Runaway teenagers: Why do they run and what can we do to help?

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Millions of teenagers run away from home and sleep on the street each year. Many runaway teenagers leave home in pursuit of a better environment. They are looking for safety, independence and less restrictive environments. However, few achieve this. In this article, Pink Families shares research that investigated why some teens run away, what they did to try and keep safe, and what may help runaway teenagers to stop running.

Why do runaway teenagers run?

The reasons that runaway teenagers leave home vary. The scenarios are usually complex and often the research that has been completed on this matter fails to find out directly from the teens the reasons why they run.

An exception to this is a study that interviewed 23 teens. The average age of the children interviewed was 14 years for females and 15 years for males.

In this study, the age that the female children had first run away from home ranged from 6-14 years. The average age they ran was 11 years. The age that the male children first run away from home ranged from 10-16 years. The average age they ran was 12 years.

The reasons that the teens gave for why they ran away for the first time included:

  • Abuse or violence in their home,
  • Substance misuse by a parent,
  • Some sort of conflict with their family or the law,
  • Not doing well in a certain group, in their own home or at school,
  • Being asked to run away by a peer,
  • Wanting to get away from their problems.

Even though running away created a greater sense of freedom and control over their lives, running away from home also created a number of problems for these runaway teenagers. This included drug use, sex work, and missing out on everyday developmental and academic opportunities.

The more frequently children ran away from home the easier it became. One participant said: “I knew before I ran where I was gonna go.” While another said: “I adapted to running and so I ran and I ran and I ran. It’s a habit—it really is.”

Themes for reasons for running

In essence, the study showed that for many runaway teenagers, running away allowed them to change their situation. Running away became an idealized solution in order to make things better and to get away from the problems that were impacting negatively on their lives.

The study also showed that running away then led to the creation of new affiliations, including new relationships with substances, which is obviously not a positive outcome. New relationships with others sometimes helped the teenager get access to resources and helped them cope.

But at other times these new relationships just led to further vulnerability. One participant shared that: “I found somebody that will listen to me. I’m going to stay with her.” Drug and alcohol use sometimes provided emotional comfort to the teen, and helped them cope with unpleasant experiences and feelings.

Another interesting finding in the study was that sometimes the teens found out information about themselves and others by their experience of running away. This sometimes led to the realization that running away from home wouldn’t solve the problems their problems. One participant said: “I was just getting sick of it… Everywhere I went my problems were still there. I really didn’t know what to do.” Another teen realized that: “you are hurting other people when you run, but you’re mostly hurting yourself.”

How can we help our teens?

The teens in this study highlighted a number of solutions to help them when it comes to this sensitive matter. These solutions may be able to be used to help our teens.

  • They highlighted that being able to access more help while remaining at home or sustaining some relationship with their family may help.
  • They also highlighted that homeless shelters should have more flexible rules as this will help them to not have to sleep on the street.
  • They wanted to be able to access help without having to reveal personal information. They wanted the option of remaining anonymous but also being able to access information.
  • They wanted to be able sustain a relationship with someone over time who could help them.
  • Plus, they wanted to be able to access services that could adequately help them in relation to their needs, including matters relating to gay and lesbian issues.

References

MacKenzie D. Chamberlain C. Youth Homelessness 2006. Youth Studies Australia 2008;27(1):17-25.
Martinez RJ. Understanding Runaway Teens. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing: Official Publication of the Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nurses, Inc. 2006;19(2):77-88.

Some runaway youth and the places they go are featured in this video by Scrappy Scrap.

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