When you were little, did you ever run away? Maybe you packed up your backpack and made it down the driveway or around the corner to your friend’s backyard. But after a little while, you forgot why you were running away and it was getting dark out, so you went home.
We hope that was the last time you thought about running away because there’s a big difference between thinking about running away (or walking a few blocks down the street) and actually running away.
Running away is a serious problem. According to the National Runaway Switchboard, an organization that takes calls and helps kids who have run away or are thinking of running away, 1 in 7 kids between the ages of 10 and 18 will run away at some point. And there are 1 million to 3 million runaway and homeless kids living on the streets in the United States.
Why Kids Run Away
In fact, most kids run away due to problems with their families. Some kids run away because of one terrible argument. Some even decide to leave without ever having a fight. They might have done something they’re ashamed of, and they’re afraid to tell their parents.
Other reasons kids run away include:
- abuse (violence in the family)
- parents separating or divorcing or the arrival of a new stepparent
- death in the family
- birth of a new baby in the family
- family financial worries
- kids or parents drinking alcohol or taking drugs
- problems at school
- peer pressure
- failing or dropping out of school
These are problems faced by lots of kids and teens — and there are ways to deal with all of these problems besides running away. Kids who think about running away might not know how to solve tough problems or don’t have adults to help them. Sometimes a really big problem can make it seem like running away is the only choice.
Unfortunately, the problems kids hope to escape by running away are replaced by other — sometimes even bigger — problems of life on the streets.
The Reality of Running Away
When you think about running away, you probably imagine that there will be no more rules, no parent to tell you what to do, no more fights. Sounds great and exciting, right?
In reality, running away is anything but fun. Kids and teens who run away face new problems like not having any money, food to eat, a safe place to sleep, or anyone to look out for them.
People with no home and no money become desperate, doing anything just to meet their basic needs. Because of this, they often find themselves in risky situations that would be frightening, even for adults. Runaway kids get involved in dangerous crimes much more often than kids who live at home.
Kids who live on the streets often have to steal to meet basic needs. Many take drugs or alcohol to get through the day because they become so depressed and feel that no one cares about them. Some are forced to do things they wouldn’t normally do to make money. The number of kids with HIV or AIDS and other diseases is higher on streets, too, because these kids might use IV drugs or have unprotected sex (often for money).
Let’s face it — stress is a part of life, even for kids — but being able to deal with problems with confidence, hope, and practical solutions makes kids less likely to run away.
To build your problem-solving skills, try to:
- Know your emotions. Try to understand what you are feeling inside and use words to describe it.
- Express your emotions. Don’t be afraid to tell those close to you how you’re feeling and why. Use words, not actions. This is especially true for anger. Anger is one of the hardest emotions to manage because it’s so strong — but everyone needs to learn how to express angry feelings without violence.
- Know how to calm yourself down after you’re upset. Maybe you need to run around outside, listen to music, draw, or write poetry. Do whatever safe things you need to do to feel better.
- When you have a problem, try to come up with a list of solutions. Get someone else to help you if you can’t think of at least three things to do. For each possible solution, ask yourself: “If I do this, what would happen next?”
- Get some help from trusted adults — someone like a parent, close relative, teacher, or neighbor. Know who you can count on to support and help you.
If You’re Thinking of Running Away
It might feel like there’s no way to fix the problems that are making you think about running away. If you can, tell your mom or dad how you feel. They need to know that you’re upset or that you’re afraid they don’t love you or want you around. It may be possible to work together as a family to change things for the better. Sometimes talking with a counselor as a family can help.
If the problem is as serious as abuse and a parent is involved, then talk to a teacher or counselor at school, a good friend’s parent, a close relative, or another trusted adult. Let that person help you find somewhere safe to stay. It might be hard to share this secret because you may feel ashamed or afraid of getting someone in trouble, but remember that abuse is never your fault.
Another option is to call the National Runaway Switchboard at (800) 621-4000. It’s open 24 hours a day and the call is free. The switchboard operators get thousands of calls each year, many from kids who have run away or know someone who has.
If Your Friend Wants to Run Away
If your friend is thinking about running away, warn him or her about how tough it will be to survive on the streets. Your friend is probably scared and confused. Try to be supportive and help your friend feel less alone.
Remind your friend that, whatever the problem is, there are other ways to deal with it, even if neither one of you can think of the ways right now. An adult will know how to help.
It takes courage to tell an adult that your friend is about to run away, but try to do this as soon as possible. Being a real friend doesn’t mean keeping a secret when it can hurt someone. It means doing the best thing possible for your friend. And running away isn’t a solution for either of you. It only leads to more problems and danger.
Reviewed by: D’Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: August 2013