Teen Runaways: Signs, Prevention and What to Do If They Run

According to the National Runaway Switchboard, more than 1.5 million teenagers run away from home each year. Eighty-six percent of runaways are between the ages of 14 to 17 and 74% are female. One out of every seven children will run away before they turn 18 years old. Seventy-five percent of runaways who remain at large for two or more weeks will become involved in theft, drugs, prostitution or pornography. These are very troubling statistics, but there are steps you can take to improve the odds that your child will never venture from your home until they are ready.  We’ll run through some of the reasons teens leave home, signs you can look for, prevention tips, and what to do if your child does run away.

Reasons Teens Run Away

Teens leave home for a wide variety of reasons. Many times a child will run away because they feel like they have to escape – perhaps to avoid something bad from happening or to avoid being caught for breaking the rules. For example, if their parents have been fighting a lot, they may feel like they just can’t go through it again, or they may feel that they are the cause of the fighting and things will be better if they are not in the picture. They may be afraid their parents will be mad at them for something they did wrong or rules they disobeyed, or they may feel like their parents won’t forgive them so they have to leave. It is possible that the teen feels misunderstood and runs away to be with others that will let them be themselves.

It’s important to remember that teens who run away are not bad people. They have made a poor choice by deciding to run from their problems instead of facing and solving them. We can teach them problem solving skills and stress management tools to reduce their need for escape.  We have posted several blog articles about these coping mechanisms that you can review under the “Positive or Character-Building Skills” category.

Signs to Look For

If only parents could read their child’s mind, so many problems would be solved! Although we will never be able to delve into the teenager’s mind (and perhaps that’s a good thing), there are still signs that you can look for that can alert you to a possible runaway attempt. First of all, let’s just note that changes in behaviors and rebellious behavior are always an indication of trouble.  Risky behavior, such as drugs, sex, crime or running away, are all possibilities when you observe substantial changes in eating or sleeping, mood swings, dropping grades, truancy, picking fights, and breaking rules. So those symptoms are always things that parents should be looking for as an indicator of a wide range of possible problems. Specifically related to running away, pay attention if your child ever threatens to run away, if they keep a backpack of clothes ready, or if they begin to accumulate money and possessions.

Prevention Tips

Keeping a good relationship and open communication with your teen is the best strategy parents have to prevent their child from running away. Yelling, screaming, threatening, using disrespectful language, and disagreeing with them without listening to their side are tactics that only make teens want to leave your home more. Try to actively listen to your child when they’re speaking (don’t just nod while you’re reading the paper) and empathize with their point of view and the struggles they’re going through. Give your teen choices, not orders, to help instill responsibility and problem solving skills. Help them to understand the rules so that they are more willing to follow them. As parents, we are quick to notice a teen’s poor behavior, but be sure to look for and praise their good behavior as well.

As much as parents would like to build a wall around their child, ultimately, it is the teen’s choice whether or not to walk out the door. However, you can help them make an informed decision. Most teens don’t even realize and understand the consequences of running away, or they have heard a glamorized story from another teenager. Parents must explain the harsh consequences of leaving home. Let them know living day-to-day on the streets with no legal form of income, no food and only the clothes on their back is not only difficult, it can be deadly. Life on the streets has become more dangerous due to increasing sexual exploitation and drug use. Also explain the less glamorous aspects of temporarily living with a friend, which may seem like a great idea to a youth.

Things To Do If Your Teen Runs Away

  • Notify the police and file a missing persons report. Keep records of all details of the investigation and stay in touch with authorities while your child is missing. Ask investigators to enter your child into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) Missing Persons File. There is no waiting period for entry into NCIC for children under age 18. Get the name and badge number of the officer you speak with. Call back often and be cooperative with the officers.
  • Call the National Runaway Switchboard at 1-800-RUNAWAY. NRS operates a 24-hour confidential hotline for teens and their families. You can leave a message for your child with the NRS, and your child can also leave messages for you. Other services they offer include crisis intervention, information, referrals, and the Home Free program in partnership with Greyhound Lines, Inc. Specially trained volunteers at the hotline will help you process the situation and give you support.
  • Tell others that your teen is missing. Call everyone your child knows, let them know that you are concerned and ask for their help and support. Posters at youth hangouts can help if your teen is still in the area or contact the news desk of your local television station or newspaper.
  • Check for clues about your child’s whereabouts. Look at phone bills, e-mail activity, pager records, credit card activity, bus or airline dockets, bank statements, and employment records. Search your teen’s room for anything that may give you a clue as to where he went.
  • Visit your child’s school. Talk to the administration, security, teachers, or counselor for any information that might be useful.
  • Contact local organizations. Call runaway shelters in your area and in nearby areas and send them a photograph (your child may give an incorrect name and/or age). Call hospitals and counseling centers in your area.
  • Install Caller ID or other tracing methods, if available in your area. Do not leave your phone unattended and record the conversation if they call.

