November is National Runaway Prevention Month. No one wants to hear of children running away from home and it’s an incredibly complex issue. Some teens run because they are being abused at home. Others run because they have been tempted by freedom. Some run to be with a romantic interest. And some haven’t run at all… they are victims of criminal acts—kidnapping, murder or sex trafficking—or their parents have thrown them out. However, this blog is about children who voluntarily run away and what can be done to stop them.
From a Choice Theory point of view, there is nothing you can do to stop a child from running away short of locking them up, and I’m not advocating that. Choice Theory does not advocate externally controlling people to do things they don’t want to do. Instead, we talk about inspiring people to make decisions that are motivated by their own basic needs.
Therefore, the question, “How can I stop children from running away” is the wrong question… you can’t. A better question would be, “How can children be motivated to stay at home?”
This begs the question, what motivates people? It’s not just children; people are motivated by their five basic needs of safety & security, connection, significance, freedom and joy. These are biological drives that all people attempt to meet daily. As children become tweens and teens, they may be more inherently driven to meet their significance and freedom needs by defying their parents and casting them in the role of the consummate bad guys.
Kids are attempting to meet their connection and joy needs with their peers, which is often in contrast to what the parents are hoping for from their kids. This can lead to teens thinking they would have so much more freedom and significance if they just left home and showed their parents how capable they really are. The problem with this approach is that these teens put themselves at risk when they begin a journey to the streets.
How can parents help children want to stay home? It isn’t easy… you are competing with the lure of the street. If you think of the basic needs, except for safety & security, children believe living away from parents will accomplish them all. They will have freedom from tyrannical rules (freedom), be in charge of their own decisions (significance), be able to see their friends whenever they want (connection) and have fun all the time (joy). It is difficult for parents to compete with this, but compete they must if they want to keep their children safe.
The question becomes how do you provide responsible ways for your children to meet their needs at home? The responsible piece means that your kids meet their needs without preventing you from meeting yours in the process.
Connection: Allow your children to associate with the individuals they choose, even if you don’t approve. Ask that they get together in your home if you are concerned about your child’s safety. Listen to your children, not just to wait for the pause, but to work to understand how they really think and feel. Be an advocate for your child. Let them know you have their back, but also, let them know you have faith in their ability to handle things on their own if they prefer. Find things to like about your child; develop common interests to the extent they’ll allow it.
Significance: Allow your children to make more decisions about their life and their destiny. You may think the teen years are the time to tighten the reigns so you can be certain your children won’t make any “stupid decisions,” but actually that is exactly the time you want to loosen the grip on your children. You will be there to help them pick up the pieces. So often, parents try to protect their children from making mistakes, but mistakes are the building blocks for learning. Take away opportunities to make mistakes and your child will become dependent on others for direction. Give them latitude while you are present to support and help them navigate their choices.
Freedom: Similar to above, teenagers seek freedom from their parents’ rules that feel oppressive. I’m not advocating allowing your teens to do whatever they want, but you must be willing to negotiate with them so they get to do a lot of what they want in ways that you deem safe and responsible. This will take creativity and a desire to work it out. Avoid the parental tendency to close the options down because the safety risks are getting larger.
Your job at this stage is to allow your child to make informed decisions. Explain your fears and concerns without trying to control them, and decide to stay out of the way of them experiencing the natural consequences of those decisions. And when the consequences come, there is nothing for you to gain by gloating. Your role at that point is to gently help your child link their behavior to the consequences they experienced so they can learn something from it.
Joy: Make sure you take the time to enjoy things with your children and make sure it isn’t always what you want. Choose some activities to do with your child he or she loves to do. Show an interest, have some fun and laugh together.
This type of home that is need-satisfying for both parents and children cannot guarantee your child will never run away, but it will certainly reduce the likelihood.
If you are an adult with children in your life, pay attention to them and build the relationship so they know a responsible adult who cares for them is part of their life. That way, if they are having trouble in their home, they will have a safe place to go. Build relationships with the child’s parents, too, so they won’t be threatened by your relationship with their child. You want them to see you as an ally and safe place for their child to go if they need time to cool off.
And if a child in your life is in an abusive home, you may be able to offer them a safe place while you figure out if you will report the abuse to authorities. Of course, if you are a mandated reporter of child abuse, you will need to follow the laws in your state but if you aren’t, talk to the child to see what he or she wants you to do, consider your options and take the appropriate action.