When Kids Run Away from Home – Or Threaten To
By school age, children may start warning their parents they’ll run away and, sometimes, actually leave home. What should you do in either case?
When Natalia Bruen's son ran away from home at 10 years old, she stopped breathing.
"At first, I didn't believe it. I read the note, and figured he'd be in his room hiding somewhere," the Richmond mom says. But when she realized he was truly gone, that's when the panic set in.
"I literally forgot how to breathe," she says. "I was suspended in the moment, not knowing what to do, where to look, and fearing the absolute worst."
An estimated 1.6 million kids run away each year in the United States, according to latest numbers by Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. In 2011, some 4,190 calls came into the National Runaway Switchboard, or NRS, from Michigan kids. Of those kids, almost half – 2,038 – were from southeast Michigan area codes, with Oakland County (i.e., 248) leading the pack, followed by 313, 734 and 586.
Most are teens, but kids start threatening and even attempting to run away from home once they're school age. And parents need to know how to handle the threats and the reality.
Talking about it
If your child threatens to run away, you should sit him down and talk to him about what is prompting the threat, says NRS communications consultant Joel Kessel.
"Invite him to talk with you or someone else about what is troubling him," Kessel says, "and be supportive of finding positive ways of dealing with his situation."
Kessel says it's important to let your child know that you don't want him to run away, and you're committed to helping the family work things out. Even if your child is young, it's important to address the issue.
But sometimes, when a child is using the threat of running away as leverage to get his way, a reality check may be in order.
"I really think it's important to be calm and not be too indulgent sometimes," says Bruen. "I explain to my son that his place is home until he's an adult, and that the world is wonderful, but also a scary place when you are a child. You need the protection of your family, even if you don't always like us."
When flight happens
If your child does run away, you should immediately notify the police and file a missing person's report.
Next, you should ask your child's friends and their parents for clues to your child's whereabouts. Fifty-nine percent of youth runaways said that at least one of their friends knew where they were, according to a study conducted by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. In fact, many times – including Bruen's case – they have simply gone to a friend's house.
When you finally, and hopefully, locate your child, you should address his behavior and take steps so he doesn't run away again.
On one hand, you'll want to punish your child. On the other, you'll want to hug him.
Opt for the hugging instinct, says Dr. Sanjeev Venkataraman, medical director for child and adolescent services at Harbor Oaks Hospital in New Baltimore.
Allow time for your child to settle in. If necessary, get medical attention. Also, call the police and anyone else you contacted to let them know that he has returned home.
Now, you must have the talk with your child. Find the problem and agree to work together to fix it. It may also help to find a family counselor.
"Yes, address the issue with your child – but punishment should be the last resort," says Dr. Venkataraman. "Running away is a sign of something troubling."