Understanding and Preventing Runaways
Knowing the Difference: Runaway, Missing or Sneaking?
When a teen turns up "missing," parents must initially decide whether the child is missing, has run away, or simply sneaked out.
There are differences, and those differences are very important. A missing child could have been abducted by someone against his/her will and is being held, possibly threatened. A missing child can also be a child who is simply missing; the child did not return home when expected and may be lost or injured.
Runaway teens and sneaking teens are often confused, as both leave a supervised environment of their own free will. Sneaking teens leave home for a short period of time, with intent to return, most likely during the night or while a parent can be fooled. A runaway teen leaves home or a supervised environment for good, with intent to live separate from his/her parents. Runaway teens will likely have shown symptoms prior to running away.
In most cases, a teen runs away after a frustrating and heated argument with one or both parents. Often times, the runaway will stay with a friend or relative close by to cool off. In more serious cases, a teen may run away often and leave with no notion of where they are going.
Warning Signs your Teen May Become a Runaway
- Attempts to communicate with your teen have only resulted in ongoing arguments, yelling, interruptions, hurtful name- calling, bruised feelings and failure to come to an agreement or compromise.
- Your teen has become involved in a network of friends or peers who seem often unsupervised, rebellious, defiant, involved with drugs or alcohol or who practice other alarming social behavior.
- A noticeable pattern of irrational, impulsive and emotionally abusive behavior by either parent or teen.
The Grass Looks Greener on the Other Side
Often, we hear our teens use "My friend's parents let her do it!" or, "Everything is better at my friend's house!" The parents of your teen's friends may be more lenient, choose later curfew times, allow co-ed events or give higher allowances. While you as parent know all parents work differently, it can be very difficult for your teen to understand.
Motivations of a Runaway
- To avoid an emotional experience or consequence that they are expecting as a result of a parental, sibling, friend or romantic relationship/situation.
- To escape a recurring or ongoing painful or difficult experience in their home, school or work life.
- To keep from losing privileges to activities, relationships, friendships or any other things considered important or worthwhile.
- To be with other people such as friends or relatives who are supportive, encouraging and active in ways they feel are missing from their lives.
- To find companionship or activity in places that distract them from other problems they are dealing with.
- To change or stop what they are doing or about to do.
As parents or guardians we strive to create positive, loving households in order to raise respectful, successful and happy adults. In order to achieve this, rules must be put in place. Teens who run away from home are often crying for attention. Some teens will attempt to run away just once, after an unusually heated argument or situation in the household, and return shortly after. More serious cases, however, happen with teens in extreme emotional turmoil.
Parents also need to be extremely aware of the symptoms, warning signs and dangers of teenage depression. Far too many teens are suffering from this disease and going untreated. Often, runaways feel they have no other choice but to leave their home, and this is in many cases related to their feelings of sadness, anger and frustration due to depression.
There are many causes of depression, and every child, regardless of social status, race, age or gender is at risk. Be aware and be understanding. To an adult juggling family and career, it may seem that a young teenager has nothing to be "depressed" about! Work for a mutual communication between the two of you. The more your teenager can confide his/her daily problems and concerns, the more you can have a positive and helpful interaction before the problems overwhelm them.
Communication is Key to Preventing Runaways
Teens who become runaways will have shown symptoms and warning signs prior to running away. Knowing these signs is the first step to prevention; the second is learning how to prevent symptoms all together. Communication is KEY!
Communication: Suggestions for Preventative Conversation
- Never use threats or dare your teen to run away, even if you think they wouldn't do it.
- Refrain from using sarcasm or negativity that may come off as disrespect for your teen.
- Anger is difficult to subside. However, it is important to never raise your voice or yell/scream at your teen, especially when they are already doing so. A battle of strength doesn't get anyone anywhere.
- Keep a calm demeanor and insist that your teen does as well. Do not respond to their anger, but instead, wait until they are calm.
- Always use direct eye contact when speaking.
- NEVER interrupt your teenager when they are speaking or trying to explain their feelings or thoughts. Even if you completely disagree, it is important to wait until they have finished. Keep in mind that just listening and using the words "I understand" does not mean that you agree or will do what they want.
- Under no circumstances should you use derogatory names, labels or titles such as liar, childish, immature, untrustworthy, cruel, stupid, ignorant, punk, thief or brat. Continue to be respectful of your teen, even if they have been disrespectful to you.
- Talk less, slower, and use fewer words than your teen.
- Make sure that you comprehend what your teen is saying, and when you do, let them know. Simply stating "I understand" can go a long way to making your teen feel as though you are respecting their feelings and thoughts, as well as taking them in to consideration.
- Let's say you are sure you understand your teen's point of view and they understand you understand. If you still don't agree with their statement, tell your teen "I think I understand, but I do not agree. I want to think we can understand each other, but we don't have to agree."
- Keep in mind that it is possible to agree with your teen, without doing whatever they want you to. For example, you might agree that there are little differences between 17 year-olds and 21 year-olds, but that doesn't mean you agree with having a party serving alcohol at your house.
- When your teen has finished speaking, ask politely if they have anything else they'd like to talk about or share with you.
- Take a break if you get too overwhelmed or upset to continue the conversation with a calm attitude.
- If your teen is demanding or threatening you, be sure to get professional advice or help from a qualified mental health professional.
- If both parents are involved in the conversation, it is very important to take turns, rather than gang up on your teen together. Make sure each parent allows time for your teen to speak in between.