You may already be a member of the 911 Club, a community of parents who depend on emergency services for managing their mentally ill child. Our T-shirts are black and blue like bruises. Only people raising a mentally ill child or young adult join. Club rules are simple:
1. Focus on safety first.
2. Continually manage the trauma you and your family experience.
3. Accept that no one is guilty or a failure.
4. Ask others for emotional and physical help.
Every day, an emergency is just around the corner.
Parents with troubled children, no matter the age or diagnosis, are forced to make difficult decisions and take extreme actions… like calling 911. It’s not something they choose, and they’ll avoid it if possible. They are like any other parent with a severely disabled or physically ill child—they will do anything to help their child, but instead of wheelchairs or chemotherapy, they need emergency responders.
Ten things that parents of troubled children often do:
Call an ambulance
Call a crisis line repeatedly
Search a child’s room, especially if the child is a teenager or may be suicidal
Spy on their child: read their email, texts, social media or search histories, read their journals
File criminal charges or get a restraining order
Lock up common household items (matches, knives, scissors, fuel, chemicals, and anything conceivably dangerous in the wrong hands)
Participate in endless meetings, appointments, and therapy sessions. Complete dozens of forms and continually pursue financial or community mental health resources
Block out people who used to be friends, block their child from troubled friends
Never share stories with ‘normal’ people to avoid bombardment with uninformed and unsolicited opinions.
Parents can see an emergency coming, but can do little to prevent it.
All parents of troubled children have barriers to getting help, even when it’s blatantly obvious that the child needs it. Why? The aftermath of a recent high school shooting in Florida by provides details:
The tragedy has to happen first: “A neighbor warned the sheriff’s office …and begged them to intervene. She was told there was nothing deputies could do until Cruz actually did something.”
Mental health professionals don’t take history into account; and they are ignorant that children can behave well in their presence: “An investigator … spoke to Cruz, and advised that he was “not currently a threat to himself or others” and did not need to be committed.
Family and other eyewitnesses are ignored by the people and institutions they depend on. “Lynda Cruz’s cousin warned deputies Cruz had rifles and pleaded for them to “recover these weapons.”
Policymakers, mental health professionals, and emergency responders out there: fix this!
Part of the reason parents or family of the mentally ill person can’t get timely help is because of civil rights laws. To those in the mental health community, start talking about how to handle this. The present situation is unacceptable! Stop protecting an acknowledged dangerous person’s rights over those of innocent victims. It’s not OK. This is just like some gun advocates who think it’s more important to sell assault rifles to protect their personal rights over those of innocent victims.
An upsetting thing happened in my city about 10 years ago that could have been my story. A man took his grown son to the emergency room because the son had been insisting he was going to stab someone—he suffered from untreated schizophrenia. When there, the staff found no reason to hold the son despite his history of violence and his father’s testimony. The father pleaded with them to put his son in a 72-hour hold and they refused.
Within minutes, the son ran off into the surrounding neighborhood, and within an hour, had stolen a steak knife from a restaurant, and ran out and stabbed a man walking on the sidewalk. (The victim lived, fortunately.) The father told the reporter that he’d been trying every possible means to stop this from happening in the hours before the event. Getting the son to go with him to the ER was an extraordinary feat in and of itself. He was beside himself with frustration and sadness and anger. Now his son had aggravated assault and attempted homicide charges, and faced prison instead of a hospital.
U.K. needs to be a “999 Club”; Germany needs a “112” Club; a “110 Club” in China…
You can sense there will be a crisis long before it happens. You have days when you’re so concerned about your child and family (and work and responsibilities) that you can’t think straight. You can’t even spend time on little things like chatting with a friend or reading a magazine. Your intuition says it’s only a matter of time and you won’t be able to handle it.
Before this happens, make a Crisis Plan with these priorities in order:
Safety for everyone comes first
Stabilization and treatment for your child
Stress reduction for the family afterwards
What constitutes a mental health crisis?
When something dangerous has happened or is likely to happen because of a child’s behavior, words, plans, or triggering events that they experience.
Anytime a child’s behavior leads to harm or imminent harm to the child or someone else (including pets), or significant damage to property. Harm also includes emotional harm, threats, running away to unsafe places or doing unsafe things.
Trust your gut and trust your intuition.
