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Running Away: Why Kids Do It and How to Stop Them

By James Lehman, MSW

It's every parent's worst nightmare -- you go to check on your child in the middle of the night, and she's not there. Your heart starts pounding and you fly into panic mode, calling her friends, your relatives, and the police.

Whether or not your child has run away or threatened to do so--or you fear that she might--it's vital that you read this article. James Lehman has worked with runaway teens for many years, and in this new EP series he explains why kids run away, ways you can stop them, and how to handle their behavior when they come home.

Any child can run away at any time if the circumstances are right. Believe me, if they're under enough stress, any kid can justify running away.

Don't forget, running away is like any action. In order to do it you need three things: the ability, the willingness and the opportunity. And let's face it, kids have the opportunity and ability to run every day--so all it really takes is the willingness to do it. That willingness can develop for a variety of reasons. It could be a stressful situation your child is under, a fear of getting consequences for something they did, a form of power struggle, not wanting to go to school, or a substance abuse problem.

Another factor is that kids often idealize running away and develop a romanticized view of life on the streets. In reality, it's awful: you're cold, you're hungry and it's dangerous, but adolescents often see it as an adventure or the key to freedom, where "No one is going to tell me what to do."

Why Kids Run Away
Many kids run away because of drug and alcohol abuse. When teens and pre-teens get involved in substance abuse, they may leave home to hide it so their parents don't find out. These kids are often using a lot more than their parents know; they want to use more freely and openly, so they run away.

In addition to fear or anger, feelings of failure can also cause kids to leave home. Some children run away because it's easier to live on their own than to live in a critical home. I remember being 15 years old and living in a hallway in the Bronx in winter. I didn't miss home at all because I felt like such a failure there. Sadly, kids with behavior management problems or learning disabilities often get tired of the feeling that they just can't get it right; it's easier for them to run than to fix the problem. Often, they don't know that what they're facing can be dealt with using other strategies.

In my opinion, the main reason why kids run away is because they don't have good problem-solving skills. Running away is an "either/or" kind of solution; it's a product of black-and-white thinking. Kids run away because they don't want to face something, and that includes emotions they don't want to deal with. The adolescent who runs away has run out of problem-solving skills. And leaving home--along with everything that is overwhelming them--seems to solve their immediate problems.

Episodic vs. Chronic Running Away
I think it's very important to distinguish between kids who run away episodically, and those who are chronic runners. The reasons behind the actions are quite different, and it's crucial to know what they are.

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