The first thing you should do is take it seriously.
Whether they plan to run away or not, telling you they plan to run away means something serious is going on in their lives. It may be something in their relationship with you. It may be something in their relationship with friends. It’s possible something very stressful and difficult happened at school, and they don’t know how to deal with it.
Whatever the case, if your teen threatens to run away, don’t ignore it.
And we advise against answering in the heat of the moment. If they make the threat in the middle of an argument, you may be tempted to say something like,
“Go right ahead if that’s what you really want to do.”
We encourage you not to say anything remotely resembling that to your teen. That throws fuel on the fire and is more likely to lead to an outcome you don’t want – them running away – than an outcome you do want. Which, we assume, is for them to talk to you about what’s going on so you can get to the root of the problem.
We assume you do not want your child to run away.
That’s why it’s critical to take a moment – or maybe more than a moment – if you’re in an argument with your teen and you find yourself about to say any variation of any phase that could in any way make your teen think you do not want them living in the safety of your home.
Let’s take another angle, and say outright:
You do not want your teenage child to run away.
The main reason you don’t want your child to run away is that it’s dangerous. Running away exposes them to extreme physical, emotional, and psychological harm.
treatment programs for teens
Teens: The Dangers of Life on the Street
While not all teens who run away end up homeless on the street, many do. Some teens run away and crash at a friend’s house for a few days and then come home. Others spend a short time sleeping rough – meaning sleeping on the street, in a squat, in a park, or an abandoned building – and then come home when they realize they’ve made a huge mistake.
However, other teens leave home and plan to stay gone. They don’t go to a friend’s house and they stay away from home. With each day that passes, the danger they face escalates. They may run out of any money they had. They may overstay their welcome if they do find a relatively safe indoor place to sleep. Or, in a worst-case scenario, they may become the victim of a predator who targets young runaways.
When this happens, a teen can end up in a cycle that’s difficult to escape. The longer they stay in that cycle, the more difficult it becomes to escape.
According to the National Runaway Safeline and the National Conference of State Legislatures, the data on teens who run away is enough to scare any parent. Here’s a group of disturbing facts and statistics on what teen runaways experience.
Teens Who Run Away: Facts on Risks and Long-Term Outcomes
- Sexual Abuse:
- Seven out of ten girls who run away they’re sexually abused
- Survival Sex:
- One in ten teens in homeless/youth shelters say they resort to survival sex.
- Survival sex means having sex in exchange for a place to sleep, something to eat, for drugs, or some other need related to basic sustenance.
- Survival sex often ends in prostitution and exploitation by adults, such as pimps and drug dealers.
- Close to three out of ten teens who live on the street – as opposed to shelters – report engaging in survival sex
- Teen runaways graduate from high school at lower rates than teens who don’t run away:
- They graduate roughly ten percent less often
- Teen runaways who leave home more than once further jeopardize their chances of graduating from high school:
- They graduate roughly twenty percent less often
- Teen runaways graduate from high school at lower rates than teens who don’t run away:
- Mental health disorders:
- Teen runaways develop are at higher risk of developing anxiety, depression, and attempting suicide than teens who do not run away.
- Alcohol and substance use disorders:
- Teen runaways are at higher risk of using:
- Teen runaways are at increased risk of developing addiction disorders
- Teen runaways are at higher risk of using:
- Long-term physical health:
- Teen runaways increase risk of overall health problems when they reach adulthood
We hope those statistics opened your eyes to the real dangers of running away. These dangers why should take your teen seriously if they threaten to run away. They’re also the reason you should be careful about what and how you talk to your teen if they do threaten to run away.
Before we talk about what to do if your teen threatens to run away, we need to address another topic.
Mental Health Disorders, Addiction, and Teens Who Run Away
The statistics above indicate that one risk of running away and living on the street is increased risk of alcohol and drug use, as well as increased risk of developing an alcohol or substance use disorder. The statistics also indicate that teens who run away are at increased risk of developing mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Here’s what we need to address: sometimes teens decide to run away because they have an undiagnosed and untreated mental health or alcohol/substance use disorder. Mental health disorders and addiction disorders can lead to decisions influenced by the symptoms of the disorder, rather than the circumstances at home. While many teens run away because of things others do to them – parents, caregivers, siblings, other family members or authority figures may abuse them emotionally, physically, or sexually – some run away because of thoughts and emotions they have they don’t understand, can’t manage, and don’t know how to talk about.
That’s why it’s important to monitor your teen for the signs and symptoms of mental health disorders and alcohol/substance use disorders. If a mental health professional diagnoses your teen with a clinical disorder, they may need specialized help and support. You can find help for your teen in the following places:
- Residential treatment centers for youth
- Teenage behavioral treatment centers
- Teenage depression treatment centers
- Teen addiction treatment centers
- Teen dual diagnosis treatment centers
- Children’s psychiatric hospitals
- Inpatient treatment centers for teens
It’s well-documented that mental health disorders rarely resolve on their own, without treatment. The opposite is usually true. Left untreated, they most often get worse. And when a teen feels like they have no one to talk to and no one to turn to, they may make an impulsive decision that involves a high degree of risk and danger, like running away.