Examples of a crisis when you must act
Watch. Pay attention to evidence your child has plans for suicide, which may include seeking dangerous items; or making multiple references to hating life; or they have a worsening mental state, or there’s been a prior suicide attempt. Try this: “Use the “S” word: talk openly with your child about suicide.”
Look for increasingly troubled behavior over time that leads to extreme behavior: non-stop raging, assault, repeated running away, threatening, talking about strange things, or spending too much time alone.
Pay attention following a traumatic event, such as someone else’s suicide or a newsworthy major tragedy. These can trigger a child to act dangerously on thoughts they already have.
The child runs away while psychotic, or depressed, or with a dangerous person–perhaps another troubled child–or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Psychosis of any kind including hallucinating or hearing voices; odd ideas; extreme agitation, anxiety, or paranoia; or a belief they have special powers.
The Crisis Plan
Have a crisis plan for home, school, and any other place where the child spends time. For some, it’s also the parents’ workplace. If a child is in college, a student adviser or someone in the campus health clinic needs to be a contact for checking in on your child.
Plan A: call 911. You will not be bothering the police or emergency responders!
Plan B: Answer these questions
For a runaway. Who gets on the phone to call 911, and who goes out to look for the child and bring him or her back without mutual endangerment? Both should know how to work with police and other community members. There is no waiting period in a missing person’s report. Check this article for what to say in call and do when police arrive. “How to work with police once you’ve called 911.”
Note: children have been known to behave perfectly once the police arrive, and police sometimes implicate the parents as having the problem. Don’t let this bother you. You have demonstrated to your child that you are willing to call the police, and you’ve asserted your authority. You might point this out to them–another episode of extreme behavior will be countered with significant action on your part. Use a neutral tone and avoid making this sound like a threat!
Who else knows your child and is trustworthy: others parents, businesses, teachers, their friends? Are any of them able to assist you with talking to your child or keeping them safe? Can any them help you “hold the fort” while waiting for an emergency responder? Build a support network in advance:
Who gets on the phone and calls for extra assistance? And is there a list of phone numbers? Does your town or city have a crisis response team for kids? What about a crisis line run by the mental health authority? Check. They are there to help.
Who should be appointed to communicate with the child? This should be a family member or friend or teacher that the child trusts. Communication with the right person can solve things fast, but with the wrong person can backfire, even from a parent… perhaps especially from a parent.
Who should step in and break up a fight, physical or emotional? And what specifically should they do or say to de-escalate a situation spinning out of control? Think about this: your troubled child can often tell you exactly what works best and what makes things worse. Listen to them. It doesn’t have to sound rational to you as long as it works.
How should a time-out work? Who counts to 10, or who can leave the house and go out for a walk? Where can someone run to to feel safe and be left alone for a while? What are the emotional safety rules for when the time out ends? How can you and your child trust each other enough not to upset a fragile stability?
What should teachers or co-workers or others do to calm down a situation and get their classroom or office back to normal as quickly as possible?
Can a sibling stay at someone else’s house until things cool down at home? Which house? Sibling(s) can benefit from an escape to a friend’s house to protect them emotionally until a crisis has passed. Ask them.
Think of your family and support network as a team that springs into action when someone sounds the Red Alert that your child is in danger. Talk to family members and friends or neighbors ahead of time and give them an assigned role. Let each should know they will be backed up. This will be tremendously reassuring. Your child’s crisis will be an upsetting event, but reasonable people will pull together when they know what’s going on and what they should do. “Gang up on your kids: Parent networks for tracking runaway children”
Experiences and evidence shows that a rapid reduction of stress is effective at reducing the emotional wounds of a crisis. Rapid cooling down of emotions, or “de-escalation,” is what prevents or limits the fallout from a crises. You and your family can develop de-escalation techniques for bouncing back in tough situations. The goal is “resilience.” More than anyone, families with troubled children need resilience.
After the crisis
Everyone gets a mental health break. This could be anything: a day off, eating out, ice cream, going out for a movie… Do something to get everyone back to an OK place and on their feet. There should always be a reward for bravery, team work, and a job well done.
Next time it happens
There will be a next time. A troubled child will be fine for many months and you’ll be so relieved, and then WHAM. Use a previous crisis as a learning experience. What can be done better next time?
Your long-term goal is to reduce crisis frequency over time, or prevent them from happening in the first place.
