What do I do if my child runs away?
If or when a child runs away parents need to think in terms of levels of safety.By Kerri CheneyIf or when a child runs away parents need to think in terms of levels of safety. Running away is in the most severe level. If a child is outside of parental supervision, the risk something will happen to a teenager is very high. We all have heard stories of runaways being prostituted, killed and kidnapped. Consequently, this is not something parents need to take lightly and think that their hands are tied when dealing with the problem.First, it is important to report the child as a runaway to the sheriffs’ department for two reasons. One, so that the supportive infrastructure in this community can help. If the teen continues to runaway it’s important to form a paper trail of factual information that helps professionals understand the history of this teen’s behavior.Two, so that the teen understands the seriousness of running away and all those individuals that 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 as to what the teen is running from, parents will need a professional to help understand the underlying issues. If the teen has returned but outside help has not been utilized, parents can expect the 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 not wanted or needed anymore in the family. This is the teen’s perception. Parents need to be willing to look inside their own family, peel back the layers and look at the core of what might that teen be running from. There are some cases where there is not an underlying problem but the teen is gaining leverage every time he or she runs. When a teen runs to manipulate, parents must ask the question, “What is the teen gaining from controlling the emotions of the family?” It is very important to leave that youth a back door to go into. If the youth feels like somehow they can control the situation themselves by making some healthy choices, it is likely that they will return sooner than later. That back door and the positive choice may look like another trusted adult they can call to help them problem solve themselves out of the sticky situation they have entered.Before the youth returns, one of the most important things to initiate is a plan as to how to address the problem upon the youth’s arrival back home. This might look like a family mediation session with a counselor that has experience with adolescents or an intervention meeting with those that genuinely care about the teen, who will be non judgmental and let the runaway know that they are not labeled a “bad kid,” that they have someone to talk to. Many times that we get teens reported as runaway the teen is usually at a trusted friend’s. The youth has chosen a “safe house” to hide out in. It is important to understand that there is a law regarding the unlawful behavior of harboring 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. If there is an abuse issue at home that is a different story and the safety of the youth needs to be taken in to consideration first and foremost.Kerri Cheney, MS, is a senior counselor at YouthZone.
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