear of attracting the attention of law enforcement.
Take good care of yourself,
Do you have a runaway story? Please scroll down and comment on what worked to return your child, or what didn’t work. Your comments help other parents who read this blog.