All rights reserved.
Mark Hutten, M.A.
Re: Running Away from Home

My child has threatened to run away from home. What should we do?

In our culture, running away has often been glorified in movies, TV and books, as if it were an adventurous American
tradition of seeking a better life. The reality is much more sobering. In most cases, kids are not running toward a
specific new situation but rather are running away from existing problems - and thus may be issuing a loud cry for help.

Not only do runaways leave anxious and worried moms and dads behind, but they may enter a world of gangs, drugs,
prostitution, AIDS, malnutrition and truancy. They are quite vulnerable and at a much higher risk of becoming involved
in early sexual behavior, sexual exploitation, or alcohol and other drug use. They may end up living on the street, in a
homeless shelter or in jail.
Most kids who run away and are reported to the police
as missing are between ages 13 and 15. However, some
younger kids threaten to, or actually do, leave home.

When a youngster runs away, there has often been a
crisis in the family. The youngster himself may be in
some sort of trouble that he feels he cannot face for fear
of severe punishment. Or there may be family stresses
that can range from marital difficulties to alcohol-related
problems to physical or sexual abuse-situations from
which the youngster feels an overwhelming need to
escape.

Sometimes kids are made to feel that they are a burden
for their moms and dads or the cause of the family's
difficulties; kids then run away to relieve their families, as
well as to punish them.
On the other hand, some kids run simply because they are looking for a good time. Impulsively and without planning,
they will flee with a friend or two, seeking the thrill of life on the run. Often these kids have already experienced various
difficulties, perhaps conduct problems or substance abuse.

Some youngsters who run are loners, without many friends and with little support at home. Rather than running away
with a friend, these loners often flee by themselves. They are driven by a feeling that there must be a better world out
there.

When Your Youngster Threatens To Run Away

As a part of normal development, some kids will talk of running away when they face conflicts with moms and dads. If
your youngster threatens to leave home – talk with him. Ask about any stresses and problems he may be
experiencing. At the same time, be aware that these threats can sometimes be little more than a youngster's attempts
to manipulate you. Perhaps he is trying to avoid chores or responsibilities. Or maybe he is attempting to relieve guilt
feelings over having fought with you or having done something for which he is ashamed.

If a situation has occurred in which the youngster and moms and dads have been at odds, the youngster may feel that
the only resolution is to hurt his mother and father by threatening to run away. Be aware of your own vulnerability to
your youngster's manipulation, and remain in control of your emotions. In cases like these, the youngster will rarely
leave home, but his threats should be heard as a last-ditch effort, one designed to turn the tide in the parent-
youngster conflict, changing his moms and dads' attitudes in a direction more sympathetic to his own.
If a youngster says he is going to run away, his parents
should use their judgment on how to react. If he has never
left home before, the threat may not be a serious one.
Sometimes moms and dads become very upset by their
youngster's threats and try to talk him out of running away.

However, arguments aimed at changing the youngster's
mind are usually counterproductive. In effect, they
acknowledge that the youngster is in control, something
few kids actually want. In addition, by focusing on the
threat to leave, moms and dads are ignoring the
underlying issues and needs.

Some moms and dads wrongly "help pack their bags" or
"wish them luck" on their running away as a way to defuse
the conflicts with their kids. This is likely only to heighten
the youngster's sense of rejection and distrust.
Sometimes moms and dads and kids contrive a pseudo-runaway, in which the moms and dads know where the
youngster is going and even encourage the behavior. Kids can learn a lot from this experience, but their safety must
be assured.

If Your Youngster Runs Away

What should you do if your middle-years youngster does actually run away? Of course, your most immediate efforts
should be directed toward locating your youngster and returning him home. Runaway kids often will wind up spending
the night at a friend's or a relative's home, so check there first. Then enlist the aid of the police, school, friends and
family. Be prepared to tell the police the last time and place you saw your youngster, who he was with and what he was
wearing. Having a youngster missing is a frightening experience, so turn to a spouse, a friend or a relative to help and
support you through the ordeal.

Many, perhaps most, runaways return home. Some use a runaway hotline to contact their moms and dads before the
more stressful step of a face-to-face reunion (such as the National Runaway Switchboard at (800) 621-4000 or (800)
621-0394 [TDD]). After your youngster is found or returns, you need to aggressively seek out the reasons that led him
to run away. What kinds of stresses has he been feeling at home or in school? What was making him frightened or
unhappy? What kinds of negative peer pressure or threats has he had difficulty handling? The answers to these
questions must be confronted and resolved, or running away may recur. When these issues are discussed and acted
upon, you and your youngster may see some beneficial effects from his decision to run away, even if the overall
experience was negative.

When to Seek Additional Help

If your youngster has threatened to run away but never has done so, he may not require outside help. However, if
these threats have become an ongoing way in which he deals with conflicts, then he (and maybe the entire family) may
benefit from an evaluation, and perhaps, treatment. Your pediatrician can refer you to the most appropriate type of
help - whether from a youngster psychiatrist or psychologist, a behavioral pediatrician or a social worker. This therapy
should attempt to help you and your youngster understand and resolve the misunderstandings and conflicts in your
household.

Any youngster who has actually run away - or who repeatedly threatens to do so - should be referred to a
mental-health professional. It is a serious situation when a school-age youngster leaves home. The reasons for
running away are often complex and need to be fully explored by examining both internal personal distress and
external threats. Crises must be resolved, and the family's lines of communication must be reopened. Running away is
always a cry for help, and the underlying issues must be confronted and resolved. Treatment will often take time and
commitment by the family to truly understand what their desperate youngster is experiencing in his world.