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When a teen runs away from home, we want to know why. This heartbreaking situation wreaks havoc on the family, especially on the parents. You may feel guilt, shame and helplessness, you may over analyze every interaction you had that day, and you’ll probably experience a turnover of emotion you didn’t even think possible! And at the end of the day, you still won’t understand why your teen ran away from home…

If that’s you, I’m right there with you. As a teen runaway myself, I thought I did everything in my power to parent my kids in a way that would prevent them from wanting to leave home. So when my 14 year old daughter ran away after weeks of turmoil and a long arduous day of arguing, I shouldn’t have been surprised – but I was. It totally caught me off guard, and I spent many sleepless nights trying to figure out where I went wrong. 

I eventually came to the painful conclusion that my teen was frustrated, angry, and battling demons I knew very little, if anything about. There was nothing I could do to change what had happened, no matter how much I played the ‘what if’ game. If your teen has run away or if you’re concerned they may, I write this series to help you understand that, barring any abuse in the home (if you suspect it, follow that instinct and find out!), this is not all on you, and you won’t bring your teen home by dumping all your energy into trying to figure out where you went wrong. 

It’s a waste of time. It’s also a waste of time to analyze your teens recent actions, attitudes, and conversations in an attempt to justify any of your own harsh or overbearing behaviors. The truth is, when teens run away, there’s often an intricate web of underlying circumstances, emotions and changes physically, mentally, and socially that lend themselves to that final decision being made. It’s not entirely our fault; though we are usually a part of the problem, however big or small.

Understand the Run-Away Teen’s Underlying Circumstances

Homeless teen sleeps under bridge
Photo by Randy Jacob on Unsplash

So, how did we get here and what do we do now? 

Well, we’re gonna take a deep breath together, and try to understand where our teen is coming from. We’re not going to take their words or actions personally, but instead try to plan our responses as if this were someone elses kid. We’re gonna use every resource available to us to improve the communication and relationship between us and our teens.

And we’re gonna let go, and remember:

One of the hardest parts of parenting is letting them learn from their mistakes…no matter how painful the consequences.

So let’s start with seeing the situation from our teens perspective. There’s a couple of things happening in the background here that end up playing a lead role in pushing our teens to run away. 

Our Teens Realize We Suck, and They’ve Lost Their Trust in Us

The cats out of the bag. We suck and they know it. Your teen is not a child anymore. They are transitioning into adulthood. Not only are their bodies and emotions making drastic changes, but their thought process as well. Teens are developing their own way of thinking, reasoning and forming opinions. And what they are realizing is exactly what you’ve suspected all these years, but have been able to hide from your child – that you suck as a parent. I don’t say that to be mean or as a personal attack against any one style of parenting. I say it as a universal truth that applies to all of us – as humans and as parents. When our kids are little, they don’t see us as flawed human beings, they see us as the sun in their universe. But at this stage of growing up, they are becoming ever aware of how far reaching the universe is, that there are lots of other universes, and billions of different suns and solar systems that are completely different than their own. And they want to learn and experience as much of it as they can.  

Part of that learning experience is figuring out their own beliefs, their own values, and determining just who they want to be. Cuz they’ve discovered the disappointing reality that we are not perfect, or even stable most days, and as this sobering realization is hitting them, they are also concluding that they don’t want to be anything like us, and that thankfully, they don’t have to be.

Our Teens Aren’t Sure Who They Are, or Who They Want to Be (as long as it’s nothing like us!)

Teen Boy wrings his hands in uncertainty
Image by @cottonbro via Pexels

But figuring out who they do want to be is no piece of cake. Trying to fit in, meet the expectations of  teachers, coaches, and yes, OURS; there are a lot of people telling them who they should be, and not a whole lot of people encouraging them to be who they are. Not really. Sure, the words may be spoken constantly – even plastered on posters and t-shirts! But trust me, they see right through that. Teens know when they are being used for someone else’s agenda. The result is that our teens feel undervalued and yes, a bit taken advantage of. And honestly, they’re not wrong. 

At the same time as this pressure is building, their brains are developing a sense of autonomy. Teens want nothing more than to be seen as an individual; a functionally independent human being whose opinions and ideas matter – not a protruding limb of what they clearly believe is a dysfunctional family. Even if half the shit they say and/or do seems like ridiculous nonsense, they just want to be taken seriously.

Teens Can Just Be Hormonal, Immature Assholes.

Some of this ridiculous nonsense that comes out of their mouths is not entirely their fault. But it still makes you wanna punch ‘em in the face sometimes, am I right?! Before you do that though, just remember, a teenager’s brain is wired to become more self-reliant in the midst of raging hormonal storms few of us could handle. It’s healthy for them to push your buttons a bit. The problem here is that they want independence… But their emotions are such a rollercoaster, they can’t tell which way is up; let alone what is spewing out of their mouths in a heated moment! And they need us to help keep them grounded. But as parents, all we tend to hear is unrestrained disrespect; and what we see is that they are incapable of being independent. The result is that our teens feel misunderstood and disregarded and again, they’d be right. 

