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.
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/.