What to Do If Your Teen Threatens to Run Away
One thing to remember is that if they make the threat before they run away, you have a chance to make things right. A threat is often a call for help, or a test of boundaries, as opposed to an announcement of true intention. It’s also important to remember a threat to run away from a teen is far different than a threat to run away from a school age child. In those cases, some parenting experts advise playing along and letting the scenario play out: a seven-year-old typically gets three houses down the street and then realizes they have nowhere to go, nothing to eat, and no plan at all. At which point, they turn around and come home.
We do not recommend this strategy with teens.
Again, if they vocalize the threat to you, it means they’re not yet out on the street and exposed to all the dangers we mention above. If your teen threatens to run away, here’s what experts on teens and teen runaways advise.
1. Stay Calm
As we mentioned above, a threat to run away often happens in the heat of an argument. If that’s the case with your teen, then the most important thing you can do is stay calm. Avoid responding out of anger, out of the need to be right, or in any way that resembles being dismissive. This includes jokes, sarcasm, pointed comments, or snarkiness. Your job is to be the adult and defuse the situation, rather than add fuel to the fire. If you to take a few deep breaths, take them. If you need five minutes, take five. If you need more time, take it. First, though, make sure your teen is safe and secure, then take all the time you need.
2. Help Them Get Calm
Start with our advice directly above: your demeanor can set the tone. If you’re calm, you increase their chance of getting calm. Next, tell them what you see. For instance: “I see that you’re very angry with me right now. I’m feeling emotional too. Let’s press pause on this conversation and come back when we’re both more level-headed.” If that doesn’t work, ask them what they need to help them get calm and – while ensuring their safety and security – give it to them. Resume the conversation when you’re both in a better frame of mind.
3. Ask What’s Going On
Try to find out the specific reasons they have for wanting to run away. Get to the heart of the matter. Find out exactly why they want to leave the home. It may be your behavior. It may be your spouse’s behavior or a sibling’s behavior. Or, it may be something else altogether: you won’t know until you ask. And when you ask, be calm, be sincere, and simply listen. Avoid the impulse to interrupt, rebut, or argue about who’s right and who’s wrong. The goal is to learn about what’s going on with your child, and nothing else.
4. Think About What They Tell You
Your teen may break down some hard truths for you. It’s your job to listen as objectively as possible and reflect on what they tell you. They may have problems with family rules or with the behavior of family members. They may feel undervalued and unaccepted by the family. The key here is to listen to them and take what they say seriously. They may reveal something shocking and hard to hear, like emotional, physical, or sexual abuse from another family member. That’s very serious. On the other hand, it may be something far less dramatic, like the fact they don’t like curfew, they feel you’re simply too restrictive, or something else. Whatever they tell you, it’s your job to listen and reflect.
5. Change Where You Need To
If they talk openly and you listen, you may learn important things about your teen and your relationship. They may be right: you might be the one who needs to adjust. Or there may be things about your family rules that need adjustment. The key here is to be honest with yourself and leave parental pride behind. If they’re right, and you need to change, then make the changes in order to help deepen your relationship with your child.
6. Help Them Change Where They Need To
On the other hand, they may be the one who needs to change. They may have issues with anger, sadness, or other emotions. Those emotions may be triggered at home, or they may be triggered at school by peers or teachers. If that’s the case, then you can help give them the tools they need to manage their emotions or help them solve problems with friends or teachers. This may be simple, or it may be complex: you won’t know until you listen to them and find out what’s really going on.
7. Seek Professional Support
If the problems and emotions behind their threat are too complicated for you to unravel yourself, then you may need to seek professional support. You can most likely help them with basic family problems, basic friend problems, and basic school problems. However, if you listen to your child and realize they struggle with emotions that overwhelm them and you have no idea how to help – other than love and support them unconditionally – then you may need to seek professional support. Most of you parents out there are superheroes in your families – but we don’t expect you to be a mental health professional, as well. If what they tell you is beyond you, then find a therapist or psychiatrist.
That last point can be life-changing: if your teen has a mental health disorder, then appropriate treatment can help them manage their emotions and restore balance to their lives. It can also help restore harmony to your family.
Start with communication, support that with unconditional love and acceptance, and take action if needed. If you listen and respond with sincerity, and take appropriate action to address real issues, then your teen will thank you for it – and you decrease their chances of following through on the threat to run away.
Finding Help: Resources
If you’re seeking treatment for your teen, please navigate to our page How to Find the Best Treatment Programs for Teens and download our helpful handbook, A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health Treatment for Teens.
In addition, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) is an excellent resource for locating licensed and qualified psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors in your area. Both the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness also provide and high-quality online resources, ready and waiting for you right now.
Ready to Get Help for Your Child?Evolve offers CARF and Joint Commission accredited treatment for teens with mental health disorders and/or substance abuse. Your child will receive the highest caliber of care in our comfortable, home-like residential treatment centers. We offer a full continuum of care, including residential, partial hospitalization/day (PHP), and intensive outpatient treatment (IOP).
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.