Why do some young people run away? Many teens have probably thought at some moment or another about running, but only a statistical few actually do. What makes the difference, and what would cause a teen leave the relative safety of home to go out into the unknown?
We have talked with teens and their parents about this issue since 1970, and over the years we have heard many different responses to these questions. Some teens run to avoid a consequence, or to engage in forbidden behavior away from the strictures of home. Some leave to escape a stressful situation or to bring attention to a family problem that has gone unaddressed. Sometimes teens run simply because they don’t know what else to do. In this article we explore some of the factors in teens running away, as well as some insight from teens themselves in our shelter.
Running away from home is a youthful behavior. One reason is that teens think and act differently than adults. The teenager’s brain has not stopped growing and changing. The part of the brain that makes decisions, thinks about the future and understands consequences hasn’t fully developed yet. That’s why teens see only the short-term future. They do not have many tools to deal with problems, and they have trouble applying what they have been told, or the experiences of their friends, to their own situation. When their tools run out, some teens act impulsively. That can lead to running.
Teens’ emotions are intense. In times of crisis, teens can be easily overwhelmed because they have not lived through enough situations to know their feelings will pass. They think their problems will last forever, partly because they don’t yet know that everything changes sooner or later. Some teens also have a hard time separating their feelings from reality. They think, “If I feel it, it must be true” and then act on those emotions.
Teens face pretty scary situations. Some of these include pressure to have sex, to use alcohol or drugs, and a strong need to meet the expectations of their friends. Every generation has had to deal with these things, but teens today face these problems earlier than their parents did. For some teens, the threats of gangs or crime where they live is very real. Even life at home can be scary. If a teen’s home is violent, unpredictable, chaotic or filled with sexual or physical threats, the best choice might seem to be to get out first and think things through later.
It can be so very hard for some teens to explain what is going on with them. Sometimes, it is hard for parents to hear their teen in the middle of busy lives, or in the struggle to manage their own situations. Teens may feel that what they have to say is too upsetting, too scary for parents to hear. Sometimes families have become so used to yelling and constant conflict that it is hard to hear anything else. At these times, the action of running away may speak louder than any words that teen could find. Running might also be a way to alert teachers, school staff or other adults outside the home that there is a family problem.
What Teens Have To Say
We talked with some of the young people staying in the crisis program and asked them why teens run from home. One young man, who is seventeen but looks older, shared some of his story, and what he thinks other teens feel.
“It’s too much [being at home], you don’t know what you’re going to do, you can’t trust nobody. You know why you’re leaving, but when you get out then you don’t know what to do. It feels good at first, you have plans who you’re going to stay with, then you get out and it starts to not work out and you end up just…out there.”
A thin young woman braided her hair and listened to the conversation. She agreed that running can seem like a good idea at first.
“You finally get to control something in your life,” she said.
The young man continued. “When I was downtown, I didn’t know where I was and I almost got put in a car.” The other youths listened to this but did not react much. The idea of being “put in a car” while on the run did not seem to surprise them.
“Do teens know the downside of running, what can happen to them?” we asked.
“Teens ‘get it’, the danger, but maybe they don’t get the full gist of it from the people they talk to, or they don’t think anything bad will happen to them,” said the girl. “One girl [I know] lied to her mom [about her plans] and got into an escort service.”
“It [running] can seem like a good idea, but sometimes it really isn’t”, she concluded.