Every 27 seconds, a child under 18 runs away from home. Most kids stomp out angrily, take a trip around the block or to a friend's house, and return unharmed a short time later. But a small number of pre-adolescents and teens run away from home for days, weeks or even months, often living on the street and dabbling in drugs and prostitution.
Four percent of the 1.3 million children who run away from home each year in the United States are 12 or younger and about 65 percent are girls, a recent government study reports. Statistics on runaways do not include the vast number of preteens who think about running away from home but never do it, say professionals who work with middle schoolers.
"Running away occurs in at least 25 percent of all children at some time," estimates Alan P. Towbin of New Haven, Conn., a clinical psychologist who works with adolescents and leads parenting groups. Most kids who run away from home don't have serious psychological problems, Dr. Towbin notes.
Eleven- and 12-year-olds are more likely than younger children to run away from home because they feel a greater need to assert their independence and have more experience getting around on their own, child-care professionals say.
Children offer many reasons for running away from home, such as feeling rejected or misunderstood by parents and wanting to rebel against family values or too much parental control. Some children threaten to abandon ship in hopes of scaring parents into giving them what they want. Others run away to escape serious problems such as child abuse, divorce, death of a loved one, or family drug and alcohol misuse.
The best way to prevent children from running away from home
is to stay in touch with their feel
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ings and needs, professionals say. Bedtime conversations and weekly family meetings can head off problems by fostering communication between preteens and parents.
"Kids in early adolescence commonly say, 'My parents don't know who I am.' Spend time with your children and make an attempt to know them," Dr. Towbin recommends.
Be alert for signs that your child is in stress, which sometimes precipitates running away. Watch for sleeplessness, drug and alcohol use, cheating, lying, stealing, irritability, quarreling with friends and leaving home unannounced. Seek professional help if you feel unable to deal with these problems alone.
Plan in advance what you will do if your child tries to run away, advises Catherine Cahan of Skokie, Ill., who was caught by surprise when her pre-adolescent daughter announced she was leaving home.
"Don't assume it can't happen, and figure out what you will allow if it does. It will be easier if you have thought it out beforehand. And don't take it personally if it happens," Ms. Cahan recommends.
Parents often respond to a child's threats to run away from home by getting angry or making comments such as, "Good, I'll help you pack." A better course of action, professionals say, is to show concern without becoming hysterical or giving in to unreasonable demands.
"In some cases, the child is being manipulative. For example, the parent says, 'I expect you to clean your room or you can't go the movies,' and the child says. 'If you don't let me go, I'll run away from home.' When this sort of thing happens, affirm your love but also your control," advises Robert Wood of Greenfield, Mass., a veteran elementary and middle school teacher and parent workshop leader.
Sometimes, professionals say, children announce that they are running away from home for one reason when they are upset about something else. Parents can prevent a child from walking out the door by asking what's really troubling her and offering help.
If that doesn't work, calmly ask the child where she is going and how long she plans to stay. Emphasize that you are concerned about her safety, but don't physically restrain her unless you think she is in real danger.
Siblings often become upset when a child runs away from home. Mr. Wood recommends reassuring them that their brother or sister will be safe. "Tell them you are still in control as the parent and that the running away doesn't bother you as
much as it bothers them," he advises.
When your child returns home, help her maintain her dignity by saying you are glad she's back. Let her cool off for a few hours, then talk with her about the problem that caused her exit.
Professionals do not recommend punishing a child for running away from home, but they do suggest enforcing demands you made before she left. For example, if your youngster was told to clean her room before she ran away, she should still be required to clean it when she returns.
Although running away can be emotionally wrenching for parents and kids, it can have positive consequences, Dr. Towbin says: "Most kids say running away was a good experience because their parents started to take them more seriously after they got back."
If your child has run away and you need support or advice, help is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from the National Run-Away Switchboard, a federally funded, crisis-intervention hot line. The number is (800) 621-4000.