Many parents have taken these steps to prevent a crisis or limit its severity.
Communicate directly with a police officer or precinct, school counselor, or juvenile justice official to explain your child’s legitimate mental health disability and your willingness to cooperate. Build a working relationship with them.
Locks on doors: a sibling can protect him or herself and their belongings; a parent can protect belongings, prescriptions, valuables, and money.
Track via technology – Track where your child goes and what they see online, and let them know you are doing this. This is legal.
Track via eyes and ears on the street – Befriend or build trust with your child’s friends, their parents, their teachers, neighbors, and businesses where they hang out. Ask for a report if they see or hear something of concern. They may not be able to do anything but just report.
Search the child’s room for evidence of unsafe behavior, anything from razors for cutting themselves, harmful substances, porn, weapons, unusual ‘stockpiles’ of stuff (lengthy explanation goes here… just trust your gut if something is out of place). Room searches in your home are legal, but keep them secret and avoid acting on other things you find that aren’t 100% related to danger
Lock up dangerous items even though it’s inconvenient for you–kitchen knives, weapons, alcohol, drugs and prescriptions, matches, etc.
Lock up money, credit cards, and valuables. With money in hand, your child is on a path to victim-hood or association with people with criminal behavior. For example, they can buy drugs and alcohol from inappropriate people who then rob or assault them.
Confront people who undermine your authority. This is often a friend’s parents or other person who thinks you are abusing your child (because your child has told them so). They ‘rescue’ your child and offer safe harbor, and actively help them run away. This is completely against the law, and they are subject to police action and criminal charges. People who do this do not have your child’s safety in mind.
There may be times when, for reasons of safety, you may to do things you are uncomfortable with while you wait for police, ambulance, or friends to arrive. These are things parents have done in a crisis: tackle a child and hold them down; or trick a child to get in a car and then have someone hold them down until they arrive at an emergency room (commonly needed in rural areas). The way to avoid the risk of being charged by your child with abuse or assault is to have those open relationships with the authorities, teachers, and other parents who know your situation. A letter from a doctor can be really important here. I was glad I had one.
There will be fallout if you use force or trickery. Your child will not accept your reasoning or the necessity for your actions. You can truly apologize for upsetting your child but without admitting guilt. Instead, ask what they want to happen next time they are in a crisis. You should also honestly reassure them you will never use extreme methods again unless there is a safety issue.
Trust your gut
Follow a plan that includes others working as a team
Take care of everyone afterwards
Prepare for extreme measures
Retain your authority as a parent by establishing supportive relationships.
You’ve tried everything. Now you watch helplessly as your troubled teenager starts down a path leading to jail, and you wait for that call from the police. There’s been a crime. It finally happened like you thought it would. But this bad news can be good news. This may be the point when things start to turn around.
“Experts estimate that from 40 percent to 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system suffer from some form of mental health disorder or an illness – anything from ADHD to full-blown psychosis. About 15 percent to 25 percent have mental illnesses “severe enough to significantly impair their ability to function.”” (see “Mentally ill minors put in juvenile hall” at end of this post)
Juvenile crime is considered as serious as adult crime, and juvenile “detention” is just like jail for adults. Yet there is one critical distinction between teenage and adult justice: teens are given a second chance for a clean record and an education. If your jurisdiction is enlightened, they will get treatment for mental illness or addictions. An adult criminal record is forever a barrier and an embarrassment. It comes up when a former convict applies for a job, a loan, a college degree, military service, a rental, or even a volunteer opportunity.
The juvenile justice system is only partially punitive because society recognizes that the teenage brain is the problem that causes much crime, whether or not they have a mental disorder or addiction. Enlightened juvenile court judges want their rulings to be “rehabilitative” or “restorative” justice. Enlightened agency directors understand the need for additional support services for learning disabilities, addiction, mental illness, and vocational training.
In the system, teen criminals (“adjudicated youth”) are required to participate in consequences and treatment; it’s a “carrot and stick” approach.
The carrot: The teens attend school and receive training for vocations such as car repair or catering. They participate in positive character-building activities such as training dogs for adoption, building and maintaining hiking trails, or constructing homes for Habitat for Humanity.
