It’s a parent’s worst fear – finding out that their teen has run away and not knowing where they might be. You’re left wondering if they’re safe, what you can do, and asking yourself what led them to take such dangerous action. While it’s natural to want to push the panic button, in many cases, there is a route of action you can take to get your teen home safely. In this blog, we explore why teenagers might run away, signs to watch for, and most importantly, how to get help for them.
A Quick Overview
Many young people who run away from home face a wide range of difficulties that push them to take this kind of action. Researchers sought to find out exactly how common running away is among young people in the United States and what factors might be linked to it. To do this, they looked at data from surveys of 8th and 10th graders between 2005 and 2017.
In these surveys, young people were asked if they had run away from home in the past year. Information was collected about their relationships with parents and peers, how they were doing in school, their emotional state, behavior, and substance use. They also considered factors like their grade level, gender, their parents’ education, and their race or ethnicity.
Interestingly, the number of young people running away from home decreased from 8.3% in 2005 to 6.1% in 2017, and boys were found to be less likely to run away than girls. In general, teens were less likely to run away if they had more involved parents, better grades, and higher self-esteem.
On the other hand, factors like having friends who dropped out of school, going on frequent dates, negative self-image, stealing, causing damage to property, and using alcohol, marijuana, or cigarettes in the past year were linked to a higher likelihood of running away from home.
Understanding Why Teens Run Away
The very first question to address is why your teenager has run away. If you do not get to the root of the issue, it is likely to happen again. Finding the source of the trouble and taking the time to address it with your teen can help ensure that this does not happen in the future. Teenagers may run away for various reasons, including:
- Conflict at Home: Ongoing family conflicts, like arguments with parents or siblings, might push teenagers to run away to escape the turmoil.
- Abuse or Neglect: Teenagers often flee abusive or neglectful home environments, seeking safety and support elsewhere.
- Peer Pressure: Influence from friends or peers who are also involved in risky behavior can push teenagers to run away from home.
- Mental Health Issues: Running away can be fueled by undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues like depression or anxiety.
- Substance Abuse: Teens struggling with substance abuse issues could leave home to avoid consequences or seek a lifestyle that enables their addiction.
- Exploration: Some teenagers run away out of curiosity, wanting to experience life outside their family environment.
- Rebellion: Rebellion against parental authority or strict rules can drive teenagers to leave in an attempt to assert their independence.
Recognizing the Signs
If your teen has yet to try running away but is exhibiting some abnormal behavior, you are wise to begin looking into the situation. Keep an eye out for the following warning signs:
- Withdrawal: If your teenager becomes increasingly withdrawn, distant, or secretive, it could be a sign that they are struggling with something.
- Sudden Changes in Behavior: Drastic changes in your teenager’s behavior, like dropping out of school or abruptly ending relationships, should raise concern.
- Packing Belongings: If you notice your teen packing their belongings or taking important documents like a passport, it’s a strong indication that they may be planning to leave.
- Frequent Disappearances: If your teenager frequently goes missing for extended periods without explanation, it’s a red flag that something is amiss.
- Online Activity: Monitor your teenager’s online activity and social media presence. Sudden secrecy about their online life or connecting with unknown individuals is concerning.
- Expressing the Desire to Leave: If your teenager openly talks about wanting to leave home or has threatened to do so, take these statements seriously. Do not assume they are looking for a reaction or fibbing.
Getting Help for a Runaway Teenager
If you believe your teenager has run away or suspect they are planning to do so, taking immediate action is vital. You can’t be sure where they are planning to go or who they are considering going with, so stopping them before they leave can help keep them safe. Below are steps to help you navigate this:
- Stay Calm: While it’s natural to panic, try to remain as calm as possible. Your emotional state will affect your ability to make rational decisions.
- Contact the Authorities: If you have reason to believe your teenager’s safety is at risk, contact your local law enforcement agency. File a missing person report and provide them with all relevant information about your teenager.
- Reach Out to Trusted Contacts: Contact your teenager’s friends, school, and any other relevant individuals who might have information about their whereabouts.
- Check Their Social Media: Monitor your teenager’s social media profiles for any clues or messages that might indicate where they are or what they are planning. In many cases, you will find some answers here.
- Get Them Help: Ask for help from mental health professionals, therapists, or counselors who can provide support and guidance during this time. Especially once your teen returns home, getting them into therapy is key.
- Look Into Family Therapy: If family conflicts are a contributing factor, it might be wise to investigate using a family therapist to facilitate communication and resolution.
- Make Home a Safe Space: Take action to make sure that your home is a safe and welcoming place for your teenager. This includes being open to listening to their concerns and addressing the issues that led to their decision to run away.
- Respect Their Autonomy: While it’s crucial to ensure your teenager’s safety, respect their autonomy and decisions. Seek their input in finding solutions to the problems that led to their departure.
Dealing with a runaway teenager is undoubtedly one of the most challenging experiences a parent or guardian can face. Fortunately, by staying vigilant and proactive, you can drastically increase the chances of reuniting with your teenager and providing them with the support they need.
Ultimately, the goal should be to protect the safety and well-being of your teenager while addressing the underlying issues that led them to run away in the first place. With patience, understanding, and the right resources, you can work to make sure that this situation never arises again.
New Dimensions Can Help!
New Dimensions provides Intensive Outpatient Treatment Programs (IOP) and Partial Hospitalization (PHP) for adolescents and adults who are struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues. If you have an adolescent who is struggling, we can help them get back on track. We have both in-person and virtual online treatment options. To learn more, contact us at 800-685-9796 or visit our website at www.nddtreatment.com. You can also visit www.mhthrive.com to learn more about individual, couples and family therapy treatment options.
Castillo B, Schulenberg J, Grogan-Kaylor A, Toro PA. The prevalence and correlates of running away among adolescents in the United States. J Community Psychol. 2023 Jul;51(5):1860-1875. doi: 10.1002/jcop.22971. Epub 2022 Dec 5. PMID: 36468260.