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Why Kids Run Away

The young caller’s voice is high-pitched and trembling. Her mother’s been drinking, she says. They got into a fistfight, so the girl grabbed her backpack and a cellphone and bolted, with little thought about where a 13-year-old could go on a cold night. Hiding in an alley off her rural hometown’s deserted main street, she calls the only phone number she can think of: 1-800-RUNAWAY. ‘I just don’t feel like I’m taken care of like a daughter should be,’ the girl tells the volunteer…She stutters between sobs and shivers.”
– Martha Irvine (2008)

Youth run away for any number of reasons, ranging from an act of manipulation or rebellion against their parents to a legitimate desire to escape a volatile or abusive home situation. According to experts, stories such as the one described above are fairly common. Yet there are many other reasons that children run away.

The reasons kids give for running away According to the Why They Run report by the National Runaway Switchboard, teens provided the following answers for reasons they ran away:

  1. Family dynamics: 29%
  2. Peer & social problems: 13%
  3. Mental health issues: 8%
  4. School related: 7%
  5. Transportation related: 6%
  6. Alcohol/drug abuse: 6%
  7. Economics: 6%
  8. Physical abuse: 5%
  9. Escape from CPS/youth services: 4%
  10. Verbal/emotional abuse: 4%
  11. Facing judicial system: 4%
  12. Health issues: 3%
  13. Neglect: 2%
  14. Sexual abuse: 2%
  15. GLBT youth: 1%

Family dynamics such as divorce or stepfamily conflicts remain the biggest factor for youth leaving home, and most runaways come from high-conflict homes. Substance abuse in the family is another main factor, whether on the part of parents or the teen themselves. (I happen to think substance abuse problems are under-reported in the above survey and play a more prominent role, especially when it comes to the more serious runaways.)

Sexual conflicts are another big issue. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (GLBTQ) youth, though representing a small portion of runaways overall, are more likely to run away or be kicked out of their house than their heterosexual peers, likely because of conflict with parents over their sexuality. (Pergamit et al., 2010) And although this next one isn’t specifically captured in the aforementioned statistics, from my own experience working with these issues I can tell you that sexual conflicts are a big contributor even among straight youth. Either a parent finds out their son or daughter is sexually active and kicks them out of the house, or a family’s displeasure with their child’s choice of boyfriend or girlfriend or sexually repressive attitudes in general cause a teen to run away from home. I can’t even begin to tally all the cases that follow this exact same script:

A) Girl falls in love with boy.

B) Parents of girl don’t like said boy (or vice versa) and try to force them to break up.

C) Boy and girl run away so they can be together and continue their romance.

Runaway or throwaway?

“Many say they didn’t run away, but they were thrown out,” says Michael Pergamit, who studies teen runaways. Nearly half, or 48%, told him they were thrown out of their homes; 30% said they ran away, and 22% said it was a mix of the two. The fact that far more teens say they were kicked out of their house than actually ran away of their own volition puts this issue in new light. Whether this is actually the case or merely a teen’s interpretation is up for debate. The situation may not always be clear and concise: angry words said during an argument (“if you don’t like it here, just leave” or “I want you out of my sight”) can sound a lot like being kicked out to a teen, even though that may not have been the parent’s intent.

It’s even been known for some children to run away out of a misunderstanding. The following example sounds like it should come from a comedy skit, but it actually happened:

A teenage girl skipped school to hang out with her boyfriend. She arranges for her little sister to tell her father to pick her up at a friend’s house. Little sis fails to relay this message. Dad fails to show up. Little sis nonetheless asks Dad if he picked up Karen, and Dad replies, “How can I pick up Karen when I don’t even know where she is?” So sister calls her friend Stephanie and tells her that her father won’t pick Karen up. Stephanie calls Alison, who says “Karen’s father is so mad at her, he refused to pick her up at Jackies.” Alison calls Jackie. “Karen’s father is so mad at her, he doesn’t ever want to see her again.” This is the message that gets relayed to Karen.

Karen, devastated by her father’s apparent rejection and apparent abandonment, doesn’t come home and refuses to field calls from her family. Meanwhile, as all of this was happening, another line of gossip had started at the school, saying that she skipped school to have sex with this boy. (In reality they just sat on his couch and watched cartoons.) She learns that a teacher even commented on her antics, calling it a “Bill Clinton – Gennifer Flowers” situation. (It was actually a student who said this, not a teacher.) Now all of a sudden Karen, who has been estranged from her family and hiding out with friends, doesn’t want to go back to school. (Dellasega, xxxx, pp. 216-22)

This fiasco all unfolded within the span of 24 to 48 hours, and very nearly resulted in permanent estrangement from this girl’s family and her school. Luckily, the misinformation unraveled a few days later, and Karen was able to learn that the family did indeed still lover her before her life took a major turn for the worse. Yet this story should serve as a cautionary tale for us all about just how easy it is for simple misunderstandings to spiral out of control.

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