What To Do If Your Child Runs Away – Or Threatens 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.”

The numbers

An estimated 1.6 million kids run away each year in the United States, according to the 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 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.

Reality check

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.

Home again

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, founder and owner of NeuroBehavioral Medicine Group, an outpatient psychiatric treatment center in Bloomfield Hills.

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.”

This post was originally published in 2012 and has been updated for 2017.



  • My kid gets yelled at a lot and she wants to run away . What do I do ?

    • I think you should consider talking to your kids peacefully and listen to what they have to say. I am saying this because I too had ran away from home when I was in the 9th grade. It was just a small quarrel I had got into with my sibling. It was lucky for me to not have reached too far. I was in no fault that day and since my parents wouldn’t listen to my reasoning because I was the short-tempered one then, I ran away. SO, listen to what your kid has to say before you reach a conclusion and start yelling at him.

      • Speaking rationally to a defiant, yelling child is like talking to a tree-stump. They yell, we yell. Yelling is not the sickness, it’s a symptom. Nobody can be “in a fight” with a child and remain reasonable, rational, gentle and sensitive. Life is ugly. And it isn’t going to use a kind, nurturing voice.

        Decent parents don’t bargain, negotiate, bend to their kids’ will to make them happy. They don’t respond to threats and they do enforce rules regularly and dispassionately, not emotionally. Period. We do this so our little monsters don’t think they can pick and choose which laws to honor as adults. We as parents are not here to please our kids or grant their wishes; we are here to raise them. No horse wants to be broken, but it absolutely needs it. And it’s not always pretty.

        I am not a great dad, but I know I’m a good dad. I do yell. I have a hard time listening. I have anger issues. We’re all in counseling in this house. But, we connect in very real ways because we engage in healthy communication, and believe it or not, the occasional yelling match. I’ve nursed those connections of trust for years and it pays off. They are allowed to speak freely, even if some volume is involved. Just not threats, not disparagement.

        My child is under the influence of a crazy world, an extremely crazy ex-wife and this crazy dad. It’s not roses.

        In our first conflict involving threats to run away, it seems my natural personal reaction (sadness, confusion, slight withdrawal) after the smoke cleared concerned my daughter deeply. I was wounded and just couldn’t fake it with her or hang out. Losing my respect and trust (and sometimes closeness) has a greater punishment and motivator than anything I can muster. I have not judged or shunned her, but just allowed my self to process things honestly, to hurt, to talk with her about my feelings.

        I feel lucky in that my daughter wasn’t threatening to run from ME so much as to run TO a new love interest’s house. I also don’t want to bullshit myself into believing all of my own ideas and successes will stick.

        She will stop caring about my feelings, she will drink, she will smoke. I can only hope I have educated and armed her, as well as loving her more than any other creature on Earth.

  • I think you should just try to tell her what to do with out yelling and try to get her to feel comfortable around the house so she wont run away from home and talk to her everyday,everynight,and you should tell her you love her all the time

  • My son texted his good bye and says it’s not a threat. He says he’s not coming home after he is done with a community project. He’s upset because we won’t let him go out or go over to his girlfriends house. He’s 14 she’s 17. We told him in the past he wasn’t allowed to have a girlfriend but has one now. So now what she we do??


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What To Do If Your Child Runs Away – Or Threatens To
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