The stick: Teens have a complete lack of freedom, whether in detention or out on probation, intensive monitoring (including random urinalysis), immediate consequences for behavior violations, and physical labor to pay back victims (community work programs).
When a police officer calls to say your son or daughter has been arrested, use this as an opportunity to help your kid. It’s a perfect teachable moment. Not only do you have their attention, you can hand the problem over to the Law to enforce their behavior and treat their disorders or addictions. Your son or daughter cannot refuse—when held or convicted on criminal charges, your child has no rights to anything except humane treatment and an appearance before a judge. You are off the hook. You can step back and relax… and be the Good Guy for once.
How to work with the juvenile justice system:
Be an active partner with the court. Cooperate fully with the judge, court counselor or therapist, and any attorney, case worker, or probation officer involved.
Show up for everything: visitation, family therapy, court hearings, and parenting classes even if you don’t think you need them.
Stand shoulder-to-shoulder with staff. If your teen has a probation officer, do what they tell you, even if it means tattling on your kid.
Be cooperative with staff, and they will work harder for you and your son or daughter. Support the programs required for your teen, and support your teen when they struggle. Your involvement will someday impress on your child that you’re on their side and care.
Change your ways. If you’ve been too harsh with your teen in the past, go easy on them now and let him or her see your good side. If you’ve been too easy on them or too protective, demonstrate backbone. Show you know what’s best for them and that you will remain in charge once they are released.
Stick with your child. If your teenager becomes a Frequent Flyer in the system, it doesn’t mean they are lost. Remember, they have that uncontrollable teenaged brain and need more time and lessons for it to reach maturity.
Once they come home on probation you need to set strict limits on their activities, and work with the probation officer or social worker to enforce them. These are harsh at first, but should be negotiated later when behavior improves, with consultation with the juvenile justice staff.
Don’t allow them to stay out late ever. Set an early curfew, and report them to their probation officer if they are late. When they get angry about this, explain that you are bound by the law and that they should discuss their concerns with the officer.
Not negotiable: ban drugs and alcohol, especially marijuana. (“Marijuana is uniquely dangerous for troubled teens”.) Hide prescription drugs and alcohol if you use them. You have the right to search their room and belongings. If pertinent, hide weapons, matches, or other means of harm to themselves or others.
Stop or limit contact with risky friends. This may mean monitoring visits, monitoring cell phone use and internet access, or blocking access entirely if used for crime.
Limit access to money to prevent drug/alcohol purchases or escape plans. Get receipts if necessary.
Reduce free time. Busy them with as many activities as you can–a job is the ideal.
Three Goals: 1) stay at home 2) stay in school
3) stay out of trouble
Three House Rules: 1) continue mental health treatment 2) no violence when upset 3) clean body, clean clothes
Build their esteem as you would for any troubled child. Guide them to their strengths. Give your teenager something to do that they good at, and allow them ample opportunity to shine. More at “The good things about bad kids“.
Extreme measures. I know of three cases where parents took drastic steps to help their son or daughter stay out of trouble, and these worked!
True story – a single father was worried about his son’s gang involvement, especially since the son was still on probation for a crime, and additional charges would draw lengthy prison time. Dad sold the family home and bought another one in a neighborhood ‘run’ by an opposing gang. The son was terrified to leave the house except for his new school, a long way from his gang brothers. This son graduated high school and left the area for college… alive, uninjured, and with a clean record.
True story – After a couple of years trying to keep their daughter out of trouble, parents started looking for work in a smaller town. They wanted to find a safer place with fewer risks and more eyes. After she completed her mandated one year probation, the family moved. She was upset to leave her friends, but they were the problem friends. Her crime sprees ended.
True story – a single mother was on the edge of sanity and financial ruin trying to manage the world her son created. While visiting a juvenile justice counselor with her son, the counselor made an off-hand comment about handing him over to foster care so that she could get her job back and sleep at night. With a heavy heart, she went forward and obtained a “voluntary placement” for him (temporary state custody), and he went to a foster home. After two years, he was ready to come home and she was ready and empowered to support him.
A note of caution: You may have seen ads for outdoor programs or “boot camps” for at-risk teens. Some of these programs are extremely inappropriate for troubled youth, even traumatizing. Or some may not allow teens with a criminal history. Get advice about therapeutic programs for your at-risk teenager from a counselor or social worker, not just from the program itself. Your teen’s providers often know which ones are appropriate.
