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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, children 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 parents 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 children who run away and are reported to the police as missing are between ages 13 and 15. However, some younger children threaten to, or actually do, leave home.

When a child runs away, there has often been a crisis in the family. The child 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 child feels an overwhelming need to escape. Sometimes children are made to feel that they are a burden for their parents or the cause of the family's difficulties; children then run away to relieve their families, as well as to punish them.

On the other hand, some children 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 children 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 Child Threatens To Run Away

As a part of normal development, some children will talk of running away when they face conflicts with parents. If your child 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 child's attempt 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 child and parents 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 child's manipulation, and remain in control of your emotions. In cases like these, the child will rarely leave home, but his threats should be heard as a last-ditch effort, one designed to turn the tide in the parent-child conflict, changing his parents' attitudes in a direction more sympathetic to his own.

If a child 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 parents become very upset by their child's threats and try to talk him out of running away. However, arguments aimed at changing the child's mind are usually counterproductive. In effect, they acknowledge that the child is in control, something few children actually want. In addition, by focusing on the threat to leave, parents are ignoring the underlying issues and needs.

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

If Your Child Runs Away

What should you do if your middle-years child does actually run away? Of course, your most immediate efforts should be directed toward locating your youngster and returning him home. Runaway children 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 child, who he was with and what he was wearing. Having a child 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 parents 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 child 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 child 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 child 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 child psychiatrist or psychologist, a behavioral pediatrician or a social worker. This therapy should attempt to help you and your child understand and resolve the misunderstandings and conflicts in your household.

Any child 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 child 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 child is experiencing in his world.

Last Updated
Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12 (Copyright © 2004 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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