Runaway behavior for teens is usually not the result of a wish to have a Huckleberry Finn experience. It is often their dramatic way of dealing with longstanding problems or conflicts with family.
It is believed that between 1 and 1.3 million teens in the United States live in emergency shelters or on the streets. Research indicates that the problem is more prevalent for adolescent girls. Homeless teens tended to be younger, female, and white. Further, these girls engaged in problematic behaviors, such as vagrancy, sexual promiscuity, prostitution, suicide attempts, and becoming pregnant.
The types of runaway behavior were initially viewed dichotomously as "running from" or "running to" something. These include three categories:
- the youngster who runs away from family strain caused by a crisis;
- the youngster who runs away from excessive parental expectations and control;
- the youngster who runs away from a physically or sexually abusive situation.
The "running to" teens may have experienced some problems with family or in school or the community, but is often searching for excitement. This type of runaway usually comes from a more normal family situation and runs away for existential reasons.
The "running from" teen is unhappy about one or more major areas of life (e.g., conflict with, or alienation from, family). The family situation is often pathological, such as that involving an alcoholic parent, physical or sexual abuse, or extreme financial difficulties. Running away in these instances can be viewed as a rational decision to escape harm.
The "thrown out" teen may have been forced to leave home, because of extreme family alienation or premature dissolution caused by chronic poverty, family conflict, substance abuse, or the death of caretakers.
In North America, runaway teens are widely regarded as a chronic and serious social problem. It is estimated that each year there are between 1.3 and 1.5 million runaway and homeless teens in the United States. This problem also exists in the United Kingdom, with runaway teens often congregating in London.
Current studies suggest that the primary cause of teen homelessness is family dysfunction in the form of parental neglect, physical or sexual abuse, family substance abuse, and family violence. Family conflict can also be caused by sudden and or drastic changes in the family composition (i.e. a divorce, re-marriage, death of a parent), parental substance abuse, teen's substance abuse, and teen's sexual activity. They may have difficulty obtaining affordable housing, due to landlords being reluctant to rent to young adults. Since most homeless teens drop-out of school, they also have difficulty competing successfully in the job market.
A related term used for runaways is "throwaway teen". Normally a throwaway teen is someone who has been "locked out" or forced to leave home by his/her moms and dads or caregivers. However, the distinction between runaways and throwaways is not clear as in many cases it depends on who provides the information. When the moms and dads are asked they say the teen ran away, while the teen would say he or she was forced to leave, either directly or by circumstances. In most cases, teens run away because the situation at home is seen as unbearable and not because they are looking for excitement or fun.
Running away from home is considered a crime in some jurisdictions, but it is usually a status offense punished with probation, or not punished at all. Giving aid or assistance to a runaway instead of turning them in to the police is a more serious crime called "harboring a runaway", and is typically a misdemeanor. The law can vary considerably from one jurisdiction to another; in the United States there is a different law in every state. A 2003 FBI study showed that there were 123,581 arrests for runaway teens in the United States.
Motivations of a Runaway—
- avoid an emotional experience or consequence that they are expecting in some future encounter or situation
- avoid the loss of activities, relationships or friendships that are considered important or worthwhile
- be with others or in places that are distractions from other problems in their life
- be with others people who are supportive, encouraging and active
- change or stop what they are doing or about to do
- escape a recurrent or ongoing unpleasant, painful or difficult experience in their life
Problems that Increase the Risk of a Runaway—
- alcohol or other drug use
- child abuse or neglect
- death in the family that is not handled appropriately
- divorce or separations that are not handled appropriately
- oppositional and defiant behavior combined with inappropriate romantic or involvement with an antisocial peer group
Warning Signs of a Potential Runaway—
- an increasing pattern of impulsive, irrational and emotionally abusive behavior by either the parent(s) or teenager
- attempts to communicate result in arguments, raised voices, interruptions, name calling, hurt feelings and failure to reach an acceptable agreement
- the youngster has a network of friends who are largely unsupervised, oppositional, defiant, involved with drugs and other antisocial behaviors.
Communication that Helps Prevent Runaways—
The following is a brief list of suggestions that can help reduce the risk of a runaway:
- Get professional advice from a qualified mental health professional if your youngster is demanding, threatening or acting as if they should be allowed to do whatever they want.
- If you get overwhelmed or upset tell your youngster, "I'm overwhelmed and a little upset. I need a break and a chance to calm down and think about this." Then tell them you want a 20 minute (or so) break and then you will talk to them again. Be sure to take a break.
- Never call your teenager names or label them with words like liar, a thief, a brat, a punk, childish, immature, untrustworthy, selfish, cruel, unkind, stupid, etc... These words will not help. Your youngster will only begin to think of you in negative terms and may even start calling you worse names.
- Never dare your youngster to run away because you think they may not.
- Never explain yourself or argue if your youngster expects you to justify the fact that you do not agree.
- Never interrupt your teenager when they are talking or trying to explain something - even if you disagree. Waite until they are done.
- Never raise your voice or yell - especially when your teenager is raising their voice or yelling.
- Never use sarcasm or a negative attitude that demonstrates that you do not respect your teenager.
- Remember you can also agree with your youngster, but you don't have to let them do whatever they want. For instance, you might agree that there is be no significant difference between some teenagers who are 17 years old and some people who are 21 years old, but that does not mean you will allow teenagers to consume alcohol at a party at your house.
- Remind yourself that simply listening and that telling your youngster that you understand does not mean you will agree when they are finished, nor does it mean you will do what they seem to want.
- Stay calm and quiet, make eye contact, and don't respond if your youngster is angry, shouting or in a rage. Waite until they are calm.
- Talk less and use fewer words than your teenagers.
- Tell your teenager that you understand what they are saying. Say "I understand." And if you don't understand, say "I'm not sure I understand ...tell me again."
- When two moms and dads are speaking with a teenager, it is important to take turns, but be careful to let your teenagers speak as much as BOTH moms and dads speak. Both moms and dads should talk equally and use less words than their youngster.
- When you don't agree and you are certain that you understand your teenager's point of view (and your teenager believes you understand) tell your teenager. "I think I understand, but I don't agree with you. I want to think we can understand each other, but we don't have to agree."
- When your teenager stops talking, ask "Is there anything else you want to tell me."
Steps You Can Take that Will Help Reduce the Risk of a Runaway—
- Develop a Crisis Intervention plan for your teenager if the situation involves a crisis or recurrent crises.
- Develop a plan that will minimize and limit all communication that usually leads to conflict, aggression or violence and take steps to resolve problems calmly. Establish a plan that supports communication.
- Encourage a medical evaluation and treatment for any mental illness or other medical condition requiring medication or medical treatment.
- Evaluate any alcohol and other drug use and treat as recommended by a qualified professional.
- If appropriate, consider enrolling and participating in an educational or skills training group that will improve communication and interpersonal skills (e.g. parenting skills, communication, divorce adjustment, assertiveness training, conflict resolution, or strategies to diffuse angry, aggressive and violent behavior).
- If there is abuse or neglect, seek advice and further investigation from a qualified mental health profession, law enforcement or an attorney who has experience dealing with abuse and neglect issues. An attorney can provide absolute confidentiality. Law enforcement and some mental health professionals cannot.
- Review and familiarize yourself with the material on this web site that pertain to Crisis Intervention.
- Seek an evaluation and advice from a qualified mental health professional or crisis intervention specialist if your youngster may be self-harming, suicidal, destructive or violent.
- Seek counseling or therapy for any emotional problems or difficulties associated with any angry, violent or suicidal behavior from a qualified mental health professional.
My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents of Defiant Teens