What do I do if my child runs away?
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
If and when your child runs away, you need to think in terms of levels of safety. Running away is in the most severe level. If your child is outside parental supervision, the risk something will happen to your teenager is very high. We all have heard stories of runaways being prostituted, killed and kidnapped. Consequently, this is not something you ought to take lightly or think your hands are tied when dealing with the problem.
For two reasons, it is important to report your child as a runaway to the sheriff’s department. One, so the supportive infrastructure in this community can help. If the teen continues to run away, it’s important to form a paper trail of factual information to help professionals understand the history of this teen’s behavior. Two, so your teen understands the seriousness of running away and all the individuals it affects.
Youth will go where they feel most loved and accepted for who they are. If they are rejected at home, they will go elsewhere. This is why it is important to react in love and concern, instead of shaming and blaming. There are different strategies to stop the youth from running away, but to heal the deeper issues of why the teen is running, you will need a professional to help understand the underlying issues. If your teen has returned but outside help has not been utilized, you can expect your youth to run again.
Most adolescents are running from something that truly bothers them. One of the most common reasons is that they are feeling unwanted or not needed anymore in the family. This is the teen’s perception. Be willing to look inside your own family, peel back the layers and look at the core of what that teen might be running from. But there are some cases where there is no underlying problem, but the teen is gaining leverage every time he or she runs. When a teen runs to manipulate, you have to ask, “What is the teen gaining from controlling the emotions of the family?”
It is very important to leave a back door to go into for your teen. If the youth feels somehow he or she can control the situation by making some healthy choices, it is likely that your teen will return sooner rather than later. That back door and the positive choice may look like another trusted adult to call to help problem-solve out of the sticky situation.
Before the youth returns, one of the most important things to initiate is a plan to address the problem upon the youth’s arrival back home. This might look like a family mediation session with a counselor who has experience with adolescents, or an intervention meeting with those who genuinely care about the teen. A trusted counselor is needed who will be nonjudgmental, and let the runaway know he or she is not labeled a “bad kid.”
Many times when YouthZone has a teen reported as a runaway, the teen is at a trusted friend’s house. The youth has chosen a “safe house” to hide out in. But it is important to understand it is unlawful behavior to harbor a runaway.
It is every parent’s right to continually check with other parents, and we encourage getting the word out to other parents that hiding the teen is not assisting the family to work on the problem. But if there is an abuse issue at home, that is a different story. First and foremost, the safety of the youth needs to be taken into consideration.
Kerri Cheney, MS is a YouthZone senior counselor.
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