Understanding And Preventing Teenage Runaways

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D

Revised: May 21, 2014

One of the greatest fears that parents can experience comes when they discover that their child is missing or has run away. Parents will experience a range of emotions. The stress of the situation and the different ways in which parents, family, friends and police respond can reach crisis proportions and create further crisis within a family. 

The Difference Between a Runaway Child and a Missing Child

There is a difference between a child who has runaway and child that is missing.  A runaway has left home or left a supervised environment. They usually run to escape or avoid something, or they are running somewhere to find or get something. A missing child might be lost, abducted, injured or held against their will by others. A runway is not necessarily missing. A runaway in not the same as a child who "sneaks" out at night to be with friends. 

Motivations of a Runaway

  • To avoid an emotional experience or consequence that they are expecting in some future encounter or situation.

  • To escape a recurrent or ongoing unpleasant, painful or difficult experience in their life.

  • To avoid the loss of activities, relationships or friendships that are considered important or worthwhile.

  • To be with others people who are supportive, encouraging and active.

  • To be with others or in places that are distractions from other problems in their life.

  • To change or stop what they are doing or about to do.

Problems that Increase the Risk of a Runaway

Warning Signs of a Potential Runaway

  • Attempts to communicate result in arguments, raised voices, interruptions, name calling, hurt feelings and failure to reach an acceptable agreement.

  • The child has a network of friends who are largely unsupervised, oppositional, defiant, involved with drugs and other antisocial behaviors.

  • An increasing pattern of impulsive, irrational and emotionally abusive behavior by either the parent(s) or teenager.

Communication That Helps Prevent Runaways

The following is a brief list of suggestions that can help reduce the risk of a runaway. Keep in mind that these are only suggestions than may help. If the risk is high, and your relationship is extremely poor, including the level of trust, then these suggestions may not help. Obtain the support and advice of a qualified profession if you feel there is a risk that your child may run away. 

  • Never dare your child to run away because you think they may not. 

  • Never use sarcasm or a negative attitude that demonstrates that you do not respect your teenager

  • Never raise your voice or yell - especially when your teenager is raising their voice or yelling.

  • Stay calm and quiet, make eye contact, and don't respond if your child is angry, shouting or in a rage. Waite until they are calm. 

  • Never interrupt your teenager when they are talking or trying to explain something - even if you disagree. Waite until they are done.

  • Remind yourself that simply listening and that telling your child that you understand does not mean you will agree when they are finished, nor does it mean you will do what they seem to want.

  • Never call your teenager names or label them with words like liar, a thief, a brat, a punk, childish, immature, untrustworthy, selfish, cruel, unkind, stupid, etc... These words will not help. Your child will only begin to think of you in negative terms and may even start calling you worse names.  

  • Talk less and use fewer words than your teenagers.

  • Tell you teenager that you understand what they are saying.  Say "I understand."  And if you don't understand, say "I'm not sure I understand, ...tell me again."

  • When you don't agree and you are certain that you understand your teenager's point of view (and your teenager believes you understand) tell your teenager. "I think I understand, but  I don't agree with you. I want to think we can understand each other, but we don't have to agree." 

  • Remember you can also agree with your child, but you don't have to let them do whatever they want. For instance, you might agree that their is be no significant difference between some teenagers who are 17 years old and some people who are 21 years old, but that does not mean you will allow teenagers to consume alcohol at a party at your house.

  • Never explain yourself or argue if your child expects you to justify the fact that you do not agree.

  • When your teenager stops talking, ask "Is there anything else you want to tell me."

  • If you get overwhelmed or upset, tell your child "I'm overwhelmed and a little upset. I need a break and a chance to calm down and think about this." Then tell them you want a 20 minute (or so) break and then you will talk to them again. Be sure to take a break.

  • Get professional advice from a qualified mental health professional if your child is demanding, threatening or acting as if they should be allowed to do whatever they want.

  • When two parents are speaking with a teenagers, it is important to take turns, but be careful to let your teenagers speak as much as BOTH parents speak. Both parents should talk equally and use less words than their child.

Steps You Can Take That Will Help Reduce the Risk of a Runaway
  • Develop a Crisis Intervention plan for your teenager if the situation involves a crisis or recurrent crises.

  • Seek an evaluation and advice from a qualified mental health professional or crisis intervention specialist if your child may be self-harming, suicidal, destructive or violent. 

  • Review and familiarize yourself with the material on this web site that pertain to Crisis Intervention.
  • Seek counseling or therapy for any emotional problems or difficulties associated with any angry,  violent or suicidal behavior from a qualified mental health professional.
  • Evaluate any alcohol and other drug use and treat as recommended by a qualified professional.
  • Encourage a medical evaluation and treatment for any mental illness or other medical condition requiring medication or medical treatment.
  • If appropriate, consider enrolling and participating in an educational or skills training group that will improve communication and interpersonal skills (e.g. parenting skills, communication, divorce adjustment, assertiveness training, conflict resolution, or strategies to diffuse angry, aggressive and violent behavior).
  • Develop a plan that will minimize and limit all communication that usually leads to conflict, aggression or violence and take steps to resolve problems calmly. Establish a plan that supports communication.
  • If there is abuse or neglect, seek advice and further investigation from a qualified mental health profession, law enforcement or an attorney who has experience dealing with abuse and neglect issues.  An attorney can provide absolute confidentiality. Law enforcement and some mental health professionals cannot.

Copyright 2000 to 2008, Michael G. Conner