How Do You Deal With a Teenager Running Away?
Having a teenage runaway is many parent’s worst nightmare. Worries about why this happened, what might happen to them while they’re gone, and how to handle the issue when they come home are enough to drive a parent insane. Running away is one of the most risky behaviors your teen can do and should be taken extremely seriously. However, there are also common mistakes that well-intentioned parents make that only prove to exacerbate the underlying problems. Following are some strategies that can be used at various stages.
Watching the Signs
Unfortunately there are no hard and fast signs that a teen may be considering running away. However, the reasons why usually boil down to one of the following:
- An attempt to gain power/control
- Embarrassment/shame about actions
- Fear of facing consequences for their actions
- Involvement with substance abuse and desire to us more freely
If you feel your teen may fit into one of these categories, be proactive in mitigating the run-away risk. You cannot physically stop your teen from running away or keep them locked inside your house, but you can keep lines of communication open. Make it a point to ask your teen open-ended questions at least twice a day. Ask things like “Is there anything that is bothering you right now?” or “Tell me about some hard things that are going on with you.” If you have reason to believe they may be actively planning to run away, ask them about it! Oftentimes running away is a drastic cry for attention. Ask them what about their situation at home is making them want to leave.
On the Run
If your teen has already run away, take action immediately. Many parents are hesitant to escalate the situation by calling the police. However, this is critically important for your child’s safety! Although the police cannot legally require your child to come home, they can help you locate him/her and ensure their safety. It is a common misconception that you must wait 24 hours to report a missing child. This is false! Anyone under 18 can be reported to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and entered into the Missing Persons File immediately.
Other steps you can take:
- Call the National Runaway Safeline at 1-800-RUNAWAY. You can leave a message here for your child.
- Most kids don’t leave the city or state—check with family, friends, and neighbors to see if they are with them.
- Check their room, computer, etc. for any clues where they might have gone.
- Call your child’s school and ask what resources they have available to help you.
After Their Return
Once you have located your child and you are no longer concerned for their safety, take a deep breath and step back. This is a crucial time to show your child that this incident has not put them in a position of power over you. If someone else finds them and/or brings them home, take a few hours or even a night before you talk. Both of your emotions will be high and it is likely you may say something you later regret.
If you are the one who finds them, do not beg them to come home. While this may be tempting, this gives them power and reinforces the idea that running away gives them an advantage over you. Calmly ask them to come home when they are ready and agree on a plan for what will happen in the meantime. This might mean staying with a relative or close family friend.
Once they have come home and everyone has cooled down, sit down and talk about the situation. Ask about the reasons why they felt leaving home was the only option and give them strategies for solving problems more productively in the future. As you determine their punishment, remember that a harsh punishment with no objective usually does not work with runaways. It may only serve to strengthen their resolve to not come home the next time. Instead, try determining a punishment that will have a learning component. For example, tell them they need to write a 3-page paper on problem-solving skills and what they have learned from this experience. Even if what they write is completely made up, it will get them thinking about better ways to handle conflict in the future.