“She crawled out her bedroom window with a bag of clothes and a stuffed cat she slept with every night. At 14, Katlyn Ann Shope Williams was leaving home, and she wasn’t coming back. Only she knew what she was looking for.” Abuse haunted runaway teen found dead in Columbus, Columbus Dispatch, 9/22/14)
So what are the signs that a teenager is planning to run away from home? Let me assure you that there are usually signs that a teenager is planning to bolt. These include arguing more than usual, angry complaints about feeling abused, disagreeing with parents at every opportunity, accumulating money secretly, and/or expressing wild and enraged feelings. Potential runaways may make no bones about the fact that they want to run away, announcing it frequently to the family or telling friends at school they plan to leave. Performance at school generally takes a downturn. The teen may become isolated; markedly antisocial. There may be evidence of a mood disorder, with symptoms like eating or sleeping less, withdrawing from activities formerly found pleasurable, and, above all, clearly wanting to have as little to do with the family as possible. There is also the strong possibility that there is substance abuse. Drug and alcohol abuse also are a reason to run away. 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”.
What to Do
- Most important for parents is to try to prevent the teenager from leaving. This means doing everything possible to keep the channels of communication open. Avoid reacting to your teen’s increasing isolation tactics and negativity by punishing or scolding for it. This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with your teen’s point of view, but you need to let them know you are listening and really hear them.
- If your child does run away, use as much common sense as possible in your attempt to find them. Contact law enforcement and tell them what you know. Call your teen’s friends, call the school, contact anyone you think the teen might have gone to or confided in. Go to their room and see if they left any clues to why they left or where they might be going. In this instance, it is okay to check their diary, look at their social media, and so on. You should check with your cell phone carrier and also look at their computer for recently accessed websites that might yield some clues. Contact the local bus terminal and the local hospital.
- Teens also need to learn problem-solving skills, build confidence, and know that they have a safe place to go – home! Make sure to “check-in’ with your teen. It’s important to ask, “How are you feeling?” “How’s it going?” These are important ways of keeping communication open.
The reality is that most teens return within several days, but that doesn’t mean the problem is solved. The family’s prevailing goal must be to investigate why the teen left in the first place. Although some families are able to explore the painful issues without help, I recommend that you consider involving a mental health professional to help you navigate these tricky, and sometimes, dangerous waters. Family therapy is helpful to all, but you may want to also get your teenager some ongoing individual therapy to help them deal with some of their issues that they might be uncomfortable, at first, talking about with the family.
Be ready to consider that the root of the problem could lie with an undiagnosed mood or behavioral disorder, an academic or learning problem, or even romantic problems (often kept very quiet). Be ready to listen, to hear things that you might not want to from your teen, to accept that medication may be needed to help your teen, and most importantly, be part of the solution. This journey is not just your teen’s, but for the family as a whole.
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.