Waiting for a Runaway


When a teen decides to sneak away from the household, it traumatizes the entire family. How do you respond when your child decides to abandon the familiar and become a prodigal?

When a teen decides to sneak away from the household, it traumatizes the entire family.  How do you respond when your child decides to abandon the familiar and become a prodigal?

I have been helping runaway teens for a long time.  The first kid that I took into my apartment was a runaway.  Thirty-seven years later, one of my responsibilities as the executive director of Heartlight, a residential home for kids, is to help find teens who have run away.  It’s become almost a normal thing for us.  But it’s never normal for the families going through it.  It’s an emotional time.  In the midst of the emotion, you have a few choices:  You can to remain calm, think through some things, and move in a positive way to get your child back.

Running To or From?

Any time a child runs away, it’s a complicated situation.  It usually feels like it came out of nowhere.  But many times the teen may have tried to communicate something that will give parents a clue as to why they ran away.  If it’s happened to you, consider thinking through some of the things your child might be responding to:  Could running away be a symptom of a family structure that’s broken?  Is your child running away from something that is difficult?  Are they being abused (my wife was abused for 5 years and no one knew about it)?  Are they not being respected or valued? Is there something going on that you don’t know about?   It’s not fun to second-guess your contribution to the cause, but every parent needs to take the time to figure out if something needs to be fixed.  This is one of those scriptural encouragements to look at the log in your own eye before you look at the speck in your child’s eye.  If it’s not fixed, the child will continue to run away.  And as much as it seems like the child running away is the only problem, it’s really just a symptom of a bigger problem.

On the other hand, they could be running to something.  Maybe your child wants to express his independence or punish your family.  He could be running toward a dream of his, or to a young woman whom he thinks can help him achieve his dreams.  Try to be sensitive to this.  You may have to deal with this issue in addition to the runaway issue.

Leaving the Light On

When you know the reason why your child ran away, you may want to develop some parameters for how your child can come back and how you’re going to deal with the issues that made him run away in the first place.  This may be different depending on the age of your child.  A 14- or 15-year-old will likely have fewer parameters than a 17-year-old.  You may want to talk about the expectations you have for when they come back:  You can’t lie.  You can’t take things from us.  We’re going to get you help.  You can’t get help if you’re at home – so let’s talk about living with grandma.  If the conditions of your child coming back mean that he might live with someone else for a while, that’s better than not knowing where he is.

As a loving parent, let your child know that you want them to come home.  If you know where your child is living, you can still invite him to lunch.  Send him a text every once in a while.  You can continue the relationship without enabling him.  It’s not about giving them the money, clothes, or shelter they might need; it’s about being open to them and keeping the relationships available.  I’ve seen it time and time again — a point comes when they can’t take it any more – when they come to their senses like the prodigal son did – they may decide that it’s better to come home.

In the meantime, parents might end up playing the waiting game.  It might be difficult to see your child struggle.  It’s awful to watch.  But if you thwart the opportunity for them to live on the streets or with friends in an uncomfortable situation, you may rob them of the chance to see the hand of God working in their lives.  Now that doesn’t mean you have to turn your back on them.  You can stay connected and continue to find out what’s going on in their lives.  But it’s not enough to just know about what’s happening with your kids; it’s helpful to work through the problems.  This can help build the relationship and show your kids that you are willing to stay with them through their failure and pain.  This may be the hope they need.

Reaching Out for Help

If your best efforts (change of home structure, counseling, intervention, etc) aren’t working out like you had hoped, and your child’s action are placing them in greater danger, you may need to consider coming to one of our Families in Crisis Conferences or placing your child in the Heartlight residential program.  We all respond differently to different people.  Parents, it might help if you can have someone else come in and work with your child in a different way.  This will help give you, and the rest of the family, a break.  And it can help you calm down emotionally so you can start thinking a little bit straighter.

Despite the pain involved, I don’t fear when kids run away, because it either points to the problem that can now be dealt with, or moves a child to come to his senses and start making better decisions.  It takes them to the end of themselves.  When there isn’t any other option, the kids realize how important their family is to them.  And they will only come back home if the family leaves the light on for them.

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