Dr. Henry Paul, MD

Psychiatrist, Author and Educator


February 23rd, 2015

The problem of runaway teenagers constitutes a growing and urgent problem in this country. Some estimates indicate that up to a half-million teenagers run away from home each year. Although most return home within several days, many don’t, and many of those teenagers are at very high risk of becoming involved in an unnerving array of dangerous activities; crime, gangs, drugs, violence and prostitution.

“The Justice Department has estimated that about 450,000 children run away from home every year and that one-third of teenagers on the street will be approached by a pimp within 48 hours of leaving home,” according to a 2013 New York Times article. (Stubborn Cycle of Runaways Becoming Prostitutes New York Times, 9/15/13)

569994_sTeenage runaways are in conflict with their parents or guardian. Teens flee because they feel that their home has become a “them against me” place. They feel such a degree of hopelessness and frustration that the only option is to leave.

A child who runs away typically does not feel heard and does not feel their essential needs are being met. This does not place blame at the feet of their parents, but rather points to the fact that it is how the child feels, for example, dictated to, misunderstood or feeling they are being treated unjustly. Even if the teenager’s actions seem completely irrational to their parent, those feelings still need to be recognized.

When a teen runs away, there is also a belief that they are running towards something better. The hope of acceptance — hoping to find a new world of contacts and friends to whom they can relate and with whom they can feel more comfortable or simply have more fun. Unfortunately, many of the environments to which they run are filled with people who can only mean disaster – antisocial or rule-breaking acquaintances or sometimes even religious groups or cults. Some teenagers run away to avoid punishment by their parents, to avoid restrictions they find intolerable, to avoid physical or sexual abuse, and, in some cases, sometimes just to provide an exciting distraction in their lives. Teens may also run away after the death of a family member or because of an unwanted move to a new home. Predictably, teens who are oppositional and defiant tend to run away more than others.

Teens also run away because of substance and drug abuse. In some cases, the abuse has become so bad that the teenager is afraid to let their parents know. If they have an addiction they may feel they have to leave to be able to use more “freely and openly”. They also may be unable to stop and they leave because the drug “leads” them away.

Today, teens are also lured away. How many times have we head stories about sexual predators online luring young girls away. These are scary times with the Internet and the safety of our children online requires vigilance. Unfortunately, teenagers are smart and they find ways to hide their online activity. That is why it is important to keep communication open with your child and know what they are interested in online.

For all the reasons that children run away, and there are many, I can say that there are usually signs that a teen is planning to do so. I will discuss the signs and what to do in my next blog.

Information contained in this blog is intended for educational purposes only. It is not intended as medical or psychiatric advice for individual conditions or treatment and does not substitute for a medical or psychiatric examination. A psychiatrist must make a determination about any treatment or prescription. Dr. Paul does not assume any responsibility or risk for the use of any information contained within this blog.

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