runaway teen sitting on ground with backpack

How Do I Stop My Teen From Running Away?

If you have a teenager going through changes that create friction in the home, and the changes cause escalating conflict, they may threaten to run away – and you may find yourself wondering what you can do to stop your teen from running away. They may have undiagnosed emotional problems, an undiagnosed mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety, or other issues that require professional support. But what can you do if they threaten to run away?

We’ll open with two things you need to know:

  1. The teen years are all about change, and some of those changes are hard for everyone in the family. Changes and some friction are the norm than the exception during adolescence.
  2. Stopping your teen from running away is smart. We’ll expand on this below, but there are a wide range of negative consequences – from the minor to the severe – that are common among teens who run away.

When we say some friction, what we mean is that teens make mistakes and do things that cause problems in the home. Most of us know this to be true, because when we were teenagers, we either caused or experienced our share of problems in the home. However, problems that escalate to the point where a teen threatens to run away are neither healthy nor common, and it’s important for you to get to the root of the issue as soon as possible.

There’s a common trope in the media and in our culture that runaway teens are troublemakers, and run away because they don’t want to follow the rules at home or they have alcohol or substance use problems that cause them to run away.

But that’s not what most teen runaways say.

When a runaway teen arrives at an overnight shelter associated with the National Runaway Safeline, staff ask them why they ran away from home, and record it as the presenting problem. Here are the top presenting problems teens gave, in order from the most to least common.

Why Teens Run Away, According to Teens Who Have Run Away

  • Family dynamics: 77%
  • Emotional abuse: 28%
  • Mental health problems: 25%
  • Physical abuse: 17%
  • Social problems/issues with friends: 17%
  • Neglect: 11%
  • Problems at school: 9%
  • LGBTQIA2S+ issues: 6%
  • Problems with alcohol/drugs: 6%
  • Legal problems: 4%
  • Sexual abuse: 4%
  • Exploitation: 1%

Those are the reasons the teens themselves cite. To clarify, family dynamics includes, but is not limited to conflict over rules, issues with siblings, issues resulting from a blended family, issues related to divorce or custody, and the death of a family member.

That’s what the teens say. Now we’ll offer our advice about what you should say if your teen threatens to run away.

When They Make Threats: What You Can Do to Stop Your Teen From  Running Away

You want to stop your teen from running away, but you have no idea how to keep them at home. First of all, don’t ignore it or think it’s an idle threat. Teens on the street are vulnerable, and the risks are simply too great to consider allowing your teen to run away. We understand some parents may want to take a tough-love approach, and say something along the lines of:

Go right ahead, we’ll see how long you last before you come back home crying.

Please – don’t do that. And although “What to Do When Your Teen Runs Away and Comes Back” is a different topic for a different article, we’ll cut to the chase on that right now: if that happens, welcome them with open arms and begin the process of making things right.

Now, back to the topic: how to stop your teen from running away.

The National Runaway Safeline (NRS) offers the following guidelines for talking to a teen in crisis who’s threatening to run away.


How to Communicate With Your Teen During a Runaway-Related Crisis

1. Build Bridges: Establish or Re-Establish Connection

To connect, it’s important to stay calm and not increase the overall tension of the situation. If your teen is on the verge of running away, their emotions are probably running high. You can balance that by keeping your emotions in check. Stay calm and speak in a gentle voice. Make sure your teen knows and understands you’re there to support and help them, and that you love them unconditionally, no matter how disrupted family life has been. When they speak, engage in active listening:

  • Maintain eye contact
  • Don’t interrupt
  • Avoid looking at your phone, watch, or letting your attention wander
  • Listen to understand

In addition, it’s important to avoid planning your reply while they’re talking. If you’re thinking about what you’re about to say, it means you’re not really listening, which means you may miss something important. Also, most people – including teens – can tell when someone has a reply ready before they finish speaking. This reduces the likelihood of ongoing openness and honesty.

2. Find Out What’s Happening

Do your best to learn why they want to run away: that’s essential if you want to stop them from running away. If they’re reticent at first, start by asking close-ended questions, which only require simple, one-word responses. Close-ended questions help in learning facts. Examples of close-ended questions:

  • Are you angry?
  • Are you angry with me?
  • Are you afraid?
  • Did something bad happen to you?
  • Do I know about it?

If they engage, you can move on to open-ended questions, which allow your teen to elaborate on what’s happening with them. Examples of open-ended questions:

  • Why do you want to run away?
  • How can I help you right now?
  • What can I do to help you moving forward?

