When a Teen Runs Away But Always Comes Back: Should Parents Be Worried?

There’s a simple answer to this question: yes.

While we prefer the phrases actively concerned and making plans to remedy the situation as opposed to worry, what we mean is that running away is nothing to take lightly.

If your teen runs away, especially more than once, it increases their risk of developing a host of long-term physical and psychological problems. It also increases risk of exposure to dangerous behavior from runaway peers and predatory adults. But before we get into the facts and figures, we need to make two things clear. According to the award-winning parenting support site verywellfamily, it’s important to understand that:

  1. Teens who run away are not bad kids.
  2. Parents of runaway teens are not bad parents.

Besides, the word bad is almost never helpful when describing teens, parents, and their relationships. We use it here as shorthand for decisions or behaviors that have negative outcomes, and to counter the voice in your head that may whisper things like this:

My kid ran away – I must be a bad parent.

My kid ran away – maybe my kid is just a bad kid.

Teens who run away and return often do so to gain power over a situation in which they feel powerless, while parents of teens who run away have often let the parent-child relationship deteriorate to the point where communication is either difficult or non-existent.

That said, we’re not going to sugar-coat the reasons teens run away. First, though, let’s look at the big-picture numbers on runaways:

That’s a significant amount, but not an overwhelming percentage. We won’t downplay the gravity of the situation, however. Any time a teen runs away, there’s something going on at home that needs attention.

Why Teens Run Away

A report released by the Missing Children’s Network identifies three primary reasons teenagers run away from home:

  1. Lack of parent-child communication.
  2. The inability of the teen to handle their personal problems.
  3. Mistreatment of the teen by parents or other adults.

Let’s take a closer look at #3, because it’s common to think that most kids who run away are almost always running away from an abusive situation at home.

That’s not necessarily the case.

Data collected by the National Runaway Safeline shows that, of the 33,000 + calls they received in 2016:

  • 10% of the callers identified verbal abuse as the reason they left home.
  • 7% identified physical abuse or assault as the reason they left home.
  • 1% identified sexual abuse as the reason they left home.

We offer these numbers to show that not every child who runs away does so because they’re trying to escape a nightmare scenario at home. As mentioned above, the most common reasons are power and communication. But kids who do run away and spend any time on the streets do, indeed put themselves in harm’s way.

Risks for Runaways

Let’s take a look at what can happen to teens once they do run away, and how running away from home correlates with various struggles both in the late teen years and later in life:

[Sources: National Runaway Safeline and The National Conference of State Legislatures]

  • 70% of girls who run away report instances of sexual abuse once they’re on the streets.
  • 10% of youth in shelters report engaging in survival sex, which is defined as exchanging sex for food, shelter, drugs, or some other subsistence need. This includes prostitution and experiencing adult predators, such as pimps and drug dealiers.
  • 28% of street youth report engaging in survival sex.
  • Teens who run away once decrease their chances of graduating from high school by 10%.
  • Teens who run away from home multiple times decrease their chances of graduating from high school by 18%.
  • Runaways show increased risk of emotional disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and suicide attempts.
  • Runaways show increased risk of general health problems.

We present these facts to support our assertion in the first line of this post: if your teen runs away, it’s a problem you need to be actively concerned about. Even if they come back, while they’re out on the street, they’re vulnerable sexual predators, drug dealers, and peers who already engage in high-risk behaviors.

What to Do When Your Teen Runs Away

Experts on teen runaways advise the following:

  • Search your house and make sure your teen is not hiding somewhere.
  • Call the police right away. Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t have to wait 24 hours before reporting your teen as missing.
  • Request the investigators to put your child in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) Missing Persons File. For minors, there is no waiting period for being placed on this list.
  • Call every friend, parent, or neighbor you can think of and ask for their help.
  • If your teen has a phone and is on your plan, you can check call logs, and in some cases even pinpoint their location using the phone GPS app.
  • Search their room for information that might help you find them.
  • Call 1-800-786-2929 – The National Runaway Switchboard – and leave a message for your child.

You can also takes steps such as making and distributing pictures and posters of your child throughout your local community, contacting any additional state or local missing children’s clearinghouses, or calling 1-800-426-5678 (1-800-I-AM-LOST) to register your child as missing.

What to Do When Your Teen Comes Home

The people at verwellmind.org offer this helpful list of steps to take when your runaway child comes back home:

  1. Give each other space. It’s likely you’re both extremely emotional, and the moment your child returns might not be the most productive time to sort out the situation.
  2. Have an open and honest conversation. Your goal is to get to the bottom of the behavior. At this point, your primary job is to listen, not lecture, scold, or determine consequences.
  3. Review household rules. Poor communication is the primary reason teens run away from home. If you’re both calm, this is the time to review rules, outcomes, and behavioral expectations for your teen.
  4. Get help. If your teen runs away multiple times, that tells you something: the strategies you’ve been using up to this point are not working. That means it’s time to get to the real root of the problem. The best way to do this is by enlisting the help of a mental health professional who specializes in adolescent issues.

The bottom line here is that a child who runs away multiple times repeatedly puts themselves in physical and emotional danger. When you reach that point with your teen, it doesn’t matter how you got there. Naming and blaming are not productive. Finding and remedying the root cause is what matters. To find professional help for you and your teen, start with the following resources:

The Parents and Families page maintained by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Agency (SAMHSA).

The psychiatrist finder provided by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

For additional facts and figures about teen runaways, visit The National Runaway Safeline website mentioned several times above.