The teenage years can be a tumultuous time, and as many moms and dads know, it is also a time when teens begin to flex their mental muscles, testing boundaries, and turning to peers rather than parents for advice. Sometimes emotions and arguments can become so intense that things get out of hand and the teen runs away.
Reasons Teens Run Away—
It may be hard for a mother or father to understand why adolescent’s runaway, so here are a few reasons that may help you to understand:
1. The adolescent may feel like she has to escape and get away from home to avoid something bad from happening (e.g., maybe you have been fighting a lot and she feels she just can’t go through it again …or she may be afraid you will be mad at her for something she did wrong or rules she disobeyed …or she may feel like you won’t forgive her so she has to leave).
2. An adolescent may be afraid that something bad might happen if she doesn’t leave home (e.g., living with a step-parent that she fights with a lot, the step-parent may make her feel like everyone would be happier without her).
3. The adolescent may feel that you “don’t understand,” and she may runaway to be with others that will let her just “be herself” (whether it is right or wrong).
4. An adolescent may runway to meet someone you told her to stay away from.
5. Sometimes just plain being lonely and begging for attention will cause an adolescent to runaway.
Other reasons teens run away include:
• abuse (violence in the family)
• arrival of a new stepparent
• birth of a new baby in the family
• teenagerren or parents drinking alcohol or taking drugs
• death in the family
• failing or dropping out of school
• family financial worries
• parents separating or divorcing
• peer pressure
• problems at school
Periodic vs. Persistent Running Away—
It’s important to distinguish between teens who run away periodically, and those who are persistent runners. The reasons behind the actions are quite different, and it’s critical to know what they are:
- Periodic Running: When your teenager runs away after something has happened, it can be viewed as periodic running away. It’s not a consistent pattern, and your teenager is not using it as a problem-solving strategy all the time. It's also not something she uses to gain power. Rather, she might be trying to avoid some consequence, humiliation or embarrassment. Some teens leave home because they were caught cheating in school or because they became pregnant and were afraid of their parents’ disapproval.
- Persistent Running: A teenager who consistently uses running away to gain power in the family has a persistent problem. Know that persistent running away is just another form of power struggle, manipulation, or “acting out” (a very high risk “acting out”). She may threaten her parents by saying, “If you make me do that, I'll run away.” She knows parents worry, and for many, it’s one of their greatest fears. Some moms and dads may engage in bargaining and over-negotiating with their teenagers just to keep them from running away. But understand that teens who threaten to run away are using it for power. This not only gives them power over themselves, but power over their mother and/or father. When parents give in to threats of running away, their teen starts using it to train them (e.g., a mother will learn to stop sending her teen to her room if she threatens to run away each time it happens). A teen who persistently threatens to run away is not running away to solve one problem – she is running away because that is her main problem-solving skill – she’s trying to avoid any type of accountability.
Even though you can never really know for sure what an adolescent may be thinking, there are signs that you can look for that can help alert you to possible problems:
- Does she avoid spending time with the rest of the family?
- Do you ever agree on anything, or does it seem you only argue and fuss all the time?
- Does your adolescent act strange, or have extremely emotional feelings that are out of control?
- Has your adolescent been hanging out with bad company (e.g., peers who drink alcohol, use drugs, or other adolescents that just go out to look for trouble)?
- Is your adolescent acting withdrawn and completely unsociable?
If you notice these signs, it would be wise to try and communicate with your adolescent, even if you have to get outside help to do so.
Unfortunately we can’t completely prevent adolescents from running away, but here are a few suggestions that may help:
1. Always approach something as a problem that needs to be solved, and reward your teen when he’s able to do it successfully. Be sure to say things like, “I liked the way you solved that problem. The teacher was mad at you, but you went up and apologized.” Praise your teenager when he does something positive.
2. Don’t scream and yell, or threaten your adolescent, this will only make him want to leave more.
3. Give a warning by saying, “Listen, if you run away, I can't stop you, but it's dangerous out there. I won't be able to protect you. So not only will you not solve your problems, you'll also be putting yourself at risk.”
4. Have a system where you check in with your teenager frequently. Just stop and ask, “How's it going?” …or “Is your day going O.K.?” You can say this two or three times in one day; go by their room and knock on the door. That way you're constantly giving her interest and affection. You’re saying in a roundabout way, “I'm interested in you, I care.”
5. If you don’t agree with your teenager, at least listen to her side, then calmly give your side. If things start to get out of control, take a break
6. If you feel your teenager may runaway, you can seek professional help with counseling.
7. If you think your teenager is at risk of running away or you know that her friends have done so, you want to sit down and have a talk. You could say, “If you become upset and run away, don't hesitate to come back and we'll talk about it.” If your teenager says, “Talk about what?” …say, “Talk about how to solve the problem differently.”
8. If your teen is very upset about something, you could say, “So what's so bad about this that you can't handle it?” After she tells you, you might say, “You've handled situations like this before. I’m sure you can do it again.” As a parent, you're not “giving in,” rather you're trying to persuade your teenager that she is O.K.
9. It's also good for moms and dads to say, “It's okay to make mistakes around here.” Make it clear to your teen that “the way we handle mistakes in our home is by facing up to them and dealing with them.”
10. Teach your teens “problem solving” skills. Ask them, “What can you do differently about this problem? What are some ways we can deal with this problem?”
11. Try not to interrupt your adolescent when she does come to you to talk …sometimes it helps the most to just listen. Show your adolescent respect and keep communication open by listening to what she has to say. Explain how much you love her, and that you will always be there for her.
12. When you talk to your teenager, don't ask her how she's feeling – ask her what's going on. All teens want to argue about how they're feeling—or they want to deny that they’re feeling anything at all. Often parents get stuck there. So instead of, “Why are you so upset?” try asking, “What’s going on? What happened that made you want to leave?”
13. When your teen threatens to run away, respond by saying, “Running away is not going to solve your problems. You're going to have to take responsibility for this. And if you do run away, you're still going to have to face this problem when you come home.” Then tell her what will solve her problems.
14. Don’t get tossed into panic-mode that your teenager will run away and you will never – ever – see her again. Most homeless teens return home soon after they leave. The keys seem to be (a) maintaining relationships with pro-social or mainstream peers (non-runaways), (b) staying in school, and (c) the support of parents – especially a teenager's mother. All of these factors influence teenagers to return home. More than two-thirds of newly homeless teens leave the streets, resolve their family differences, and go home.
15. Most important of all, though, is early intervention before family relationships deteriorate and negative peer influences take hold.
My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents with Defiant Teens