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A couple weeks ago a nine-year-old made the news by slipping onto an airplane in Minneapolis and flying without a ticket to Las Vegas. Most of the accounts worried about the obvious lapse in airport security. As a parent, you might have worried just a little bit about the boy.

Although it seems clear that this child has had multiple run-ins with the law and even a previous incident of leaving home alone, it’s logical to wonder “what drives a young kid to skip out and get as far away from home as possible?” If anything, this boy’s history of issues only adds to our own worry: can this happen to our own children? Are we ignoring the warning signs? If we do something wrong will a child of ours run away?

Running away has a long and somewhat romantic history in American culture. Tom Sawyer ran away. Starting over, in a new location with even a new identity, is compelling even in books and films about adults. The problem, of course, is that children and teens don’t have the skills to manage their lives in the big world, even if they think they do. Runaways are more likely than kids-at-home to experience sexual assault, be forced into child prostitution, be involved in drugs and alcohol, and to come to a bad end.

According to the University of Florida, The Department of Justice estimates that more than 1.7 million children each year run away from home or are “thrown away” by their parents, so that they spend more than one night on their own. Of these 1.7 million kids, most (68%) are teens between 15 and 17 and more than a quarter (28%) are children between 12 and 14. Only 4% are between 7 and 11 years old. But even just 4% of 1.7 million translates into 68,000 elementary-grade kids, running away every year. Why?

Most children run away from big problems at home. They may be struggling with fallout from their parents’ divorce, a new step parent, harsh discipline, sexual abuse, or bullying , often from siblings. They may be involved in something – drugs, alcohol, or delinquency – that they don’t want Mom and Dad to know. They may run away impulsively, after one big argument – maybe one in which a parent threatens to thrown them out or actually kicks them out – or they may plot and plan their exit then silently slip away. According to the National Runaway Safeline, “Often kids run away from home to remove themselves from an immediately painful situation, but with no plans for what to do next.”

At any one time, between 1 and 3 million runaways live on the streets in the U.S. No matter how annoyed your child makes you sometimes and how difficult your relationship with your child might be, you don’t want your kid living by his wits, homeless and vulnerable. You don’t want him catching a plane to somewhere. So what can you do?

  1. Keep the lines of communication open. This is not easy the older a child gets but it’s essential. Avoid making judgmental comments and practice good listening. Try to understand your child’s point of view.
  2. Avoid harsh punishment, attempts to control your child’s every move, and lots of yelling and coercion. Over-reaction to kids’ bad behavior often has the effect of increasing bad behavior, not reducing it.
  3. At the same time, demonstrate you care. Occasionally parents actually say, “If you don’t like it, there’s the door,” but other parents demonstrate a lack of caring more subtly. It is not normal that teens and parents live under the same roof as if they were strangers to each other. Teens need their parents, even if they may shrug them off in an attempt to pretend they don’t.
  4. Take your child’s behavior seriously. Thirty-five percent of runaways are repeat runaways. The nine-year-old in the news was a repeat runaway and had been on the wrong side of the law several times in his short past. It’s neglectful to deny the seriousness of a child’s behavior. Get professional help when your child needs you to.

Running away is equally common across all income levels and ethnic communities. No family is immune from this drastic action a child might take. But being a runaway doesn’t usually end happily, even though it did for Tom Sawyer.

Now is the time to build or repair your relationship with your child. Be a parent your kid will think is worth sticking around.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.