In Canada, the majority of reported missing children are runaways. In most cases, these youth leave home for a short period of time generally over a disagreement with parents. They may stay with friends or extended family, and they may repeat this behaviour whenever disagreements arise. In other situations, youth may run away from serious family problems or situations where they feel as though running away is the only solution. While most runaways return home within a few days, a smaller number of youth may spend periods of time on the street, in shelters or other unfamiliar environments.
The reasons why youth run away are complex, but are generally associated with youth attempting to gain some control over their lives. For youth, seeking control and running away may be an attempt for increased independence, or perceived as the only way to avoid dealing with a poor decision they have made (such as posting pictures online, pregnancy, stealing, school issues, dating someone their parents would not approve of, etc.) at home, school or with peers. When youth run away their risk of victimization increases —risks may include exploitation, sexual assault, violence, theft, substance use issues (drug and alcohol), homelessness, and gang involvement.
The following sections provide important information for parents on what they can do if they fear their child is going to run, or if they have a child who has run away.
Why Do Youth Run Away?
It is important to understand why youth run away and what factors increase the risk that a youth might run away. This section includes information on both youth- and family-related issues that increase an adolescent’s vulnerability towards running away, and is accompanied by prevention and intervention strategies to assist families.
Family is one of the most important influences on a youth’s life. Family can also, unfortunately, be one of the greatest causes of stress and upset in a teen’s life. Trouble with family can be overwhelming for youth, especially if they are already struggling with various issues that typically accompany adolescence.
Youth dealing with the following issues at home have an increased vulnerability towards running away:
A chaotic household environment
Physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse
Neglect (i.e. lack of food, clothing, shelter or safety)
A high level of family conflict (this may relate to one or both parents/siblings)
Domestic violence or a high level of conflict between parents
Parents who are rarely at home (i.e. they are not physically available to them)
Lack of emotional support from or connection with family (i.e. no one is emotionally available for the youth)
A perceived lack of acceptance or love
Major changes in family structure (e.g. divorce, remarriage, blending of families, etc.)
Parental vulnerabilities such as addiction and/or mental health issues
Parents engaged in anti-social and/or criminal activity
Trauma (i.e. the loss of a parent, or someone significant)
Refusal by family to accept youth’s sexual orientation, friendships or dating partner
Stresses resulting from moving to a new home or community
Unreasonable consequences at home, causing youth to want to avoid getting into trouble (i.e. because of pregnancy, school issues, staying out too late, etc.)
Placement in “out-of-home” care (e.g. extended family, foster family, group home, etc.)
A youth’s decision to run away from home can be triggered by a number of factors. First and foremost, adolescence is a time when youth seek control and independence. Adolescence can be a very difficult time, and some youth struggle more than others. It is important to consider all issues a youth may be dealing with when determining how to offer them support.
Youth dealing with the following issues have an increased vulnerability with regard to running away:
High-risk peer group
Unhealthy dating relationships
Harmful online relationships
Difficulty making friends and/or being bullied at school
Mental health issues (i.e. anxiety, mood disorders, depression, bipolar)
Substance use issues (i.e. drugs, alcohol) and addictions issues
Academic or behavioural difficulty
Physical and/or sexual abuse (in the home or outside of the home)
Sexual orientation and transgender issues
Youth in Care
Children in care, or “out-of-home” kids and youth are at a greater risk of running away. In addition to the typical reasons a child may run, children who have been placed in care may have lived in multiple placements and not have had the opportunity to develop a stable, secure relationship with a caregiver. Without a stable connection to a caregiver, there is an increased risk that a child will run away. When dealing with youth in care who are running away, there needs to be careful consideration around supports needed to increase their protection.