Some areas of the brain crucial to survival are still underdeveloped in teens, which doesn’t help matters. The frontal cortex, responsible for logical reasoning and our ability to think before we act, isn’t fully developed until somewhere in the average human’s early to mid-twenties! Don’t get me wrong, your teen can tell the difference between right and wrong and they can make good choices. But they are led by their emotions and impulses; they don’t always fully grasp the dangers and long term consequences of their decisions until after the fact. This is why the teen years are known for being wild, crazy and impulsive ; often to the point of being reckless and downright stupid! It’s why so many of us are still recovering from bad choices we made 15 years ago, and it’s why we fight so hard to make sure our kids don’t end up doing the same. 

Out of love or no, to our teens, it’s still us forging our wishes, our agendas onto them. It is never going to end the way we hope.

Teen Run-Aways May Be Struggling With Mental Health Issues:

Being a teenager in general sucks, let’s be honest. But many of our teens don’t just face the daily thrashing of the average hormonal-emotional rollercoaster…Many of our teens are also struggling with at least one psychological, behavioral or learning disability or disorder.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 31.9% of adolescents suffer from an anxiety disorder. Attention Deficit Disorder (with or without hyperactivity) claims another 13.5% of children between ages 12 and 17; 64% of whom were also diagnosed with with at least one other mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder! The rising prevalence of pervasive personality disorders in children and the ever widening Spectrum of Autism disorders is sobering. Common disorders like ADHD can acutely hinder a child throughout the elementary school years; once the teen hormones start doin’ their thang, it can become downright life wrecking! Hell, at times, I feel completely dysfunctional and emotionally overwhelmed as an adult with ADD; there’s no way we can expect our teens to walk through it without losing their shit at least once!

Thankfully, our kids are privy to a ton of mental health care and awareness we millennials never had. But still, there are millions of kids who don’t. Studies show that the lack of access to adequate mental health services correlates with higher instances of drug and alcohol abuse, teen incarceration, self harm, suicide, teens deaths in general, and yes – teen runaways.

Meanwhile, diagnoses’ like childhood bipolar, schizophrenia, or disruptive mood dysregulation disorder often don’t show up until adolescence, and sometimes are even triggered by stressors from school or home. For over 80% of today’s teenagers, mental health disorders and learning disabilities add significantly more stress to the already emotionally overwhelmed child.

Think this could be true for your teen? Start by seeking out a therapist who specializes in adolescent mental health disorders. They can help your teen work through the emotional whiplash they are experiencing. And if necessary, they can identify needs for further testing or treatment if it’s something beyond normal teenage blues. 

Recognize When Your Teen Wants to Run Away

Know What to Look For

If you’re worried your teen could run at any moment, then it’s important to know the signs. Watch for changes in behavior that indicate your teen may be struggling. Some common behaviors to watch for are:

  • Changes in friend groups, especially if his new friends seem to have very little supervision or engage in risky activities. 
  • Staying out later than normal, spending significantly more time at friends houses or participating in after school activities
  • Changes in appetite, saving food, eating in their room, stashing food in drawers, backpacks, hoodie pockets.
  • Hiding activities or being sneaky with phones, internet and social media; making new friends, starting new relationships and not telling you or introducing them.
  • Cutting, burning, engraving, or forms of self harm. 
  • Changes in appearance; sudden weight loss or gain; drastic changes in hair or clothing; wearing friends clothes more often; new tattoos or piercings, especially if she hides them from you.
  • Stealing from both within the home and outside venues.
  • Drug and alcohol abuse, particularly if they seem not to care about getting caught.
  • Keeping clothes, food or other items packed for a quick getaway; maybe in a closet, under the bed, in their car.
  • Threatening to run away or making statements indicating they want to live elsewhere (ie. “I want to live with Katie”, “send me foster care”, “I hate this house, I hate being here”)
  • Missing a lot of school, dropping grades, lack of care or shift in intentions for their future (ie. “i don’t care about college anymore”)

If you think your teen may be exhibiting some of these signs, it’s important to act quickly and get help. These signs can often indicate other serious issues as well – and sometimes in addition to running away. 

