By the end of this year, about 275,000 teens will have "run away" from home, according to the National Organization of Missing and Exploited Children. Thirty to 40 percent of these teens will become involved in some kind of "trouble" – they will be mugged, robbed, beaten, molested, raped or even killed.
Some return to their homes; others do not. So what can parents do to prevent their teens from joining the number of those that never return? Better yet, how can parents prevent their teen from running away in the first place?
They can start by studying the reasons why kids choose to leave.
Why Kids Leave
The reasons behind a teenager's choice to leave home can often be serious. A study of teen runaways found that the majority left home because of perceived physical or emotional abuse, says Dr. Paul Coleman, psychologist.
"These adolescents reported that running away was a last resort – not merely a bold attempt to annoy their parents – and many wanted an opportunity to reconcile with their families," Dr. Coleman says.
While some teens leave home for problems such as emotional, mental or physical abuse, others may have reasons that, to adults, may seem less "serious" but which hold just as much bearing on a teen's decision to leave. "Secondary reasons include the inability to communicate with a parent or frequent arguments or confrontations with a stepparent, a chaotic household or to accompany a friend who is running away from home," Dr. Coleman says.
Confrontations with her fiance had Carrie Eichler's son considering leaving home. "When my first husband and I divorced, I thought that my son accepted it pretty well," says Eichler, a nurse from Ashland, Ohio. "It wasn't until I began living with my fiance that I understood that he didn't. [My son] didn't get along with my fiance, and they argued a lot. He threatened to run away several times, and each time I had to be in the middle.
"I tried to explain to my son that I understood what he was feeling, and soon after he would let go of his idea to leave. I guess I'm lucky that I'm no longer in the relationship, otherwise I'm sure he really would have run away."
Running From Problems
As adults, we have learned to face whatever problems are before us and meet them head on in an attempt to solve them. However, teens may not have that skill and may feel overwhelmed, scared or confused. "Running away is an attempt at resolving or escaping from some problem," Dr. Coleman says. "Finding out what that problem is offers the first and most important step in preventing a teen from leaving home by running away."
Teens may use running away as a means of getting attention, resolving an argument or even as an attempt to make their parents feel guilty or scared. Yet, too often parents take light of what their teen states regarding running away. "If your child is threatening to run away, take time to consider what the underlying problem might be," Dr. Coleman says. "If your teen threatens to run away, don't be intimidated. Let him know that you'll call the police and speak to each and every one of his friends' parents in order to find him. Let him know that you will do whatever you have to do to get him back – no matter where he goes."
Laura Hess' son was only 11 the first time he threatened to run away from home. "He would threaten to pack his bags and leave knowing that it made me upset, and I would try to talk him out of it," says this mother of four from Minneapolis, Minn. "Each time, I would end up giving in to whatever it was that started the argument or offer some type of compromise. I know I need to be stronger and more firm with him but the thought of my son being out there – anywhere – on his own, scares me."
What You Don't Do
What you don't do in trying to prevent a teen from running away is almost as important as what you should do. As teens have usually already made up their minds regarding what they feel they must do, the next steps taken can often be critical. "Telling your teen to go ahead and run away because you know they will be back or telling them that their reason for wanting to run away is not a very good one are two things you do not want to do," Dr. Coleman says. "As there are too many dangers in today's society to take a chance that a teen may not make it back home makes the theory of reverse psychology very risky."
If you tell your child that their reason for wanting to run away is not valid, you're missing the point. "Your child evidently thought it was a good reason," Dr. Coleman says. "It is better to listen to your child."