Running Away – Causes, Symptoms, Solutions.
Posted by: Sue Atkins
I’ve been working with a family of 6 children whose middle child has started running away.
This is a complex problem but getting to the root of it is important without feeling guilty yourself.
There are many reasons a child runs away & the best way to prevent things building up to this point is to create the atmosphere in your home that supports, nurtures and encourages communication.
Around one-in-five young people have considered running away from home according to a poll for the charity Action for Children, with younger girls most at risk.
Of the children questioned who said they had considered running away, more than 80% stated it was because of arguments, difficulties at home or feeling unwanted. A fifth said when they considered leaving home they would have slept on the streets or in a park, with a similar number, 22%, saying they would not know where to stay. Most worryingly, 18% said they would not have asked for help.
The survey results come two weeks ahead of the charity’s biggest fundraiser, Byte Night, a sleep-out by the business and technology sectors in 10 iconic UK locations, which raises money to prevent youth homelessness and support the charity’s work. This year’s Byte Night takes place on Friday, 6 October.
To find out more about Byte Night and Action for Children’s work to prevent youth homeless please visit www.bytenight.org.uk or follow on twitter @ByteNight.
Running away is a serious problem.
When you were, little did you ever pack your rucksack, and pack your teddy and run off down the road to your friend’s house then when you’d started playing, forgot why you felt so angry & thankfully very quickly your Mum & Dad had found you and brought you home safely?
Well, that is VERY different from a child who persistently feels the need to run away.
Running away is a serious problem.
According to The Children’s Society every five minutes a child in this country runs away from home or care. Some are as young as eight. Many have no choice but to go it alone, and take huge risks on the streets – begging or stealing to survive, or resorting to drugs and alcohol. Many are groomed by adults who will later exploit and harm them. This is the reality for 100,000 children who go missing every year.
One in six young runaways end up sleeping rough, one in eight resort to begging or stealing to survive and one in 12 are hurt or harmed as a direct result of running away.
Why Kids Run Away
All families have rows, fall out, have disagreements & fight, as living together isn’t always easy, straightforward or harmonious.
Just think back to when you may have had a big row with a member of your family. That kind of anger and hurt can be what pushes someone to run away from home.
In fact, most children run away due to problems with their families.
Some children run away because of one terrible argument. Some because of constant arguments, and some even decide to leave without ever having a fight. They might have done something they’re really ashamed of, embarrassed by or feel is insurmountable and they’re afraid to tell you.
Other reasons children run away include:
- abuse (violence in the family)
- parents separating or divorcing or the arrival of a new stepparent
- death in the family
- birth of a new baby in the family
- family financial worries
- children or parents drinking alcohol or taking drugs
- problems at school
- peer pressure
- failing or dropping out of school
These are problems faced by lots of children and teens — and there are ways to deal with all of these problems besides running away.
Children who think about running away might not know how to solve challenging problems or don’t have adults to help them. Sometimes a really big problem can make it seem like running away is the only choice.
Unfortunately, the problems children hope to escape by running away are replaced by other — sometimes even bigger — problems of life on the streets.
A child who runs away is missing one, or all, of the 4 Crucial ‘C’s* of Connection, Capability, feeling that they Count & Courage to face their problems with your support.
The Reality of Running Away
Children who run away need to escape from whatever they are feeling or facing & they probably imagine that there will be no more rules, no parent to tell them what to do, no more fights, no more violence, no more tension, anger, nagging or judgement which sounds great and maybe even exciting initially.
In reality, running away is anything but fun. Kids and teens who run away face new problems like not having any money, food to eat, a safe place to sleep, or anyone to look out for them.
People with no home and no money become desperate, doing anything just to meet their basic needs & because of this, they often find themselves in risky and very dangerous situations that are frightening, even for adults. Runaway children get involved in dangerous crimes much more often than children who live at home.
Young people who live on the streets often have to steal to meet basic needs. Many take drugs or alcohol to get through the day because they become depressed, frightened & isolated and feel that no one cares about them. Some are forced to do things they wouldn’t normally do to make money. The number of young people with HIV or AIDS and other diseases is higher on the streets, too, because these young people may begin using drugs or have unprotected sex (often for money).
Runaway Prevention – The 4 Crucial ‘C’s*
Let’s face it we live in a busy, hectic, frenetic world full of stress and pressure & stress is a part of life, even for children, but being able to deal with problems with confidence, hope, support and practical solutions makes children less likely to run away.
If a child feels connected to you and able to talk to you about whatever is bothering them without you jumping to conclusions, jumping in to solve the problem and rescuing them, or without you jumping to judge them, then they will come to you more readily. So, make ‘being there’ for your children part of your normal family interactions.
One very, very simple way to stay connected to your children is to sit down regularly and eat with them. Chat, share & laugh with them, make it an enjoyable experience when they are young so that when things are challenging or their behaviour changes you can tell and ask if they are OK. Don’t always nag about eating their broccoli or holding their knife and fork properly – keep the bigger, more important picture in your mind – which is to stay Connected to your kids.
Click on the link to read in more depth about
Throughout your child’s life, from when they are little, try & empower them to feel Capable by encouraging them to develop their own problem solving skills.
- Help your child to express what they are feeling inside and how to use words to describe their strong and often overwhelming emotions. Create a safe place to vent, explore or describe what they are feeling. No emotion is better or worse than another – we all feel angry, frightened, frustrated or disappointed at times as well as excited, hopeful, joyous and pleased.
- ’Talk & Teach’ them to know, accept and understand their emotions.