The people in the Juvenile Justice System
In my personal experience, 99% of employees in juvenile justice are there because they care about teens, they like teens and “get it” about them, and they believe in the power of what they do. My co-workers have many success stories among their cases. Some former delinquents come back to work for the juvenile justice system and use their hard-won experience to help the next generation. Ironically, it’s the one job where a criminal record helps!
If you are concerned about what your child will experience in the juvenile justice system, just call and ask. You may be surprised.
Challenges, risks, and potentially serious problems
A troubled young person in detention or incarceration is exposed to others with criminal behavior. They may bully or be bullied or both. They may meet fellow inmates to sell drugs to when they get out, or learn who can supply them with drugs. Depression is common, and presents as anger or self-destructive behavior, such as getting in trouble on purpose.
Not all juvenile departments provide mental health treatment, or treatment is inadequate. And sadly, there are still places where staff and citizens don’t believe in the mental health “excuse” for bad behavior. You may need to be an assertive advocate for treatment. Work with your child’s public defender, who is provided by the court, and give them evidence of mental health problems in medical records. Your child will need to sign a waiver for the attorney to have the records.
Some states have Mandatory Minimums–pray it’s not yours. Certain crimes lead to long prison sentences regardless of the circumstances of the crime or the mental illness of your child. My state of Oregon will incarcerate anyone over age 15 for seven years if they commit one of these crimes. This made sense to the voters who put it into law, but the reality is a worst-case scenario for how NOT to rehabilitate youth. No one I’ve ever met in our state, from judges to prosecuting attorneys to sheriffs to probation officers, thinks it’s a good idea–the outcomes have been horrible for reasons too lengthy to go into here.
Each county and state has a different culture and attitude towards juvenile delinquents. Some are exceptionally harsh, or they neglect the kids’ legitimate needs; some are reluctant to treat kids like individuals with different needs and strengths; some get that right balance of punishment and rehabilitation. It depends on the judges, the county, and the state. Each is different.
Is your child at risk from criminal involvement or charged in a crime? Please comment so other parents who read it can learn from your experience. Thank you.
How am I doing? Please rate this article above, thank you.
Mentally ill minors put in juvenile hall(excerpt) Daily Bulletin, Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino, June 12, 2010
“Juvenile halls have become catch-all basins for severely mentally ill youth. Designed as secure holding facilities for minors who are going through the court system, juvenile detention centers now double as a default placement option for youth diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. “There is no place for them in [our system],” said a county juvenile court judge in California. “We can’t just arrest our way out of the problem. Juvenile hall is not a place to house mentally ill.”
It’s an emotional shock when your teen runs away the first time. Your feelings are complex: anger at his or her rebelliousness; fear for his or her safety; shame that you may be called a “bad” parent or that your behavior caused your child to run. Runaway teens also have complex reasons for running, and they may or may not be the parents’ fault.
Why they run
Basic teenage development All teens go through a stage where they define themselves as unique, and start demanding two things: 1. freedom; 2. a say in their life. These are necessary and important for maturity—some do it gracefully and some don’t. Even teens with a mental illness will go through this normal phase.
Rebellion Most rebellious teens do not run away because they may have better survival instincts. If a teen is emotionally behind their peers, using drugs or alcohol, and part of a risky crowd that encourages them and undermines their parents’ authority, it’s likely they’ll run.
Mental disorders Mental health problems magnify any or all negative aspects of rebellion and immaturity. They also disrupt a teen’s thought patterns and cause irrational ideas and fantasies. They have a high likelihood of running.
Family stress This is the biggest reason: “65% of youth reported running away because of family conflict.”* Think about what’s going on at home that a teenager can’t handle (they are not as strong as they act). Is there non-stop fighting between members? Are they being nagged or constantly criticized, and not shown support or love? Like all children, teens still deserve support and love. Are they being bullied, or physically or sexually abused? *National Runaway Switchboard at 1-800-RUNAWAY
What you might observe that foretells running
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, spend all their time with friends, or never want to leave their room. Sudden mood swings mean teens are unsettled and restless, and they’re not coping well with stress.
Outward rebellious behavior is often the start of trouble, but not always. Inward rebellion is also a problem, such as depression and isolating from their family.
