They Feel They Have No Other Choice
Every teen is different. Every family is different. Therefore, when family dynamics break down, and a teen decides to run away, each leaves for their own reasons, in response to specific circumstances unique to their personality and their family situation.
However, with an understanding of the varying forces that compel teens to run away, the Missing Children’s Network identifies three primary reasons teenagers run away from home:
- They have either poor or nonexistent communication with their parents.
- They lack the emotional/psychological tools to manage stress, relationship difficulties, or handle the challenges specific to their circumstances.
- They’ve experienced emotional, verbal, physical, or sexual abuse from their parents or other family members/adults.
In 2016, the National Runaway Safeline collected data from over 33,00 calls from runaway teens they received during the year. Based on those calls, they reported that:
- 10% said they left home because of verbal abuse
- 7% said they left home because of physical abuse or assault
- 1% said they left home because of sexual abuse
Those statistics are disturbing. But there are three reasons they may present an incomplete picture of the reasons teens run away. First, with regards to sexual abuse, many people, teens included, feel significant stigma around being victims of abuse. They’re often too ashamed or embarrassed to admit they’ve been sexually abused. Second, teens who’ve been verbally, physically, or sexually abused might not want to talk about it all, to anyone, ever. Third – and although this may seem counterintuitive – many teens who run away do not want to get their parents involved with child services or the criminal justice system.
With all that said, we can simplify these complexities and offer this assessment:
Most teens run away because they feel powerless – and leaving is their only option.
This is an unfortunate situation. In some cases, teens develop maladaptive coping mechanisms in response to their dysfunctional family dynamic. They may develop anger management issues, depression, or an alcohol or substance use disorder. This means a teen who may need treatment and support at a residential treatment center for youth might instead end up alone on the street, rather in a treatment program that can help them learn to manage both their family situation and any behavioral or emotional issues they may have developed.
The Bigger Picture: A Long-Term Study on Teen Runaways
Here’s a set of statistics with a larger scope, with data collected on teens who ran away from home between 1995 and 2010:
- 47% reported conflict with parents/guardians
- 50% reported their parents told them to leave or did not care they left
- 80% of girls reported sexual or physical abuse
- 34% of girls and boys reported sexual abuse
- 43% of girls and boys reported physical abuse before leaving home.
Those statistics show that most teens leave home because they’re in a situation they consider untenable. Verbal, sexual, and physical abuse are nightmare scenarios for teens: a strong survival instinct compels them to leave. Neglect – when parents tell them to leave or do not care – is equally untenable: teens leave because they crave the emotional and psychological support associated with a positive family dynamic and necessary for healthy development. Teens who leave because of conflict – in the absence of abuse – typically do so on impulse.
That brings us to another statistic from a survey conducted by the National Runaway Safeline:
70 percent of teens said they ran away on the spur of the moment.
According to the survey, “Many kids didn’t even pack a bag, make sure they had money for food and shelter, or figure out where they were going to spend the night.” This means that in addition to the three primary reasons we identify above – four, including feeling powerless – we need to consider another very real factor that contributes to the decision to run away.
Teens, Risk, and the Brain
In terms of neurobiological development, teens do not have a fully formed prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for rational decision-making, risk/reward analysis, and impulse control. It’s widely known that teens often make impulsive, risky decisions when they’re under emotional duress. The emotional part of their brain, the amygdala, overwhelms the rational part of their brain, the prefrontal cortex, and they make choices that seem irrational because they lack the fully developed physiological structure responsible for regulating those choices.
We can put that another way: teens don’t always make rational choices because the neurons (brain cells) required to make those choices do not exist yet.
This is important because teen runaways – without realizing it – put themselves in significant danger. The data about what can happen to teens when they end up on the street and the problems that occur later in life that correlate with running away as a teen is alarming.
Here’s what the statistics say:
After Running Away: Consequences for Teens
- 70% of girls report being sexually abused after running away.
- 10% of teens in shelters report trading sex for things they need immediately, such as food or shelter. This is called survival sex.
- Teens who engage in survival sex often end involved in prostitution or are exploited by adult predators such as pimps or drug dealers.
- 28% of unsheltered youth report engaging in survival sex.
- Teens who run away are less likely to graduate from high school.
- Teen runaways are at elevated risk of emotional disorders such as anxiety, depression, and suicide attempts.
- Teen runaways are at elevated risk of general health problems.
It’s important to understand that teens on the street often feel no one is on their side. They fear the police and they’re wary of social workers in shelters. They mistrust most adults – because of their home life, mostly – including those who can offer them help. In addition, a teenager on the street who has a clinical mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression does not have the resources to access the evidence-based treatment they need to heal. Rather than receiving support at a residential program for teens, or an adolescent inpatient program at a residential facility for youth, they focus on simply making it through the day, finding food to eat, and finding a safe place to sleep for the night.
What Should I Do If My Teen Runs Away?
If your teen runs away, it’s important to act immediately. The dangers we list above are serious, and teens on the street are vulnerable. The first thing to do is make sure they’re not hiding somewhere at home. This may seem silly, given the stakes, but the fact is that some teens do make themselves scarce or difficult to locate, either on purpose or by omission. They may be in an attic room, a basement, garage, or in the yard. That’s what you should search your entire house, or apartment, or property to make sure they’re not home.
Next, the experts recommend taking the following steps.
My Teen Ran Away: Action Steps
- Call the police and report your missing child. You do not have to wait 24 hours.
- Ask the police to put your child in the National Crime Information Center Missing Persons File. For minor children, no waiting period is required.
- If your teen has a phone on your phone plan, you can review all call history and in many cases, locate them via GPS.
- Conduct a thorough search of their room and belongings for any information that may help you find out where they went or who they may be with
- Call their friends, their friend’s parents, and neighbors. Call anyone you think can help.
- Leverage social media by posting to any neighborhood group or page you can think of. Encourage people to post, share, and communicate. Social media and neighborhood apps have a wide reach and can help you and the police work to locate your child.
- Leave a message for your child at The National Runaway Switchboard here: 1-800-786-2929.
When your teen comes home, you have an opportunity to reset the situation. Here’s how to handle their return.
My Teen Came Home: How to Handle It
- Stay calm and give each other time and space. You’re probably both very emotional. Resist speaking and acting from a place of anger or fear – and that goes for both of you. Trying to work things out the second they come in the door is unlikely to yield positive results. Take a step back and let everything cool down.
- Initiate an honest conversation. You need to find out why your teen ran away. This is not the time to impose consequences: this is time for you to listen, without interrupting, to their side of the story. Once you understand the nuances of the situation, you can move forward and decide what happens next.
- Establish clear behavioral expectations. As we mentioned above, poor or nonexistent communication between teens and parents is often one of the primary reasons teens leave home. Once you’re both calm, take this opportunity to get on the same page about household rules what happens when those rules are not met.
- Seek professional support. If you think a mental health, alcohol, or substance use disorder may contribute to your teen’s behavior, we recommend arranging a full evaluation with licensed mental health professional. They can help you determine the origin of your teen’s behavior.
The takeaway here is that a teen who runs away is a teen in trouble. The trouble may be emotional, psychological, or behavioral. It’s also important to recognize your role: if the lines of communication with your teen are compromised and your relationship with them is rocky, then you may have to make changes, as well. A mental health professional can help you and your teen find balance, restore the lines of communication, and give you the tools, vocabulary, and perspective you need to repair your relationship.