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.
- Substance use, mostly alcohol and marijuana. Both cause paranoia and depression and aggravate anger. I discovered many parents believe there’s no problem with marijuana, but scientific research shows marijuana is especially damaging to adolescents! 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.
- 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 who undermine 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.
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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)
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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.