Written by Laurel Edinburgh, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner
When a child or teen runs away from home, parents struggle with a range of emotions. Parents are often scared, mad, exhausted, or feel hopeless or ashamed. About ten percent of teens will run away from home at least once. Teens run away in urban, suburban and rural communities and from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Half of those who run away once will leave again. Running away is a maladaptive coping mechanism and is often asign of mental health struggles. Unfortunately, too often these signs are misinterpreted as the child behaving badly.
Running away is not an uncommon event, yet few people talk about this even within their own family. This silence perpetuates the myth that runaways come from abusive or neglectful homes. In the vast majority of cases, teens that leave home do so impulsively even though they are cared for and loved by their parents. The harm that comes to teens who runaway happens after they have left the safety of their home. Drug and alcohol use begin and escalate as the runaway teen is not being supervised by a parent. Sadly, sexual assault happens all too frequently to both girls and boys who run away.
Due to the stigma of running away, teens and parents usually do not get the supportive care they need from health care providers, schools, or law enforcement. Gaining access to appropriate and timely mental health resources is vital to recovery. Without professional help, the trauma and risk behaviors experienced by runaway teens are left unexamined. This may lead to a cycle of feeling depressed, disengaging from school, using alcohol or drugs, and having ongoing symptoms of emotional distress.
The first steps in caring for your adolescent is to recognize that there is most likely an untreated mental health condition. Be honest with the therapist and health care provider that your child ran away. Advocate for your child so that their episode of running away is viewed correctly as a sign of mental health distress. You are not a bad parent and your child is not a bad person. Make a safety plan with your child and reach out for help. Connecting to services is critical in preventing further episodes of running away.
About The Author
Laurel Edinburgh is a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner who uses a collaborative approach in her practice. She works closely with her patients and their parents to assess, diagnose, and treat ADHD, PTSD, chemical dependency, and mood disorders. Additionally, Laurel is trained in the medical management of adolescents and young adults with substance abuse disorders. She provides medication-assisted treatment with Suboxone/Bupinorphine.