Recognize When Abuse Causes Teens to Run Away

Sad teenage girl lying on the floor
Photo by _Mxsh_ on Unsplash

Know How to Identify Signs of Abuse

One thing I haven’t mentioned here that most people assume is the cause of teen runaways is abuse. I didn’t include it earlier because I did not gear this series toward teens running away to escape abuse. Abuse is actually the least common reason that teens run away, despite what people think. My goal is to provide a resource for parents whose teens have run away for other reasons. Still, it is extremely important to recognize if your child may be being abused. Whether by someone close to them or someone relatively new in their life, it’s easy for abuse in teens to go unnoticed or for the warning signs to be shrugged off as typical teenage drama. Here are some of the signs that your teen may being abused:

  • Changes in appearance, lack of self-care or changes in attention to hygiene or personal style
  • Changes in weight and/or appetite
  • Heightened anxiety and/or anger
  • Withdrawal from social relationships and activities
  • Signs of physical abuse such as bruises, unexplained cuts/scrapes/scratches, burn marks
  • Signs of sexual abuse: STD’s, bleeding, bruising, or discharge in the genitals; frequent infections; sudden changes in behavior and sexuality; sudden knowledge of subjects of highly explicit in nature; bed wetting, thumb-sucking , or other age inappropriate soothing techniques
  • Self-harming, abusing drugs or alcohol, engaging in risky behavior
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
  • Strange tattoos, brandings, or other markings suggestive of “belonging” to a person or a group, club, or gang

Know Who Your Teen is Spending Time With

In cases of abuse, having unlimited access to communicate with a teen is what every predator is hoping for. Teens between the ages of 14 and 19 are at especially high risk for sexual abuse. Beware of family members, friends, neighbors, coaches, etc. who are suddenly spending a lot of time with or taking an interest in your teen. This doesn’t mean that every coach, mentor or well-meaning uncle is a sexual predator. It takes a village; having as many positive influences in your teens life as possible is extremely valuable in helping them through teenage angst!

But if your teen begins to exhibit any of the signs above AND you notice them spending more and more time with an individual, you should absolutely be concerned. Here are some resources for parents who suspect their teen may be being abused:

Beware of Abusive or Controlling Teen Relationships

Along the same lines, it’s important to be able to recognize if your teen is in an abusive relationship. As parents, we are the ones with the experience here. It may not occur to your 15 year that they are being taken advantage of, manipulated, exploited, or even abused. Teens are just starting to form romantic relationships, and aren’t always able to tell the difference between intimacy and violation. Especially in the beginning! Some teens don’t become aware that they are victims of sexual abuse or assault until it’s too late. Even if they suspect, they may not be able to verbalize that they are in pain or feel trapped.

Many teens also don’t realize that abusers will do anything to isolate their victims from the people who love and protect them. That includes convincing them that you are public enemy number one. Teens already hate their parents, making it easy for predators to sever those connections. Your teen may be coerced into running away if they are with an abusive or manipulative partner.

Now, we’re not judging every boy or girl our kid brings home; nor are we assuming their going to beat them pimp them out to their slimeball friends. But we do want to keep communication open and pay attention to what our teens may NOT be able to tell us. If you’re worried your teen might be in a abusive relationship, watch for the following:

  • Pressuring your teen into unwanted sexual activity or sexual engagement they are not ready for
  • Convincing your teen they don’t need to use contraception or protection. A manipulative or controlling partner may always seem to forget protection, or even flat out refuse to use any
  • Physical abuse or threatening and controlling behavior; blatant sexual or physical assault 
  • Isolates your teen from friends and family; tries to convince your teen they are all they need or the only one who really loves them
  • Gets your teen to engage in sexual activity with them after drinking or using drugs; creates situations where consent may be compromised 
Victim of sex trafficking; Teen girl in  disheveled fishnet stockings, a short skirt, and chained in handcuffs

Talk to Your Teen About Appropriate Sexual Relationships

Many parents who have a hard time talking to your teens about appropriate sexual relationships. If that’s you, I encourage you to consider the book, Consent. I’ve referenced this book dozens of times when speaking to my own kids, as well as other parents who’ve expressed uncertainty about having “the talk”. Hell, I learned a few things myself, things I wish I’d understood as a teen and young adult! I’ve included the link to Consent below, in case you’re interested 🙂

As you can probably see, many of these signs overlap with signs your teen may be thinking of running away. This makes it difficult to know what is going on with your teen, and to determine just how concerned you should be.

My advice? If you recognize any of the above signs in your teen, you should pay extremely close attention!!! I’m not saying to smother or nag, but even though our teens are growing up, they need our protection. The best way to protect our teens to foster an environment of safety and communication. The more connected you are to your teen, the easier it will be to see signs that they are struggling. And the earlier you catch on, the easier it will be to access the resources that may prevent your teen from running away or becoming a victim of abuse.  

For more information on connecting with your teen, check out these resources:

Sources:

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology/The Teen Brain

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml

https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/data.html

https://www.apa.org/research/action/suicide

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3680258/