If you’re a parent who’s concerned about your child running away from home, you’re not alone. The thought of having a runaway teen can be terrifying. Here, we’re going to discuss some of the risks involved for runaway teens, common causes for leaving home, and what past experiences from others can inform you and your teen about running away.
Running away from home is a dangerous endeavor undertaken by some at risk youth. The apparent challenges of running away include finding sufficient shelter and food, which can lead to more dire endeavors.
Homeless youth are faced with increased rates of sexual violence and can exchange sex work for housing, medicine, and sustenance. Because sex work is one of the few sources of income accessible to homeless youth, their vulnerability is targeted and leveraged by predators. There is also a higher risk of teen pregnancy among young homeless women. As many as 20% of runaway girls become pregnant due to inaccessibility to birth control and safe environments.
Runaway teens also face higher risk of drug and alcohol abuse disorders. Selling drugs is another source of income that teens rely on to survive. Studies report that dependency on harmful substances is prevalent in homeless youth communities and can lead to addiction.
Studies report that a majority of homeless teens have a mental illness and that suicide attempts are prevalent. Conduct disorder, dysthymia, anxiety, and depression are common causes as well as outcomes of running away from home.
The two biggest reasons that teens run away from home are to escape immediate danger or intolerable circumstances and because of new attachments to people or substances. When teens are hurt and they cannot find any means within their home or family structure, they can end up following an impulsive need to find immediate relief from their situation.
Escape Their Circumstances
- Abuse: The most commonly cited instance of teens running away from home is to seek relief from parental abuse and familial discord. If teens are in an environment where they experience verbal and physical violence, their immediate impulse is to find the fastest solution possible and potentially leave the situation.
Homes where substance abuse and sexual assault occur are indicators of and causes of extreme mental health and safety issues. It’s important to note that teens don’t want to run away from home. It’s usually a last resort to vacate their home to get to a safe environment, so if they have the ability and opportunity to take an escape route, they will.
- Familial Neglect: Rejection is another a common instigator for running away from home. Feelings of abandonment, unbelonging, and disapproval about your teen’s identity demonstrate threatening signals that they are do not belong. Blatant rejection and microaggressions regarding sexual orientation, sexually transmitted diseases, and failure in school or their responsibilities are mentally and emotionally harmful. When shame is a primary element of a teen’s family dynamics, they may search for kinship structures outside of their home.
Teens also go out on their own or take their siblings with them when self-care becomes an exclusive source of safety. Teens that are responsible for caring for themselves or their siblings, running away from home to independently manage their safety is perceived as a better option than their current living situation, despite the perceived dangers of homelessness. If your teen feels like they are responsible for their wellbeing or the wellbeing of others, they may feel the need to do so in an environment separate from the one that caused their predicament.
- Facing Consequences: Teens that feel they don’t have a good support system at home may feel the need to deal with wrongdoing by running away from confrontation. If your teen is using drugs or alcohol, fears about being found out or coming into contact with law enforcement can lead them to continue their lifestyle or seek help independently. Teen drinking and drug use can amplify the effects of mental health issues such as anxiety, frequent anger, exacerbated ADHD, and bipolar disorder, causing paranoia and fear of harsh disciplinary action. Additionally, mistrust of the “criminal justice” system and its overreliance on punishment has caused teens to continue seeking relief from illicit substances.
- Survival and Comfort: For teens facing domestic abuse and alienation at home, kinship dynamics outside of their family can seem like a viable option to explore. When your child feels unsafe at home, friends can offer an alternative place to stay and regroup.
Teens have also reported staying with contacts outside of their immediate family to find comfort from stress or harm that their parents might have a negative reaction to. For instance, a sexual assault victim might want to seek help from an empathetic friend when they don’t feel like they can trust their parents with this news. Going through safety measures such as reporting the attack or visiting an abortion clinic are important to tend to without disapproval or violent reactions. This kind of emotional support and provisional assistance are material acts of care that runaway teens might seek out, though support is generally unreliable with strangers who provide these services.
- Gangs: Teens who are association with gangs can regard their fellow members as family due to the intimacy of their involvement. Because members are obliged to look after one another and face violence in unison, teens that relocate to be in close proximity to the group gravitate toward an established level of support and protection. The inclusion of intergenerational members and people with different genders also reify the idea that a gang is like a family, passing on wisdom and assigned roles to contribute to the collective.
- Addiction: When teens become dependent on drugs and alcohol, their relationship to the substance becomes a priority for self-medicating and comfort. Challenges to that relationship from family members, police officers, and correctional facilities may be threatening due to violent reactions and severed disapproval. Teens, then, leave their home in order to maintain access to their substances or deal with the problem independently in a manner they think can sustain their recovery.
Unfortunately, there are no telltale signs that your child is thinking of running away from home. However, there are common scenarios collected from teens who have that can tell us what might happen when they leave home.
- Age: Surveys report that males leave home from ages 6-14 while females run away most often at 10–16 years.
- Periodic Absences: Chronic/Repeated instances of a child running away indicate an attempt to change their dynamics at home or leverage control of their parents. Because running away carries with it an immense amount of risk and danger, teens feel like periodically leaving home could be the only bargaining chip to secure some kind of decision-making power.
Consistent patterns of running away also indicate inadequately addressed problems in the family structure. If your child feels that they can survive and have begun to adapt to the challenges of living alone, they leave periodically in order to secure a sense of safety, relief, or freedom. Depending on their age and access to resources, teens may return home after several days to several months. However, if law enforcement is involved in repetitive cases, placement in a foster home or placement is likely.
- Emotional Buildup: In some cases with older teens or children that harbor a sense of increasing anxiety, they may feel the need to vacate their responsibilities or surroundings go avoid getting into a worse situation. In one instance, a young college student left their dorm and dropped off the map for a few weeks without notifying anyone. He ended up staying with likeminded people in his age group and in hotels outside the city to avoid being contacted. Within a few weeks, this individual returned to their routine of classwork and social activities but felt the need to interrupt the mentality they provided.
- Returning Home from an Institution: If a child feels unsafe in a foster home or a shelter, they may defy court orders to return back to an environment they are familiar with. Teens that return home after sentencing feel that if there is any attachment with their parents, they might fare better than to be in a forced location with strangers.
What does experience tell us?
- Teens may benefit from the knowledge that running away isn’t a sustainable solution. While getting out of immediate harm is necessary, running away doesn’t solve long-term problems. Despite leaving home, teens felt like their problems persisted and followed them wherever they went.
- Whenever possible and safe to do so, family mediation should be implemented in families with runaway children. In order to make sure that everyone is safe and can support each other, it’s best to reintegrate the child back with the family with external guidance.
- Removal from the family isn’t universally bad, nor is it universally good. Sometimes it’s necessary to remove a child from their family to save them from immediate physical and psychological harm. However, runaway teens have also faulted interventional services as putting them in worse situations or failing to fix the root cause of their familial problems. Deciding a child’s proximity to their family should be taken on a case by case basis, attending to the needs of all members involved, prioritizing victims of violence.
- Violence and danger are an innate aspect of running away and trust can be extremely difficult to procure. While homeless youth have reported instances of finding those they can exchange goods with and occasionally find shelter among, these relationships are sporadic and can often times mask dangerous individuals.
Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of talkingtoteens.com, ghostwriter at WriteItGreat.com, and host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.
Martinez, R.J. (2006). Understanding runaway teens. Journal of Child and Adolescent
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Thompson, S.J., Bender, K.A., Lewis, C.M., & Watkins, R. (2008). Runaway and pregnant:
Risk factors associated with pregnancy in a national sample of runaway/homeless female adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 43(2), 125-132
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