Updated on March 25, 2022
How Parents Can Stop Feeling Powerless When Their Teen Runs Away
Panic, fear, guilt, confusion–all emotions that parents of runaway teenagers experience when they learn their child has run away from home. If you are a parent of a runaway teenager, never feel like you are alone.
The U.S. Department of Justice reports that over two million youths run away from home each year. However, that number is likely a low estimate due to parents deciding not to report an older runaway teen (16 or 17 years old).
Reasons for not reporting a runaway teen typically involve the parent thinking the teen either went to a friend’s home or to an absent parent’s home.
Unfortunately, older teenagers running away suffer the same risks as younger teen runaways:
- drug abuse
- sexual exploitation
- mental illness
- engaging in criminal activity
Why Do Teens Runaway?
A Parent's Guide to Recognizing Signs a Teen May Run Away from Home
Kids who run away are usually either “episodic” runaways or “chronic” runaways. Episodic runaways leave home when a specific event triggers their desire to run away.
For example, Jan is a 14-year-old who recently had to move in with her mother and new stepdad. For the first time in her life, Jan ran away to a friend’s house but eventually returned after talking with her mother.
When Jan was 16, she ran away again because her mother threatened to send the teen to a boot camp. Jan would be considered an episodic runaway who only leaves home when an event triggers the impulse to run away.
In most cases, a chronic runaway is a teen who manipulates parents or guardians by constantly threatening to run away. They frequently run away to a friend’s house or to a relative who is sympathetic to them. Chronic runaways can also be teens who have been returned to a dysfunctional home repeatedly due to a lack of professional resources in the community.
The most common reasons millions of teens run away from home every year include:
- Physical abuse, sexual abuse, and/or emotional abuse occurring in the home
- Being bullied at school
- Parents who don’t accept their teen’s gender or sexual identity
- Having at least one authoritative parent
- Substance addiction (the teen has a drug addiction or a parent is an addict)
- Poverty hunger, moving constantly due to being evicted
Teens with mental health issues who do not receive treatment often run away from home because they feel guilty for causing trouble in the home. They may see their siblings upset over their parents arguing about them, or overhear their parents complaining about their behavior.
Adolescents with bipolar disorder often run away during manic episodes of their illness when their thoughts are racing and often delusional.
Teens diagnosed with conduct disorder or oppositional defiant disorder may develop into chronic runaways just to upset their parents or to avoid placement in a juvenile detention center.
How Can Parents Deal with Teens Who Run Away or Threaten to Run Away?
Establish an environment in which children feel they can be open and honest about their feelings and thoughts. Parents who criticize, reprimand, and refuse to allow their teen to tell their side of the story are not creating an atmosphere that helps make their teens feel comfortable and safe. Respect your child’s reasons for wanting to run away from home and discuss these reasons rationally and objectively.
When teens actually tell their parents they are going to run away, parents should realize that their child is unhappy, confused, angry, and feeling extremely vulnerable. While the teen is still calm, ask them what you can do to help them succeed at home. How can you help them improve? Ask for specifics, not generalities.
For example, a teen may give this answer: “I want you to stop treating me like a baby!”. A parent should then ask: “OK, can you tell me exactly what I do to treat you like a baby?”
Verbalizing problems instead of skirting around problems is the best way to arrive at solutions with which all parties can agree.
Kids who run away or threaten to run away are pleading for help in navigating a world they view as hostile and unsympathetic to their problems. Children who first tell a parent they are going to run away actually want the parent to stop them from leaving home.
They see no other way to “ask” for help except by shocking their parents into communicating with them. However, parents should never disparage the threat of running away. Never say, “Go ahead. See what happens!”.
Calling their bluff tells the troubled teen that the parent or guardian simply doesn’t care what they do.
Parents should give unconditional love and support to a returning runaway teen. They should also see a family and adolescent counselor to resolve conflicts in a supportive and professional environment.
Is Running Away a Crime?
Although teenagers running away from home are committing a crime, they may be charged with a “status offense” depending on a state’s laws. A few states with status offense laws define running away as something in violation of the law due to the runaway teenager being a minor.
Other examples of status offenses include violating curfew, truancy, being beyond the control of a parent or guardian, and underage drinking. A judge may order a teen charged with a status offense to undergo counseling, pay fines, do community service, or suspend their driver’s license. Chronic runaways living in status offense states may be placed with family members or another non-parental guardian.
Regardless of whether a state considers running away a status offense, law enforcement can take a runaway into custody. However, police have other options, such as:
- returning the runaway teenager to their parents
- taking them to a shelter for teen runaways
- convincing parents to allow the teen to stay with a relative or friend.
Unfortunately, police are also permitted to take a teen to a juvenile detention facility for a brief time. When kids who run away are taken to a detention center by the police, it is usually because the teen is viewed as a danger to themselves or to others.
What Should Parents Do As Soon As They Learn Their Teenager Has Run Away from Home?
When police receive a report of a runaway or missing teen, they enter the teen’s name, eye color, hair color, stature, and other physical attributes into the National Crime Information Computer (NCIC).
Parents can also call the National Runaway Switchboard (1-800-RUNAWAY), the Missing Kids Organization, and the National Center for Missing/Exploited Children (NCMEC).
Another excellent resource for parents to contact is the Youth.Gov Crisis Helpline
When a parent of a runaway teenager calls NCMEC, a case management team will be assigned to the parent. This team communicates directly with law enforcement on finding the missing teen and ensures all recovery methods are being utilized to locate the teenager.
Parents can also inform their friends and family members that the teen is missing. Contact the local news stations and hang posters in the neighborhood printed with their child’s name, image, and contact information.
Calling the teen’s school and talking to teachers may be helpful. Asking the teen’s friends if they know where the teen may have gone can provide parents with details about their child’s state of mind that were previously unknown.