When Your Child Wants to Run Away
Dear Dr. Medoff,
My 13-year old daughter has a new habit of saying that she is going to run away every time we have a fight. Realistically, I don’t think that she is serious about this, but a small part of me is terrified that she will follow through and something awful will happen to her. What can I do to prevent this? From Tony C., Texas
Your fear is a very common one. Parents worry that they will say one thing to push their child over the edge, never to be seen again.
The first step in preventing a runaway is to make sure that your home is a safe and secure place for your child. If you feel that your family has problems with domestic violence or abuse, seek help from a professional immediately. Here are some other strategies that you can implement in your home to deal with issues of running away:
- Make it absolutely clear to your children that there is nothing they could do, say, or be that would make you stop loving them or cause you to kick them out of the house. Let them know that they can come to you with any problem and you will work with them to solve it.
- Really listen to your child. Turn off the television, hang up the cell phone and look your child in the eye to let her know that you think what she has to say is important. Try to see things from her point of view. Encourage two-way discussions, rather than lectures.
- Tell her that if she has trouble talking to you about something face-to-face, she can write you a note, send you an email, make you a magazine collage or draw you a picture.
- Assist your child in developing problem-solving skills. Do not give answers to problems, but rather help generate different options and discuss possible consequences. Talk about things he can do when he is feeling bad, such as listening to his favorite song or taking the dog for a walk.
- Tell your child OFTEN how much you love her and detail the ways that she makes you proud. Accept that she may roll her eyes at you or make a sarcastic comment in return, so don’t let this anger you. She WILL hear you and remember what you said.
- Be on the lookout for any good behaviors, no matter how small. Praise your child when you see these behaviors.
- Do not make “all-or-nothing” statements, such as “If you can’t live by my rules, you can find another place to live.” Explain why you have the rules in place, and be willing to adjust them as your child gets older and needs more independence.
- If you and your child seem to be fighting all the time, pick an activity that you both enjoy and make an agreement for a period of truce. Ask her what she wants you to refrain from during this time period (e.g. criticizing her hairstyle and clothes) and vice versa. Follow through.
- Sometimes the threat of running away is merely a very effective way to get a reaction from you. When your daughter threatens this, do not react with tears, threats, or dare her to follow through. Make it clear that you are angry with her for her current behavior, and she needs to accept the consequences, but you would miss her if she ran away would do whatever was necessary to find her.
- During a time when you are both calm, acknowledge that though everyone wants to escape at times, you always need to know she is safe. Make a plan together about what she will do if she needs to leave the house. You may want to establish boundaries that are physical (she will walk no further than two blocks from the house in any direction) and time-related (she will stay away for no more than 30 minutes), or make a list of family and friends’ houses that she may go to. Make it clear that if she violates the agreement without speaking with you, you will need to call the police out of concern for her safety. Follow through if this happens.
Lisa Medoff, Ph.D holds a B.A. in psychology, a master's degree in school counseling, and a Ph.D. in child and adolescent development. Although she’s worked with all types of children, for the past eight years, she has worked with students with special needs, such as ADHD, learning disabilities, depression and anxiety. She has taught courses in psychology and child/adolescent development at Stanford University, Santa Clara University, San Jose State University, and DeAnza College. She currently works as a resilience consultant for the non-profit Cleo Eulau Center, helping teachers at a low-performing elementary school understand issues of connectedness, special needs, and cultural sensitivity in order to build resilience in their students.