Running away is the most frequent reason for adolescents going missing. A runaway occurs when an adolescent leaves their home without permission and without an immediate intention to return. The causes of runaways are numerous but are often associated with:  

  • Personal problems 
  • Inadequate communication between parents/guardians and the youth 
  • Family issues 
  • External influences 

A youth may run away spontaneously following an incident, failure, conflict, or intense emotion they have experienced (such as the fear of facing the consequences of their actions, anger, or sadness). In such circumstances, running away becomes their only solution or even an escape from confronting their difficulties.  

Contrary to what one might think, runaways are generally planned and well-prepared. Therefore, it is essential to be aware of the warning signs of a runaway. These signs can indicate that your child is preparing to run away, but they do not necessarily mean they will run away. Consequently, it is important to stay attentive. 

Warning signs of a runaway 

A runaway can be preceded by certain warning signs. It’s important to pay attention to these signs to prevent the youth from running away. Here are a few warning signs: 

  • A change in behaviour: a sudden or significant change in behaviour, including increased social withdrawal, heightened isolation, a rebellious attitude, or increased aggression, may indicate underlying discomfort that could lead to a runaway. 
  • School problems or difficulties: declining grades, frequent absenteeism, or behaviour issues in class can signal underlying problems that may lead to a runaway. 
  • Family conflicts: tension at home or difficult family relationships can push a youth to consider running away as an escape. 
  • Changes in relationships (romantic or friendships): joining a new group of friends or distancing themselves from familiar friends can indicate a desire for freedom or independence. 
  • Expressing a desire to leave: direct or indirect statements about wanting to leave home, run away, or escape the current situation should be taken seriously. 
  • Seeking information about running away: a youth actively seeking information online or researching about running away can indicate an interest or preparation to leave. 
  • Prior runaway history: if a youth has run away before, they may be more likely to repeat the behaviour. 
  • Substance use (drugs or alcohol): substance abuse can lower inhibitions and increase the risk of running away, especially among adolescents. 
  • Signs of depression or emotional distress: symptoms of depression, anxiety, self-harm, or suicidal behaviour can be warning signs of emotional distress that could lead to a runaway. 
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities: losing interest in activities the youth previously enjoyed can indicate discomfort or a lack of motivation. 

It’s important to note that each runaway situation is unique, and the causes leading to it can vary considerably. Preventing and resolving the issue of runaways in youth requires considering family, personal, and social factors. It is essential to respond appropriately, including promoting open communication and being available for your child. Preventing and managing warning signs can help reduce the risk of a runaway. 

The consequences of a runaway in youth 

Running away, especially among minors, can have serious consequences for their safety, health and well-being: 

  • Safety risks: a youth who has run away is exposed to dangers such as violence, sexual exploitation, substance abuse (tobacco, drugs, alcohol), or criminal activities. 
  • Health issues: a runaway youth may be exposed to malnutrition, dehydration, and a lack of necessary medical care. 
  • Isolation: the runaway becomes isolated from their family, friends, and community, which can lead to mental health problems, loneliness, and despair. 
  • Disruption of family life: runaways can cause significant emotional stress for the families of the youth involved, who may be concerned about their child’s safety. 
  • Risk of recurrence: youth who have run away once are more likely to run away again, leading to cycles of running away and reconciliation, increasing family tensions. 
  • Impact on education: runaways can result in a disruption of education leading to academic setbacks, which can have long-term consequences. 

It’s important to note that since the reasons for running away can vary, it is therefore essential to offer appropriate support to individuals who run away and to their families. This support includes: counselling, legal assistance, mental health care, and guidance to address the underlying issues that led to the runaway.  

Our tips for preventing the risk of a runaway 

Preventing a runaway, especially in adolescents, is a complex challenge. Here are some effective ways to prevent youth from running away: 

  1. Communicate openly: encourage open and honest communication with your child. Encourage them to share their concerns, emotions, and problems. Actively listen and show that you are there to support them. 
  1. Raise awareness of the risks associated with running away, including violence, illness, sexual exploitation, substance abuse, and crime. 
  1. Establish clear rules and boundaries with your child and ensure they understand the consequences of not following them. Be consistent in enforcing these rules. 
  1. Monitor their education: ensure that your child is attending school regularly and is engaged in activities they are interested in. Engagement in positive activities can help reduce the risk of running away. 
  1. Seek assistance: if you have concerns about your child, seek professional help. You can reach out to support services available in your community, such as our Case Managers at the Missing Children’s Network. 
  1. Teach your children problem-solving skills: help them cope with difficult situations constructively. This can help them better manage family conflicts or external pressures. 
  1. Supervise their activities: keep an eye on your child’s activities and monitor their online behaviour if necessary. Proper supervision can help identify early signs of running away.  

It’s important to note that taking steps to prevent a runaway can never guarantee that it won’t happen, as each situation is unique. However, by implementing these preventive measures, you can reduce the risks and enhance the safety of your family. The better a parent understands their child’s needs, the more capable they are of addressing them, thus reducing risky behaviours. If you’re unable to establish good communication with your child, we encourage you to seek help from resources rather than letting the situation worsen.  

You can also contact our team; our Case Managers will be able to provide valuable advice. The Missing Children’s Network offers a series of prevention workshops throughout the year, including one on preventing runaways. For more information, please contact us at 514-843-4333.