When Your Teen Comes Home
When a child runs away, the time was undoubtedly filled with anxiety. This is a time for mixed emotions – joy that the child is home safely and anger that they left in the first place. But now, both of you have to deal with the problems that made him run away and how to make sure that it does not happen again. This will require listening, compromise, communication, and building trust and respect again. Here are some tips:

  • Be happy he returned home. While parents are understandably very upset with a child that runs, their first words should be calm and welcoming. Many teens stay away from home because they are afraid of the initial confrontation with their parents when they return. Take a very long, deep breath and tell your teen that you are relieved to have him or her home, you love him/her, and that together you will solve any problems. Do not start talking about the problems right away. Your emotions are too high at this point to get anywhere in a conversation. Go two separate directions until you both have gotten some rest.
  • Allow time to settle in. Most runaways have not had the luxury of consistent access to food or shelter while they were on the run. Your teen will likely need a shower, a meal, a clean set of clothes and/or a good night sleep. Get your child medical attention if necessary.
  • Make follow up phone calls. Let friends, family, and any other contacts know that your child has returned home. Call the police to let them know that he is no longer missing.
  • Talk with your teen. After you both have had time to calm down, sit down and talk with your teen. Tell them how you felt about them going and that they hurt you by leaving. Let them know that there isn’t a problem that you, together can’t solve. If they ever feel that running away might solve something, have them talk to you first, you could always offer other choices, so they can make a better decision. Acknowledge that some problems take a lot of time and effort to improve. Make a commitment to finding a safe and reasonable resolution to the current problems and situations.
  • Look for assistance. Find support for your family. Asking for help is a sign of strength and shows that you are taking the issues seriously. Visit your state’s Family Help webpage or that National Runaway Switchboard for resources that can help your family. Professional help, such as counseling, is a good idea.


You can get more information at the National Runaway Switchboard: http://www.1800runaway.org/.


  • Hello, I read this because my little brother is thinking about running away (at least he says he is) and I don’t know what to do. I talked to my counselor at school and she said for me to talk to him. I am trying not to get my parents envolved yet until I am sure that there is a real possibility that he could run away. He has friends nearby our house, he has enough money to survive about a week, and he also has a spare bag that can be easily grabbed in case of a house fire or even running away. From reading this, these are all signs that he could be planning to run away. He also has a letter drafted on his Ipod that when he runs away (if he is even rally thinking it) he will just have to write it out on paper and take off. This could even happen on the way to the bus stop in the morning. My counselor also offered to call my brother’s counselor for her to talk to him. Any Idea on what I should do? I don’t want him to be mad at me and push him farther from us and possibly even push him into running away.


  • I have a huge issue with this:

    “It’s important to remember that teens who run away are not bad people. They have made a poor choice by deciding to run from their problems instead of facing and solving them.”

    Running away isn’t always a poor choice. Do you expect a child with no political power to face their abuse? To face trauma, terror, or other tactics that silence, immobilize, and haunt them?

    Sometimes running away is all there is….

    Please watch how you are stigmatizing these kids in your attempts to make sense of it.

    • You make an excellent point. This article was not trying to address the teen who is facing an abusive situation, and our blog should have stated that more clearly. However, we would encourage a teen who is in an abusive situation to tell a trusted adult or call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD, rather than run away which can leave a teen exposed to more abuse and exploitation. Thank you for this thoughtful response.

