Running Away: what's going on and the need for a re-entry plan


While I was on my walk this morning, a young man who looked to be about 19 showed me a picture on his phone of his kid brother, and asked if I'd seen him or his bike. Apparently his 13 year old brother decided not to come home yesterday after his mother told him she'd be confiscating his phone.The older brother was so worried that he'd been up all night trying to find him, and was now looking for him in the little wooded area near our neighborhood.

Surely there's a lot more to this particular situation, but in general, I wonder what's going on at home when kids decide to run away? 

I'm guessing they are feeling some combination of frustration, anger, and powerlessness. The kids must feel like they are better off rolling the dice than trying to work it out with their parents. 

I doubt that running away is the first thing a kid thinks of when the going gets rough. I suspect that option only comes into play after many episodes of not feeling heard or respected, until they eventually come to believe that there's no hope of ever working it out.

And I'm betting that the parents are well-intentioned, but not aware of the dynamic they have created in their home. Strategies like control, coercion, bribery, and punishment almost always backfire at some point, and often that point is right around 13 when a kid starts to feel enough confidence that leaving or standing their ground by fighting back actually feels possible to them. Sure, that confidence is often misplaced, but that's just par for the course when it comes to normal adolescent brain development.

I am bummed that parents have to work so hard to acquire effective strategies and find support while raising their kids. I passionately wish that parenting was a required course in high school right up there with math and language arts.  (And while we are dreaming up useful curriculum, let's throw some financial literacy in there for good measure.) 

It's really not that hard to avoid power struggles with your kid once you know effective strategies, which typically consist of connecting, listening, collaborating, setting limits, and helping kids to develop consequential thinking skills.

Parents can do this without yelling or threatening, I promise. Parents and kids may still disagree, but the fundamental respectful connection remains intact, and the kid knows the parent will hear them out. In a relationship like this, running away just doesn't look appealing.

So this kid in my neighborhood is gone, and his family is understandably freaking out. What should they do next? They need to create a re-entry plan and communicate it to his friends so it gets back to him. He needs to know exactly how things will unfold upon his return. Being 13, he probably wasn't thinking about how this would end. It's likely starting to occur to him that he can't make it out there on his own, but he is probably also afraid of what will happen to him if he goes home.

The re-entry plan I'd recommend would look something like this:

1) When you come home, you can eat a warm meal and sleep for as long as you need to before we talk about anything.

2) When we do talk, you can choose someone to be with us to help - a friend's parent, a relative, a coach, teacher, counselor or youth pastor.

3) Our relationship will change. We'll talk about why you felt you needed to leave, and we will address it together. This doesn't mean we'll stop setting limits, but we will learn a better way to do it.

4) We will start getting some kind of ongoing support as a family to make sure that the changes that need to happen will stick.

5) Since we are human, we won't do this perfectly every time. If you start to feel the urge to run away again, we need a safety plan. Let's come up with a safe place for you to take a break (friend's house, etc).

Anyway, hopefully that kid makes it home today and the re-entry goes well enough that he sticks around. But in case someone else needs this info, I hope this helps. 

For more information about Karen's parenting or interpersonal communication consultations by phone, visit www.karenalonge.com

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