Running away from home is a terrifying experience for kids and parents. If you're wondering why or how to make it stop, I'm glad you're here. While I can't promise you a quick fix, I can offer some insight from my own experience.
I was a teen runaway:
When I was a teenager (around 14), I started running away from home. Well, others would consider it as running away, but I thought of it as going out, not returning. Many times parents blame themselves and wonder why their home is so terrible in the child's eyes that they would rather live on the streets. Siblings living in the home may blame themselves for their brother or sister running away. The truth is children run away for many different reasons. In my own experience, it has a lot to do with communication, expectations, and running from consequences.
As a parent who has not only been a runaway but parented a runaway, I can see this problematic situation from two different angles.
As a teen, I would go out (usually without permission and often right after school) and do something I knew I shouldn't be doing. I would drink or do drugs and then dread going home to face the consequences. At the time I believed I was better off staying away then heading back home to receive what I thought for sure would be the worst punishment I could imagine.
Communication is the first step!
Looking back I believe that if my parents and I had talked about drug use, drinking, expectations, and punishments, I would have known what to expect. I may have been willing to go home and face the consequences. As a teen with ADHD, the fear of the unknown is paralyzing, and I struggled with perfectionism. The idea of letting my parents down as I had let myself down and the fear of unknown punishments kept me away from home.
Parents talk to your child about drugs, drinking, and what will happen if and when they experiment with these things. It helps think back to our youth and remember what it's like to be a kid. The chances are good that no matter how well you raise your child, they will experiment with substances. Be honest with them about your past. Share your regrets and your desires for them. Make it clear that you will still love and accept them home when they make these choices. Tell them to call you when they need a ride. Assure them that there is nothing they could do to lose your love and that you will always be there for them.
I am the parent of a teen runaway:
As a parent who has now faced a child running away, only now do I fully understand the agony a parent goes through as they search for their runaway child. I also know how heated things can get between a parent and child, causing the child to feel like the only option they have is to flee. I've learned that children tend to leave when they feel backed into a corner or forced to fight for control.
As a parent who has tried to control many aspects of my children's lives (to protect them), I've learned that teens need the freedom to make mistakes and choose their paths even when we can see those paths leading to dead ends. As a mom, I've tried hard to create an atmosphere of open communication but realize that some children struggle to share their feelings and experiences with parents regardless of how comfortable they feel with the parent.
ADHD is a factor:
Parenting a child that also has ADHD helps me to see my youth more clearly because, through his struggles, I can see some of my issues more clearly. ADHD causes impulsivity, which, paired with a teen's belief that they are invincible, can be a dangerous combination.
When you find that your child is willing to run away from home, even over the smallest disagreements, try to view the situation from your child's eyes. While they may not be the most logical or rational when dealing with conflict, if you work hard enough and remove yourself from being personally offended by their actions, you will likely be able to relate to what your child is going through.
Children who run away usually feel like they have no choice. They may run away for a variety of reasons, but it is possible to help your runaway child stop running away.
My top recommendations for dealing with a child who keeps running away from home are:
- Talk to your child. If possible, try to understand why they are leaving. Work to compromise on the issues they have with being in the home.
- Involve the police. Local police can be a great resource when it comes to locating a missing child. Despite what TV shows lead you to believe you should call the police as soon as your child runs away. A runaway child is different from a missing person. Police will do everything they can to find your child before something terrible happens to them. If your child is suicidal, it is especially important to contact the police as soon as possible.
- Report your child missing on the Ring app, Nextdoor (the neighborhood app), and local Facebook groups. Community involvement works!
- Consider emergency in-patient care to help keep your child safe until doctors can arrange for both in-home and outpatient therapy for your child. There is nothing wrong with a child needing mental health care, even if up until this point, they have seemed entirely healthy. We have to end the stigma regarding mental health because it is so necessary.
- Don't take their phone away. Finding a child with a phone is so much easier than a child who doesn't have one. It also gives the child the ability to call for help if they find themselves in a dangerous situation.
- Be willing to compromise. You have to know which battles are worth fighting. One of the easiest ways for me to do this is to consider if the reason my child is running away (whether it is a rule, my attitude, or an expectation) is worth my child's death. If getting grades above a D means enough to me that I'm willing to let my child run away and possibly get killed, then I will fight for better grades.
What needs to change?
In the grand scheme of things my child making D's, going to college, playing his Xbox, none of those are worth losing my child over. I'm not saying to give the child full control. If your child runs away over every little thing, residential care is an option. Just be willing to consider that you may be a part of the problem. Get your child the help they need and prepare to see the child as an individual. Teens have their thoughts, dreams, and experiences, and are just an extension of us.
If I had to look back and guess which things would have changed my experience, I'd say having a parent who was home would have helped. It's easier to do something you shouldn't do when both of your parents work long hours. Also, having a more open relationship with my parents, where I felt valued and not like a confused child would have helped. My parents are amazing and didn't intend to make me feel small. I think it's easy as a parent to forget that while you may have years of life experience, your child is on their journey, which is separate from yours.
Remember, you are not alone!
VITAL TIP: Talk to your other children about what is going on. Assure them that it is not their fault. Siblings feel hopeless, depressed, and anxious so therapy is highly recommended for them as well. Talk to the schools and let them know what your children are going through. Then they can help you watch for signs of distress and offer help to your children.
Christian parents asking why this is happening when you "trained up your child in the way, they should go" remember that wasn't a promise. It was more of a general probability. Remember that the prodigal son returned home. Don't beat yourself or your child up too much. God has a plan for your lives. This experience will make you both better in the long run. That is how I helped my other children understand this experience. Being the sibling of a runaway is powerful in molding children into compassionate adults.
Parenting is hard; childing is hard. Nothing worth having is ever easy. Try to learn all you can and fully embrace every moment, both the good and the bad. Make sure your child knows how much they mean to you. Share what you go through when they run away from home. Don't guilt your child but share the fear and grief you experience when they run away. Make your love for them clear.
Tell them you would search to the ends of the Earth for them because of your love.
Need prayers or want to share your experience as a runner or parent of a runner? Share below in the comments. We are all in this together (no judgment).