  • To all parents out there, you guys gotta understand how stressful and problematic teenagers lives can be. We look for a stable home, a place that’s comfortable and relaxing to get away from all the shit we deal with in school and outside in the real world. Parents gotta understand that fighting to always be right and blaming things on your teen worstens the situation. Adding punishments and excessive strictness to our lives only makes it worse. If your teens using drugs or alcohol, i’ve found its usually to help them cope with all their problems. Help them find a good outlet for their stress, whether it be the gym, sports, hell even video games, us teenagers need a place and way to vent out all of our problems. If your kid starts using drugs or alcohol, figure out whats going on that caused this, 9 times out of 10 its stress and not having someone to talk to. Life as a teenager sucks, just remember our lives are already tough enough, adding to it can make us want to up and leave.

    • That’s absolutely true I know for sure I wish weren’t a teenager its a big struggle and feel like leaving. Sometimes I feel trapped and unwanted .
      An example of a way I fee trapped is that once I asked to go to Sydney and my step mum said no all because she doesn’t want to.
      Another is the fact that I’m fourteen now and not allwowed to walk around town with my friends ( my town is small and almost every one knows each other ) .
      So I think ur right teens have it tough.

  • I just found out day before yesterday my step daughter just up and left camp, she left her little brother there, saying she was going home to change clothes, and have not been found yet, I am having so many mixed emotions about how this could happen because the camp was responsible for the child how could they just let her leave? I can’t understand why didn’t they monitor he carefully after she stated she was leaving the premisses with out adult permission. This is a difficult moment for my family and my self,even though she is not the child I gave birth to I still look at her as one of my own. I’m not sure what to do the suspense is crazy right now, my prayers are that she shows up and it okay, I am fighting with in my prayers to know that all is well and that she’ll return safely.

  • Reginab1630@yahoo.com

    Last week my daughter and I had an argument; and my husband is a cop, he uses a lot of times his job as a form of preventing me to do what i need to do and (he is just a step parent); during a disagreement between me and my 16 yr old- who is a wonderful child and blessing to me- my husband refused me the ability to speak with her alone; so while she is at work I went to her job because the night before he advised her to call the cops on me due to my punishment of a week for smart mouthing; after the police left, I then find out the police told her she could try
    to get a lawyer and file for emancipation so when I went to speak with her she attempted to call the cops on me again! She was upset that I yelled at her and my husband was makin matters worse and we needed time to cool off- so she said; she then had my husband pick her up from work and refused to speak with anybody but him, my brother, my son and myself all tried to reason with her and after some aggravated conversations I was so upset I told her to leave (I never meant for her to leave I didn’t want that) and ofcourse I regret that, at that point my husband in which I have on video started packing his truck with my daughter’s belongings he told me he took her to the corner and dumped her off and for days knew of her whereabouts and of course, I told my husband to leave the home if he didnt
    Tell me where she was and that he should have tried to reason with her she is 16. With knowing the cops would not treat me fairly I knew I was really not going to get much help I went to a different Police Department and was told I had to go to my town station where my husband works I went there with audio recording and was refused the right to file a missing person – I was told by that he knew where my daughter was and she was in no way endangered and in his eyes she was not missing he then told me that I pushed him far and he didn’t want to have to but he was calling the department of endangered children on me; although I am thrilled to have my daughter back and she is glad as well I feel the police station and their officers created unnecessary steps to damage me on paper if anyone knows how they can help me please post that because I don’t know what to do…

    • “…my husband refused me the ability to speak with her alone; so while she is at work I went to her job because the night before he advised her to call the cops on me due to my punishment of a week for smart mouthing…”

      Wow. That’s red flags all over the place, for a controlling relationship. Get counseling, soon.

  • Hi, I am new to your page. I found you because I have been looking for other like minded bloggers that I can relate and share with. A bit about me; I have a blog journal that is a true journal from the 80’s between my cousin and I in foster care. I have written our story of abuse and how we found clever ways to protect each other. Which is why after reading your blog I think you may like it. I am trying to raise awareness and inspire at the same time. These journal entries have everything in topics including; sex, drugs, adoption, foster care, physical, sexual and mental abuse, running away, rites of passage, mental illness, love, hope, and most importantly dreams.I hope you look up Izzie and Eden’s diary on my page, I think you’ll totally dig it! Keep on writing, your fantastic! Thank you very much! Lydia…………..http://sunnylanejournal.wordpress.com/

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