Falling grades, truancy, school behavior, and breaking house rules are all symptoms that your child is having problems.
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.
Expressing fantasies that they will ‘divorce’ their family. Teens often believe they can be legally emancipated before age 18, skip high school and get a GED* and a job, and be free. A juvenile court judge told me otherwise! The legal test for emancipation is very restrictive. *General Educational Development exam–a less valuable substitute for a high school diploma.
Accumulation of money and possessions. To survive, runaway teens need resources. Some prepare for their run by saving any money they receive. They might keep a bag or backpack of clothes and food in the closet to make a quick escape.
Risky friends have a very powerful influence on the decision to run away. Relationships like these almost always include substance abuse. The risky associates include adults whoundermine the parents, and who coach teens how to get away from home. They provide them with cigarettes and drugs, and possibly take advantage of them.
Full time access to unmonitored and unrestricted communication, and easy access to transportation, especially a car or an at-risk acquaintance 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 you’re committed to helping the family work things out, and let them know you are concerned about their safety.
If your teen is intent on running away, give them the phone number of the National Runaway Switchboard* so that they can find safe options 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 them some facts: Your teen should know the laws, and they should know about youth shelters. This may help them recognize that you are concerned for their safety… just like you told them.
– – – – – – – – – –
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 answered some of the questions you may have had. If not, you can give us a call and we can help. 1-800-RUNAWAY
(Parent: list the names and addresses of local youth shelters here—not adult shelters)
– – – – – – – – – –
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 as well as their own.
Statistics indicate that most children stay in the same general area that they live in. Some go only as far as a friend or relative. You must know where and be able to communicate with the responsible adults.
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. What if parents got together too, shared stories, and supported each other? Everyone has the same goal of protecting their child. Kids’ unsafe plans and activities are no match for the many eyes and ears (and cleverness and wisdom) of all their parents combined.”Gang up on your kids: Parent networks for tracking at-risk children
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. If you cannot communicate with this parent, they may be guilty of custodial interference. This is illegal and should be reported to the police. More often than known, some parents actively encourage other parents’ children to leave home, as well as provide them with alcohol and drugs.
What to do if they run
Notify the police and file a missing persons report. If your teen has a mental disorder, bring this up on the call and be specific (he needs to take medications, she has a history of assaulting others, he has threatened suicide, she might be out of control and 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.
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
Spread the word among friends and your child’s friends that you reported your child, and ask them to ask your child to call or give a message to you if they see them. Also spread the word that protecting a runaway is a crime.
Track. “Friend” your child on Facebook, or find someone who can and will report to you. Set your computer up to track and store web search history and email. Search their room. Get their cell phone contacts if possible, track their GPS location by cell phone, and get every address and phone number of every friend. All of this is legal.
Investigate. This is not a situation where you respect your teen’s privacy. Besides tracking their activities above, drive around and look for them. Be sure they and their friends see you because then the risky friends 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.
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.
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.
Do you have a runaway story? Please comment on what worked to return your child, or what didn’t work. Thank you.
Both boys and girls get in trouble with the law. Boys are in the majority for arrests for crime, but statistics indicate that girls’ arrests are increasing: “…between 1996 and 2005, girls’ arrest for simple assault increased 24%.” Of 1528 girls studied over a period from 1992 and 2008, 22% committed serious property offenses and 17 % committed serious assaults. (Girls Study Group, U.S. Department of Justice, 2008. www.ojp.usdoj.gov).
Troubled girls easily become criminal, but also risk being a victim
Girls who have behavioral disorders, from addictions or past trauma or emotional disorders, begin to have delinquent or criminal behaviors as early as middle school. What makes a girl’s criminal activities different from boys is that girls put themselves at high risk of being victimized themselves. How can a parent or caregiver prevent their daughter from engaging in criminal behavior, and trapping themselves in a social world where their stresses and disorders can worsen?
The Girls Study Group quoted above studied which factors protected girls from becoming criminal, or helped them stop and reengage in activities that improve and stabilize their lives. Protective factors did not prevent all criminal activity however, yet the first one has been shown to be the most effective.
Support from a caring adult.THIS IS THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR in preventing girls from criminal activities of any kind.
Success in school helped prevent aggression against people, but not property crimes.
“Religiousity,” or how important religion was to troubled girls, meant they were less likely to be involved with drugs.