It’s important to spend more time listening than talking. This is their time to talk. When they tell you what’s happening with them and how you can help, the next step is to make sure they understand that you understand what’s happening with them. Here’s how:

  • Summarize everything they said to you
  • Ask them to confirm your summary is what they want you to hear
  • Ask if you missed or misunderstood anything. If so repeat the process until you hear what they need you to hear.

When you ask your questions, you may not always like the answers. Your teen may tell you exactly why they’re mad at you. They may have issues with family rules, or what other family members say and do. It’s your job to listen and take them seriously: don’t be dismissive in any way. It’s possible they’ll share things you don’t want to hear, such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse from a family member or trusted adult. Or their anger may not be that serious: they may be unhappy with their curfew, limits on screen time, or other rules that feel unfair or restrictive.

3. Make A Plan for What Happens Next

If you established or re-established a genuine connection and your teen told you what’s going on, you may have learned important things about both of you and how your relationship works. The remedy is to address the things that led to this situation by making some type of proactive change. There are several possibilities, here:

You might need to change.
  • You may need to make changes in the way you talk to and relate to your teen.
Your family rules might need to change.
  • Think objectively about the family rules, if that’s what your teen cites as a reason they want to run away. Are they overly restrictive? Do you allow your teen the independence to differentiate, i.e. form their own personality outside the home? Do your family rules make sense with who your teen is as a person? Think seriously about these questions, and make changes if you need to.
Your teen might need to change.
  • Your teen may have a mental health issue that causes emotional disturbance that leads to the problems that caused them to want to run away. If that’s what’s happening – your teen tells you they’ve been extremely sad or extremely anxious – then you can work to provide them the skills they need to process those emotions productively.

Whether it’s you, your family rules, or your teen in need of change, do your best to end this conversation with clear action steps for everyone involved to take. If you need to change, tell them what you plan to do. If family rules need to change, discuss how they’ll change. When your teen needs to change, outline what you need them to do. And if they need mental health support, arrange for a full psychiatric evaluation administered by a mental health professional.

We’ll reiterate that final idea. If a mental health issue is at the root of their problems – and one reason they want to run away is because they’re overwhelmed by difficult thoughts and emotions – then evidence-based treatment can help them learn the skills they need to manage and process those difficult thoughts and emotions. This can help rebuild relationships and restore balance to your home life.

Risks of Running Away From Home

The National Runaway Safeline (NRS) collects data on teen runaways on an ongoing basis and publishes tips sheets, crisis management strategies, and relevant statistics every year. In addition, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) keeps track of youth homelessness, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Cetner (NSVRC) publishes facts on sexual violence victimhood among homeless and runaway teens. We collected the information below – which is shocking and scary – from the NRS, the NCSL, and the NSVRC.

Potential Consequences of Running Away

(Why It’s Important to Stop Your Teen from Running Away)

1. Sexual Abuse:
  • 70% of teenage girls who run away report experiencing sexual abuse as a runaway
  • 33% of teens who run away report being forced to have sex/engage in a sex act against their will
  • Sex for Survival:
    • 10% of teens in shelters report engaging in what’s called survival sex, which is having sex in exchange for basic necessities like food and shelter.
    • Survival sex can lead to exploitation by human traffickers and drug dealers
    • Almost 30% of teens who live on the street and choose not to stay overnight in shelters say they engage in survival sex. Among those teens:
      • 82% exchange sex for money
      • 48% exchange sex for food or shelter
      • 22% exchange sex for drugs
2. Academics:
    • Teens who run away from home have a 10% lower high school graduation rate than those who don’t
    • Teen who run away more than once have a 20% lower high school graduation rate than those who never run away
3. Mental health:
    • Teens who run away show increased likelihood of developing mental health or behavioral disorders such as depression, anxiety, conduct disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder
    • Teens who run away attempt suicide at higher rates than teen who do attempting suicide than teens who don’t
4. Alcohol/Substance use:
    • Teen who run away area at increased risk of using intoxicants such as alcohol, marijuana, amphetamines, opioids, and hallucinogens
    • Teen who run away are at elevated risk of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD) or substance use disorder (SUD)
5. Health Problems:
    • Teen who run away have increased risk of health problems as teens, and increased risk of chronic health issues later in life

As we mention at the beginning of this article, it’s critical to take any threat of running away seriously, and take steps to stop your teen from running away. In some cases, the worst consequences listed above – survival sex, sexual abuse – can occur within 48 hours of running away.

That’s why open, honest communication is essential, and ensuring  your teen knows you love them unconditionally and knows they always have a place in your home are critical. And if you learn your teen has unaddressed, undiagnosed, and untreated mental health issues, it’s crucial to find professional support as soon as possible.

How to Find Support: Resources for Families

If you need to stop your teen from running away, and they need professional help to get to the root of their issues, please call us at BACA, or use one of these free resources.