Education Feature
Runaways
By Robert Seith
CWK Senior Producer
 

"I didn't like it there [home] because it was so strict and [there were] so many rules, and I wanted to do what I wanted to do."
-Abby Stoltz, 16-

Sixteen-year-old Abby Stoltz is just one of the almost half a million teens who run away from home each year.

"I didn't like it there [home] because it was so strict and [there were] so many rules, and I wanted to do what I wanted to do," Abby says.

From the age of 13, Abby's parents repeatedly grounded her for using drugs and staying out past her curfew.

"I felt like … I was so closed in that I didn't have any freedom at all," she says.

The lines of communication between Abby and her parents broke down, and the 16-year-old chose to run away.

"She [my mother] would try to talk to me; I wouldn't open up," Abby says.

According to the National Runaway Switchboard, children cite a feeling that their parents don't love them or that their parents are being too strict as the two most common reasons why they run away. Experts caution that parents need to pay close attention to their children's behavior in order to pick up any warning signs indicating their children may decide to run away from home. If your child experiences a change in friends, a drop in grades or he or she threatens to run away, experts urge you to open up a line of communication.

"The biggest thing is if you're not able to talk to your child, to get somebody who can talk to your child," says Brad Baker, a runaway investigator. "There's church groups, there's school counselors and there's educational consultants. There's plenty of people that you can get in contact with to help you in your situation."

After running away twice, each time for a week, Abby got professional help and got clean. But what may have influenced her to get the help she needed was her grandfather, who passed away.

"He told me to do better and that he knew that I had it in me, and it hurt to hear that because he was gone. And I never proved that to him that I had it in me, so that's what I'm going to do now, cause I know he's up there watching me," she says.

 
Communication Key to Runaway Prevention

By Kim Ogletree
CWK Network, Inc.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that each year, as many as 450,700 missing children are considered to be runaways. The National Runaway Switchboard and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) cite these additional runaway statistics:

  • One in seven children between the ages of 10 and 18 will run away.
  • Some will return within a few days; others remain on the streets never to return.
  • An estimated 1.3 million youth are on the streets each day.
  • Assaults, illness or suicide will take the lives of 5,000 runaway youth each year.
  • The median age for the cycle of running is 14 years old.
  • Most runaway youths remain away from home between one month and one year.
  • Females tend to return home sooner than males.

Teens run away for a variety of reasons. According to Child and Youth Health of South Australia (CYH), many teens leave home impulsively after an argument with their caregiver. Often, they don't know how to express their feelings and believe that running away will make their parents "come around." Others run away because they are afraid of punishment or they think their home has too many rules and limits. And still others flee because something seriously wrong is occurring in their lives. Consider these additional, specific reasons why a child might run away from home, cited by the Nemours Foundation:

  • Significant lack of family communication
  • Feelings of not belonging or not being good enough
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Fighting or violence between parents
  • Problems with parents or blended families (step-parents, step or half-brothers and sisters)
  • Problems with non-parental living situation (other relatives, foster care or group home)
  • Parental alcohol or drug use
  • Kids' alcohol or drug use
  • Loss of a parent due to divorce or death
  • Sexuality/teen pregnancy
  • Parental financial difficulty - ongoing or unexpected
  • Moving to a new area or school during adolescence
  • Friend or peer influence
  • Power of gangs

Before running away, your child's behavior will often give you clues to determine if he or she might consider leaving home. The Covenant House Florida, an organization that helps teens in crisis, cites the following warning signs of a troubled teen on the verge of running away from home:

  • Extreme mood changes or rebelliousness
  • Very poor self-esteem
  • Withdrawal from family and long-term friends and/or new friends of whom parents don't approve
  • Drop in grades or frequently skipping school
  • Remarkable change in appearance, such as major weight loss or lack of attention to personal hygiene
  • Isolation or depression
  • Lying or stealing
  • Beginning or increased use of drugs or alcohol
  • Suicide threats
  • Violent outbursts
  • Gang tattoos or paraphernalia
  • Possession of a weapon
 
What Parents Need to Know

In the event that your teen runs away from home, the CYH suggests the following strategies for coping and locating your teen:

  • Try to stay calm. Remember, most runaways return of their own accord.
  • Find out what you can about your teen leaving. Was it planned or impulsive? Did he or she go off with friends? Did your teen leave a note? What did he or she take with him or her?
  • Work out whether you think your teen is likely to be safe. Think about where he or she could run to and what you know about why he or she left.
  • Contact your teen's friends or the friends' parents. If your teen is with friends, let the friends know that you are worried and that you want to talk with your teen about what is upsetting him or her. Don't leave messages that are threats.
  • Be prepared to make some changes. If no changes are made to make the situation better, your teen will be likely to run again. You may need a third person to "bridge" any conversation in the beginning.
  • The fact that you are looking for your teen is reassurance that you care. It doesn't mean that you have to give in on everything but that you want to discuss ways to make life better for you all.
  • Have an open-door attitude to your teen's return.
If you can't find a reasonable explanation for your teen leaving and you can't assure yourself that he or she is safe, contact your local police.

The North American Missing Children Association says that developing a strong foundation of open communication with your child is the key to preventing most runaway cases. Try these tips to improve your relationship with your child:

  • Pay attention. When your child is talking with you, listen. Don't just nod your head while you're watching television, reading the paper or using your computer. Don't just pretend to listen - kids know the difference.
  • Give respect. Acknowledge and support your child's struggle to grow to maturity.
  • Understand. Try to sympathize with what your child is going through. Look at life - at least occasionally - from his or her point of view. Remember that when you were his or her age, your ideas seemed to make sense to you.
  • Don't lecture. All children hate to be lectured, especially teens. But all kids respond to clear information and direction, most of all when they know that the questions they ask will be answered.
  • Don't label. The throwing around of useless labels will only confuse the real issues that you wish to address.
  • Discuss feelings. Talk about what you, as a parent, feel and what you need. Allow your child to talk about his or her feelings, too.
  • Create responsibility. Give your child choices, not orders. Help him or her to understand the consequences of his or her actions.
  • Give positive praise. Describe your child's positive and negative behavior and how it affects others. Be specific, and give praise to reward good behavior. Do this at least as often, if not more so, than you criticize behavior that you don't like.
  • Stop hassling your child. Asking your child too many questions often shuts off information. Give him or her the opportunity to volunteer his or her thoughts and feelings while you show a sincere interest, without probing.
  • Don't always give the answers. You want your child to be able to find his or her own answers or solutions to problems. You can help by not giving your child the answers all of the time.
  • Use Teamwork. Work together with your child to evaluate the problems and find a mutually agreeable solution.
  • Provide support. You must tell your child that you will always love him or her, no matter what.
 
Resources

Child and Youth Health of South Australia
Covenant House Florida
National Runaway Switchboard
Nation's Missing Children Organization, Inc.
Nemours Foundation
North American Missing Children Association
U.S. Department of Justice
Committee for Missing Children, Inc.