Updated: Nov 26, 2021
Trigger Warming: Child abuse, rape, homelessness.
What is National Runaway Prevention Month?
According to the National Runaway Safeline, "November is National Runaway Prevention Month (NRPM), a public awareness campaign designed to “shine a light” on the experiences of runaway and homeless youth that too often remain invisible. It is also an opportunity to spotlight the resources available to support youth in crisis throughout the nation. As part of the campaign, individuals, organizations and communities across the nation are encouraged to work together to prevent youth homelessness.
Many of the organizations involved in National Runaway Prevention Month provide education to the public about issues facing runaways, as well as street outreach to runaway teens.
I was a runaway teen.
Runaway prevention is an issue that is close to my heart, because I ran away from home as a teen, and I am aware of the struggles that these teens face. It isn't something I talk about very often, as there is so much shame and blame associated with running away from home. There is a huge stigma against wanting to leave home as a teen, and it is seen as irresponsible and hurtful towards the parents.
The decision to run away from home is not one that is taken lightly, but one rather that feels forced upon those of us who were in that situation by an uncaring world, who ignored our suffering and our pain. We feel invisible and unimportant, and running away is an attempt to erase that suffering and create a new life for ourselves.
In previous articles, I have shared that I have complex PTSD which partially stems from childhood trauma. For me, running away from home was a solution to feeling trapped in a life that was psychologically damaging. At the time, I probably would have said that being in my parents' home felt like being trapped in hell.
With a couple of other girlfriends that ran away from home also, we went to the library to find out information about being imancipated from our parents. We were all about 16, we had fast food jobs. We could have gotten an appartment if we had been allowed to do so. The problem is, being imancipated is a really difficult process often involving lawyers. Runaway teens don't have access to lawyers.
When I ran away, first I slept in my car. Then, I got arrested for being a runaway, sent back home, and my parents took my car. When I ran away again, at one point I would climb into my friend's room through her window and sleep in the closet so her parents wouldn't see me. Other times, I slept in a tent in a park. Sometimes I was with friends, sometimes alone.
At one point, I was raped by my friend's boyfriend when we went to stay for a couple of nights at his house. I didn't tell her about it until last summer (it was 22 years ago?!) because I thought she would be mad that I slept with her boyfriend. I was overwhelmed with shame, I thought that what happened to me was somehow my fault.
After that happened, I didn't want to stay with them anymore. I did end up going back though because I needed a place to stay and I didn't really have options where I could go without being reported to the police. So I went back to staying with my best friend and my rapist, because I had nowhere to go.
There was one night though, I slept outside alone in the park. It was raining, I was lying on the ground in the mud, and mostly I just wished that I would die. I didn't sleep. I just laid there, wishing the rain would stop and I could get warm. I have never felt so cold in my life. It was horrible.
Other nights, we would go sit at IHOP and eat french fries and drink coffee all night to have somewhere warm to go. We found out that if you order something every two hours, they can't kick you out. So that is what we did. We got the cheapest things possible, so that we could make our money stretch as far as possible. We would stand at the bus stop during the day, asking people if they could spare some change for bus fare, and that is how we would support ourselves.
It wasn't an easy life, it was lonely and cold and sometimes frightening. We had no support and no allies, just each other.
Why didn't I just go home?
I didn't go home because my parents didn't want me. I ran away the first time after my parents had announced to me that they were shipping me off to live with relatives because they couldn't deal with me anymore. I had depression, and they didn't have the capacity or willingness to help me cope with my feelings.
Before I ran away, I was in my junior year of high school. I was going to graduate a year early, with a 3.5 GPA. I had above average ACT and SAT scores and was applying for college.
Then, my parents told me that I needed to move to live with my aunt and uncle.
They set a date, and told me I had to leave. At the new school, I couldn't graduate early. That meant an extra year of high school for me. Clearly they didn't really care about that.
Every time I went out with my friends, my parents would look for track marks on my arms and ask me if I was doing drugs. They thought all my friends were a bad influence on me, and didn't want me to go anywhere, even if it was just to go have dinner.
Add to that, my mom was basically apathetic to me my whole life. My dad hit me. No one cared. Not once did the police who shipped me back to my parents ever even ask why I ran away. It was heartbreaking to know that no one cared why I had left, and that no one wanted to help me.
All they ever told me was how badly I had hurt my parents. The police never asked me anything. It was all just blame towards me, as if I was the problem.
After I got home, my parents took me to therapy for a while, and I got misdiagnosed (according to my current psych) with bipolar. I was depressed, but they considered running away to be a manic episode, instead of recognizing it as a cry for help. In therapy, I didn't feel I could be truly open or honest, because my parents paid them and sat in the waiting room. I couldn't ever develop trust with my therapist. So, I never told anyone that my dad hit me, or that I was raped. Not until years later.
Even after time had passed, I still felt guilt and blame from my family over running away. I don't think they ever forgave me, and they would throw it in my face at every opportunity, making me feel like I was still an unruly teenager even when I had become a successful business woman.
It was over 20 years ago that I ran away from home. Things are different now.
There is help and hope.
Last year I came across the website for runaway prevention month sponsored by the National Runaway Safeline. I perused their website for quite a while, and I found out that if kids have run away and called, they don't automatically just get sent back to their parents. I almost cried. I wished so hard that something like this had been there for me and my friends back in the day.
The National Runaway Safeline poses the question, "What do I do if I can't go back to living with my parents? If returning home isn’t an option, NRS can help you create an alternative plan that keeps you safe. This is a complex situation, but you do have options." That means the world to me. I'm sure it does to many other teens as well.
For kids that are wishing to go home, they also provide a "home free" program that will get them a bus ticket home from anywhere.
What should I do if my teen has run away?
When they come home, or are brought home, ask them why they ran away.
All of the times that I ran away, no one ever bothered to ask me that. If they would have, maybe I would have gotten help for cPTSD in my teens, instead of having to wait until my 30's to be diagnosed.
Once you find out why they ran away, do what you can to address the underlying issues. I think what happens when kids run away is that, running away is treated as the problem. Running away isn't the problem, it is a symptom of the problem.
Perhaps your child has had instances of bullying, perhaps they have been assulted, perhaps they feel unsafe at school, or perhaps they feel unsafe at home.
Whatever the reason may be, it may be a good idea to get your child into therapy for the issues that they are facing. It is also important to be compassionate with them, validate their feelings, and let them know that you are willing to listen without passing judgement.
If they have not come home yet, you can text to let them know that you just want them to be safe. Hopefully they may be staying with a friend. You can also give them the number of the National Runaway Safeline (1-800-RUNAWAY) so that they can talk to one of the counselors there.
When a child runs away from home, it can be heartbreaking for the parents. It is important to remember, however, that the child has probably done this as a last resort, because they feel unsafe or unheard at home.
Runaway teens are usually teens feeling a great deal of pain. Kids want to be with their parents and be loved. If they are shown that is an achievable option, most likely they will be willing to go home and give things another chance.
In cases of abuse or neglect, there is help available for runaway and homeless teens.
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To further education about the issues runaway teens face, please give this article a share to help raise awareness, and help runaways who are still suffering.