- Express your emotions. Don’t be afraid to tell those close to you how you’re feeling and why, but use words, not actions. This is especially true for anger. It’s perfectly normal to feel angry or frustrated but it’s what we choose to do with it that’s really important. Click here to read How To Handle Anger Positively
Anger is one of the hardest emotions to manage because it’s so strong, but everyone needs to learn how to express angry feelings without violence. You are your child’s role model so model how you handle anger so your child can learn from you.
- Teach your child to know how to calm themselves down after they’re upset. Help your child find safe ways to release their emotions: hit a pillow, run about in the garden, jump on their trampoline, listen to music, draw, or play with your dog. Do whatever safe things they need to do to feel better.
- Whenever they have a problem, help them to try to come up with a list of solutions. Don’t rush in immediately to rescue them, as they learn to rely on you to ‘fix’ things for them & they don’t get used to thinking for themselves or taking responsibility for trying to sort things out for themselves. Of course, be there to help & support them if they get stuck. Teach them to brainstorm ideas and to think through to the outcome if they do one of them and to pick the best solution. For each possible solution, get your child to think: “If I do this, what would happen next?”
- If your child feels that they don’t want to talk to you, make sure they have an aunt or an uncle, teacher or a friend who they can turn to for help.
Feeling That They Count
Children need to know that they are important to you, to your family, to their friends, to their community and to the world – they need to know that that they count, that they matter, that they are significant.
So, listen to them, play with them, talk with not at them. Have fun with them. Spend TIME with them – as I believe children spell LOVE …… T-I-M-E.
This builds your child’s self-esteem and their self-belief. This builds resiliency.
A child who feels valued, significant and that they count are far less likely to run away.
The Lion in The Wizard of Oz was looking for courage & no wonder as being a human being is tough – it takes courage to ride the ups and downs of life. It’s packed full of good and bad experiences, frustrations, disappointments and challenges. It’s a risky and precarious adventure so developing courage in your children is important.
This one attribute alone was enough for Rudolph Dreikurs, the renown psychiatrist and parent educator, to say that if we could give children only one quality to help them succeed and manage life it would be courage.
Children without courage focus on what they can’t do. They give up and avoid situations. They miss out on life’s wonderful experiences through fear. They run away from situations not face them.
Becoming a teenager is a challenging time – it a time of confusion & uncertainty as your teen feels precariously posed between childhood and adulthood. That’s why it’s a constant feeling of three steps forward and five steps back at times within them.
There’s the struggle for independence, peer pressure, understanding their sexuality, being surrounded by so many dilemmas from recreational drug taking to gaming to online porn to the desire to fit in and not stand out and be different. There’s hormones and acne. It’s a tough time and they need courage to navigate the choppy waters of the teenage years.
Teens who don’t have courage may run away from life’s challenges. They’ll find it harder to resist the pressure to drink alcohol, take drugs, or join in with unhealthy choices as they won’t be brave enough to say ‘No.’
A child who is encouraged to be courageous feels the fear and does it anyway, they feel equal, confident, hopeful and brave to try. They face challenges and become resilient and they can stand alone if they have to. They believe that they can handle whatever life throws at them.
Whereas a child who lacks courage can’t get over their fear, it controls them and they feel defeated, hopeless, discouraged and inferior.
So, empower your child with an ‘iCan’ attitude – to help them face whatever life throws at them and be there to listen and support them.
How to find your runaway teen
If your child does run away start looking for them in the most likely & obvious places – their friend’s house or at a relative’s house.
As you contact their friends ask them to let your teenager know, if they see them, that:
- you REALLY want them back
- you’re NOT angry
- you’d be RELIEVED to have them home and safe.
Let them know there are ways they can keep in touch with services like Message Home, provided by the Missing People helpline.
If you can’t find your teenager through these contacts, try the social services and local hostels. Many young people travel to another area so think about where they would be most likely to go.
If your teenager has run away and decides to return home don’t expect all the problems to have instantly disappeared. Discuss what returning home might be like before they come back so that neither of you have any false expectations, be prepared to be open to talking about ways to find new and different ways to live together. Let your child know that you are prepared to listen to them.
It’s not helpful to finger point, apportion blame and shout.
Encourage your child to talk to you about any problems they are facing and be prepared to simply listen.
Be aware that some things that might have happened to them since they have been away may be difficult to talk about. Some local organisations offer mediation services which might be able to help and be prepared to make some concessions and meet your teenager halfway.
At first your teenager may get in touch but be unsure about returning home & you may have your own concerns about them coming back home as well. You will both need time and space to adapt to what’s happened, gone on before and get used to creating changes. You may feel you need time to sort things out in your mind. In this case it may help if a close friend or relative could allow your teenager to stay. You will then be reassured they are safe and you can start to talk things through at an agreed meeting point – somewhere that feels comfortable for both of you.
- Give each other space
- Be prepared to compromise
- Recognise it is going to take time to sort things through.
- Get help with talking things through.
Create the atmosphere in your home to ensure that your children feel connected, capable, courageous and that they count as valuable human beings, as they will take life on and make it work for them. They will develop a ‘Can Do’ mindset & they will have the ability to handle whatever life presents them with.
They will have a positive mental attitude and good mental health.
Kids who are brought up with the four Crucial ‘C’s* become
If you need further advice go to
B.L. Bettner and A. Lew (1989, 2005), Raising Kids Who Can, Newton Centre, MA: Connexions Press.
Dr. Rudoph Dreikers Children: The Challenge” (Plume)
Alfred Adler Individual Psychology Harper Collins