I want to Run Away! Dealing with Potential Runaways: How to Help, Where to Go
Has your child or someone you know been bullied recently and is now saying, “I want to run away?” Perhaps a friend is dealing with an abusive situation and feels there is no one to talk to about their problems. They may imagine that anyplace else would be better than where they are. But as you know, runaways can change their situation from bad to worse.
When a child or friend talks to you about running away, don’t undermine their proposal – discuss the situation with them in a calm, logical manner. Instead of demanding that they drop the idea, try to help them deal with the problems that are inspiring such thoughts.
According to The National Safe Place (NRS) website, “Between 1.7 and 2.8 million runaway and homeless youth live on the street each year.” NRS provides a toll-free hotline for runaways and their families to get assistance (1-800-RUNAWAY). They also provide a list of “Safe Places” where runaways can get help. But if possible, you should find a way to connect with the potential runaway, and maybe you can help change their mind about their options.
The most important thing you can do to defuse the situation is to take it seriously and treat the child with respect. If you become agitated and yell at them, they’ll just become convinced that their decision to run away is correct. You also need to show that you’re a good listener.
Try to open the discussion by asking them why they want to run. What is making them so sad, or what in their current lives is upsetting them so much? Listen carefully to the answers and don’t be judgmental. Don’t argue, don’t interrupt, even if they are angry or irrational. You want to establish yourself as the calm in the center of the storm.
Once you’ve figured out what the problem is, you have a decision to make. Is the child or friend in serious trouble? Or are they just throwing out possible scenarios and haven’t really decided what they’re doing?
If the person is just experimenting with the idea of running away, maybe you can help them to appreciate their current situation. Sometimes changing what they do on a day-to-day basis can help them feel better. Trying something new, something they enjoy, can make a difference. What do they appreciate? Do they like shopping? Taking a walk in the country? Meeting new people? Encourage them to try the things they love, even if for only an hour. Urge them to do something silly or fun. Watch a comedy, paint a picture. Cat videos, anyone?
You might also try talking about what would happen if they actually pursued their desire to run away. You might start by saying, “Before you run away, here are some things you should consider.” For instance:
- Where will you go?
- How will you find the means to eat, to live?
- Do you realize that, as a young person on your own, you might be putting yourself into a dangerous situation? You could be raped or find yourself in compromising sexual situations.
Unfortunately, while running away may seem like a solution, you don’t leave your problems behind when you run. Instead, you may end up in circumstances even worse than your current condition. Don’t try to scare the child, but give them a rational analysis of what could happen if they follow their instinct.
The truth is, no matter how bad a child may think their current situation is, being on the run can be much worse. Look for solutions that will make it possible for them to adapt to or even change their existing circumstances. No one gets to the point where they are talking about running away without feeling that something in their life is completely out of whack. Don’t disagree with their feelings – redirect them.
Sometimes kids want to run away to hide things from their parents. If your child is doing poorly in school, if they don’t appear to be making friends, if they have somehow made a major mistake in their lives, such as having sex too early, or getting involved in drugs, they may feel like running away will improve the situation. They just can’t deal with it anymore.
Maybe you need to evaluate your own actions and behaviors. Again, no one gets to the point where they want to run away without some serious turmoil in their lives. Have you been overly critical? Have you made it difficult for the child to communicate with you? Have you made it impossible for them to feel worthy of your love? Now is the time to get back on track – reassure them that you understand that everyone makes mistakes, that you are willing to grant second chances, and that your love eclipses any negative experiences.
Encourage them to talk to guidance counselors, a teacher, or maybe a friend about their situation. Unfortunately, students often don’t want to admit they have problems, particularly to their friends or family. It’s important to offer specific guidance. Call the school counselor, get a name for the student to contact. Or check into local mental health professionals or counseling services. Be insistent but don’t be pushy or insulting – give the student the contact information and let them make the appointment. It’s important to give them back a sense of empowerment.
Mix it up. If they’re having problems at school, perhaps they could take classes online. While you don’t want your student dropping out of school permanently, any solution is better than having them disappear.
However, if the person is in serious trouble, you have to react aggressively. A child or teenager who is being abused or neglected, who is involved with alcohol or drugs, or who spends too much time alone in unsupervised situations may need more than just a little change of pace. They need serious help, immediately.
If they’re in a desperate situation, you need to get immediate help. You may call yourself or have the child call the National Runaway Safeline (NRS) ((1-800-786-2929). Or call your local law enforcement agency and request a referral.
But what if, in spite of your best efforts, the child runs away? You can seek assistance from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children ® (NCMEC). According to their web site, first call your local law enforcement agency and then contact them at their toll-free number, 1-800-THE-LOST® (1-800-843-5678). The NCMEC will work with local law enforcement agencies and the FBI to coordinate the search for the runaway child. They also offer support to families and maintain a missing child database.
Running away from problems won’t make them go away – it just delays confrontation. Don’t tell the potential runaway they’re acting crazy. Don’t add to their problems. Work on solutions. Tell them how much you love and support them. Be the reason your child or friend wants to stay.