Risks to girls that are different from boys:
Early puberty is a risk if the girl has a difficult family and comes from a disadvantaged neighborhood. Biological maturity before social maturity causes more conflicts with parents and more negative associations with older boys or men.
Sexual abuse, which girls experience much more than boys, including sexual assault, rape, and harassment. But abuse of any kind affects both boys and girls equally.
Depression and anxiety, which girls tend to suffer more from than boys.
Romantic partners. Girls who commit less serious crimes are influenced by their boyfriends. But for serious offenses, both boys and girls are equally influenced by a romantic partner.
Once she’s regularly breaking rules, it’s not easy to turn things around for a troubled girl. It requires constant, persistent efforts to:
Keep her away from risky associates.
Keep her in school and up with studies.
Keep telling her what’s great about her,what’s special, what’s powerful and good.
If you are a parent or caregiver, and you are lucky enough to have a strong mentoring relationship with your troubled daughter, keep it up despite any occasional law-breaking activities. She’ll need consequences, but they should be obstacles to overcome rather than punishments—such as earning back privileges by having good behavior for a period of weeks or months.
If you don’t or can’t have a mentoring relationship, find out who can (or already does). Admit you might not be the sole support for her success, and work in partnership with a caring adult. Find out who believes in her already. Find out who she asks for help if she’s feeling fearful or down about herself. Listen to her if she talks about someone she’s grateful for for helping her through difficulties. Girls respond really well to someone who believes in them.
Teen girls can be turned around and it’s always worth the effort. She might be hard to take sometimes, but find something, anything, that’s good about her and let her know. Over time, you’ll start noticing more and more great things about her, and then she’ll start noticing them too.
Q: Should I call 911? I’ve been told I should call the police or mental health hotline when there’s a crisis, but how do I know when it’s a real crisis?
A: If your child is doing something dangerous to him or herself, or others (including a pet), or property, and if you can’t manage it or stop it, call. “Dangerous” means threatening, harmful, or abusive. Emergency 911 dispatchers, police, and mental health crisis workers all encourage anyone to call, anytime. You will not bother them. I once visited a 911 facility and got a chance to ask to speak with the staff and this was their message. They described the many ways they can respond when a child or teen “blows out,” runs, or becomes suicidal.
Once you call the police:
Advice from the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health (www.ffcmh.org).
1. Remain as calm as you possibly can.
2. Provide only facts as quickly and clearly as possible.
EXAMPLE: I am calling from [address]. My 13-year-old son is threatening to cut his sister. He has [diagnosis] and may be off his medication and under the influence of alcohol. There are 4 of us in the house: my mother, my son and daughter, and myself.
3. Identify weapons in the vicinity or in your child’s possession and alert the dispatcher
4. Be specific about what type of police assistance you are asking for.
EXAMPLE: We want to protect ourselves and get my son to the emergency room for a psychiatric evaluation, but cannot do that by ourselves. Please send help.
5. Answer any questions the dispatcher asks. Do not take offense when you are asked to repeat information. This is done to double-check details and better assist you.
6. Offer information to the dispatcher about how an officer can help your child calm down.
7. Tell the dispatcher any addition information you can about what might cause you child’s behavior to become more dangerous—suggest actions the officer should avoid.
EXAMPLE: Please don’t tell him to stand still. He cannot hold his body still until he calms. If you can get him to walk with you, he can listen and respond better. He is terrified of being handcuffed. Please tell him what he needs to do to avoid being handcuffed.
REMEMBER: Your primary role in this situation is to be a good communicator. Your ability to remain calm and provide factual details is critical the outcome of this situation.”
– – – – – – –
What is your local police force like? Call the non-emergency line and check, ask questions about how police typically respond to situations where a child or teenager is diagnosed with a mental disorder and out of control.
In many parents’ experiences, including mine, the police were very helpful. Others have had poor experiences. Some said their child calmed down and appeared normal once the police arrived, and they felt the police assumed they were exaggerating. Some said the police only aggravated the crisis, and in a very few cases, the encounter lead to tragedy.
In 2007, I attended the national conference of the Federation of Families in Washington DC, and learned from the President of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, Ronald C. Ruecker, that the NACP has made a commitment to promote police training in crisis response to children with mental disorders, including information about the disorders and their manifestations.