Running away

Children and young people in families from all walks of life sometimes run away from home.

This can happen for many reasons. They may be reacting to something emotionally in the heat of the moment, or testing limits.

Most young people who run away and are reported to the police are found within 48 hours.

While children and young people usually return home within this time it can be very scary for parents and family.

Why children and young people run away

In adolescence, the influence of friends and the media can be very strong as young people start to form their own ideas and values. 

As part of testing new things out, young people often believe they can take risks and still be safe. They’re often torn between wanting complete freedom very quickly and wanting to be cared for as they have been in childhood.  

Parents can be torn between trying to make sure their child is safe and supporting them to gradually become more independent.

Some children run away because:

  • there’s a disagreement on something they feel strongly about - they may have trouble communicating or negotiating what they want
  • they might believe that by running away their parents will realise they’ve made a mistake
  • they’re afraid they’re about to get into trouble
  • they think their home has too many rules and limits
  • they don’t like the situation at home with a parent’s new partner, step-parent, defacto or stepbrothers and sisters
  • they’re trying to get away from a difficult situation like bullying at school
  • they’re depressed, have a drug or mental health problem and need help
  • home isn’t safe or there’s something serious going wrong in their lives, like parents continually arguing, family violence, physical or sexual abuse or neglect.

For whatever reason, some young people genuinely feel unwanted and unloved. If they run away, it can be a cry for help and you need to take it seriously.

What you can do

Parents can feel they’ve lost their influence and control and can feel helpless when their child or young person runs away. 

Whatever your child may say in the heat of an argument you are still very important to them and have influence in many ways. 

It’s very scary for children and young people if they feel you’ve given up on them.

You can prevent your children from running away by doing all of the following:

  • if things are starting to go wrong between you, try to work out what the problem is and rebuild the relationship before there’s a crisis
  • try to listen to your child’s point of view before giving yours
  • talk with them about other things rather than focusing on problems
  • make sure your child knows you love them
  • try to find some middle ground where you can each agree on something
  • if your child threatens to run away, take it seriously - it doesn’t help to dare them 
  • listen to how they are feeling, what the problems are and what things could change for the better
  • you may need some time apart to let things settle down - maybe your child could stay for a while with a close relative or friend whom you both trust, while you work out your differences.
  • try to look at the situation differently - asking ‘What can we do to make everyone feel better?’ may be a more helpful question than ‘Why is that kid always making trouble?’
  • seek support and advice from your child’s teacher or school counsellor - there may be issues at school or with friends that you don’t know about
  • know their friends, who they mostly talk to and where they get support - when young people run away, friends will often know where they’re likely to go
  • keep building a positive relationship with your child
  • try to work out rules together so your child feels they have choices.

If your child runs away

Try to stay calm. Remember most runaways return by themselves.

Find out how they left and where they may have gone. Did they take money or clothes? Leave a note? Use a social media site?

Contact parents of their friends to find out what they know. Don’t worry about doing this as most people know from their own experience that all families have ups and downs. Contact their friends also.

If you find out your child is with friends, let them know that you are worried and that you want to talk.

Have an open door attitude to coming home.

When you make contact with your child you may need a third person to help you both talk things through in the beginning. Be prepared to make some changes.

Children who run away may be experiencing a situation that is too distressing for them to continue living in. Encourage your child to talk to you about anything.

If you can’t find your child and are seriously worried about their safety, don’t waste time. Phone the Northern Territory Police on 131 444 to report them missing.

When your child returns

Don’t launch into major discussions or lectures as soon as they walk in the door.

Give them time to settle in before you talk.

Allow them to save face. Don’t say things like ‘I knew you’d come crawling back!’

Try to see and understand the problem from each other’s point of view. Try to work together on ways to make things different.

Talk about their strengths and the good things in your relationship.

If you can’t talk together or you can’t seem to get anywhere, ask someone else to help you sort it out. A school counsellor could be a good place to start.

More information

You can report a missing person at your local police station or phone 131 444 if your child has run away.

You or your child can get support from services listed on the following pages:

Copyright

This information was adapted from the Parent Easy Guide series © Parenting SA, Government of South Australia.

Last updated: 18 September 2017