My Teen Has Threatened to Run Away from Home? Now What?

There are a few things more terrifying and traumatic for parents to go through than not being able to protect their children from harm. When teens run away, parents are powerless to keep them from all the ugliness and harm that they can encounter outside the safety of their home. Most parents have given their best effort to make the home a safe place for their family, and so the thought that their children are somewhere outside of it can be a terrible thing to go through.

According to the National Runaway Switchboard, the trend of calls that they receive from runaway youths have been steadily increasing within the last 10 years. Data from 2011 and 2012 show that the crisis calls from teens living in the streets have increased 32% in the past year, and 70% in the past 10 years.

Furthermore, according to their surveys, crisis callers do drastic measures in order to survive in the streets. From 2008 to 2009, the rate of young people who have turned to panhandling have increased 139 percent, those who turned to the sex industry rose 30 percent, and drug dealing rose 33 percent.

The graph below from the NRS show that 38% of their callers are runaways.

Why would teens run away?

Teens have different reasons to run away, but most of them use this as a coping mechanism when they are faced with situations they feel they cannot handle. Some teens run away because of drug and alcohol abuse issues; they want to be free to feed their addiction and they can do this better if they are not restricted by the authority of their parents.

Teens struggling with substance abuse often come back when they run out of money only to run away again after a short time at home. The need to feed their addiction leads them to steal from other family members before they run away again.

Other teens run away because they feel the need to assert their independence and to prove to themselves (and their parents) that they can survive on their own. They often idealize and even romanticize life on the streets and have no idea about the reality that awaits them outside the safety of their home.

Some teens run away because they feel that they have failed their parents and are afraid of facing the consequences of their actions. Many troubled teens who try and fail repeatedly to get back on the right track often get to that point in their life when they feel tired of fixing their problems and that it’s easier to just run away, start fresh in a place where nobody knows them or expects anything from them. They think that their parents share the frustration they feel towards themselves and just give up.

How to prevent teens from running away

Perhaps the most difficult thing for parents to come to terms with regarding this issue is the fact that if their teens want to run away, they really can’t do anything to stop it. Teens will find the means and opportunity to run away even if you take all the precautions short of locking them up at home.

There are a few warning signs that a teen is toying with the idea of running away. Sometimes they talk about it in the heat of an argument with their parents or siblings. Sometimes they joke about it or talk about it. Signs that they are seriously considering it would be when they are starting to gather up their money or selling some of their things to raise money. When things of value start disappearing in the house, it may also be a sign that your teen is selling or pawning these things off to get cash.

When you see this signs or when you just feel in your gut that your teen wants to run away, here are a few things you can do:

  • Show them better ways to handle problems – Teens often have limited problem-solving skills that they can develop on their own. Parents can teach them better ways to handle problems. When your teens show that they are trying to find better ways to handle their problems, parents must take notice and encourage them, even if the first attempts fail.
  • Build your teen’s self-esteem – Runaway teens have fragile self esteem. Before they even come to that point when they would want to run away, try to take proactive steps to build your teen’s self-esteem. Use positive language on your teen to encourage him/her to use positive self-talk as well. Remind your teen of moments when they handled problems well. Teach your teen that failing at something doesn’t mean that he/she is a failure.
  • Focus on acceptance – Accepting your teens doesn’t mean condoning their wrongdoings. It just means having a family environment where teens know they can always come home even if they screw up. Being an accepting parent means that when teens make a mistake, they can come to you, talk it over, and try again.

What if they’re at the point of running away?
When your teen makes the threat that he/she is running away and is actually about to do it, try to calm your teen down. Ask your teen to sit in the living room for a few minutes (not in the bedroom where he/she can easily escape from their window) and then initiate a conversation afterwards.

You already know that your teen is having an emotional turmoil inside so asking “what are you feeling” might not be the best idea. Instead, ask your teen what is going on to make him/her want to run away. This may give you an insight on where to start working with your teen.

If your teen has become a chronic runaway, it may be best to consider a different kind of intervention. Residential treatment centers can help provide therapy for your teen while at the same time taking extra precautions to prevent them from running away.