When we hear about teenage runaways we think of harsh families filled with drunkenness and poverty, physical and sexual abuse, and parents who don’t want their children. We think of teenagers forced into prostitution, drugs, crime and early death, kids who are victims of uncaring, hurtful parents. They are kids who come from mean homes, kids who need to be mean to survive on cold city streets, kids, who out of desperation, choose desperate lives. Many of these young people run away from harsh environments to a fantasy of glamour, adventure and freedom. They end up, though, not with their fantasies, but in the dirt of the streets as pimps, whores, druggies, thieves, hustlers and corpses. These are haunting images.
There are other kids out here, not running away from something, but running to something. Something they call partying. They come from families that care about them, from loving homes, wealthy, middle class, poor – all races. Parents often desperately say: “My kid comes and goes”. Most parents have gone the route of counselors, psychiatrists, special schools, etc., but nothing seems to help. His friends all look like bums and he fits in with them like a glove. The families fear the dangers of their kids’ choices, while their kids see only excitement and fun.
These kids are busy partying, doing drugs, skipping school, shoplifting, hitchhiking, having sex and making believe they are adults. These young people are called “run to’s” because they are running to partying and to where they get the least hassle. When the streets get tough they come home, but want to dictate the terms on which they will come home. When home becomes a bother, they leave again.
A run-to stays around the neighborhood or takes to the road, often phoning home to ask for something. The run-to has a network of resources and can find a place to stay almost any night. They represent themselves as polite, nice kids who have troubles at home. The media and public are all too ready to accept that whatever the kid says is fact without considering that they may lie or distort the truth for their own purposes. They assume that if the kid runs away, the parents must be doing something wrong.
Kids stay out because staying out is easy and as long as it stays easy the run-to stays out. Eventually the run-to gets tired or runs into too much hassle and heads back home.
Run-to’s can develop unhealthy, dangerous lifestyles – hanging out with sleazy people, stealing for income, trading sex for drugs. Sometimes they die as victims of violence, drunken driving or bad drugs. Run-to’s face risks, but until they experience the negative consequences of their lifestyle it’s the parents who suffer.
Few of us expect to have children who run away. Most of us think of ourselves as responsible, caring adults, not ogres who drive our kids onto the streets, but when it happens even the strongest parents are shaken. We lose confidence in ourselves and search our souls for the reasons for our child’s actions. We feel frightened, ashamed, guilty, but most of all we feel helpless. We are willing to forgive them and indulge them to somehow keep them home and safe.
As parents of run-to’s we become so anxious to please our kids, to show them that we love them and to receive their love in return. We succumb and cater to our kids so they will want to stay home and grow up in ways we think will help them. We think that if we give enough or act loving enough or hurt enough or angry enough, the kids will stay. Despite all our efforts the kids don’t see or hear us. Their eyes and minds are elsewhere, thinking about good times on the street, partying, and excitement.
Kids use their running away as a threat, as a manipulative tool. When a child in his or her teens runs away from home, we panic. We envisage the worst – sordid street scenes fill our minds. Threats to run away terrorize us, we feel blackmailed. So when our child comes home, we surrender our confidence and dignity to prevent the reality of our fears.
Kids run away for a variety of reasons:
- Drugs and partying
- Won’t manage their lives at home, school or work
- Won’t face problems they have created for themselves
- Won’t stand the pain and anxiety of growing up
- Make impulsive decisions
They simply want their own way, so they leave. After all, splitting, separating, divorcing and looking for new relationships are acceptable cultural norms for adults as well as young people. Leaving has become a popular way to solve problems.
In TOUGHLOVE® our first task is to confront the habit of running away. We put aside our shame and fear and go public. We call the police or school and discuss the whole situation with other parents in the TOUGHLOVE® group. Notifying the legal authorities is the appropriate legal procedure and helps parents avoid complications with the law.
Changing our responses stymies manipulative kids who know how to push their parents’ buttons to get what they want. We need to learn to change how we respond to our manipulative children. Even though we have grown accustomed to their behavior doesn’t mean we need to accept it. By involving the legal system and having the run-to’s declared as wards of the court forces the kid’s to realize that parents won’t tolerate their behavior. It also allows for formal help in mandating treatment and counseling for the child. It can also provide leverage for some children who are willing to make the necessary changes so that they can move back home.
For most parents the thought of confronting our run-to son or daughter seems frightening. If we fear a young person is starting to live a desperate life of drug addiction or prostitution or theft, then we want to keep our child home where we think he or she is safe. We avoid rocking the boat by making even minor demands because we might break the last tenuous thread and will lose our child forever. So we maintain our child’s cruel life and our fears rather than take the risk of losing him or her.
BUT we need to take that risk by saying: “Our home and our family are worth coming home to, not because you’re burned out and need a place to rest, but because we love and value you. If you want to be a real member of our family, this is what you have to abide by.” We provide them with a list of what we expect of them, which can be signed in agreement. We refer to these as ‘non negotiable conditions for living in the home’ which everyone abides by. These conditions include all major behavioral issues but are limited to only the big ones. We are effectively making a significant change to our own behaviour and by laying down this marker we are giving the problem to our problem person. We take a risk by asking our run-to to choose between family life and the sloppy life he is leading and we get to the point where we accept their choice, even if it means losing our child for now. The accommodations we have made have already put us on the brink of losing our child.
Wherever the run-to goes, whether family member’s friends or strangers, parents need to get all his support people to agree to refuse him shelter until he has straightened things out at home. If they are unwilling to co-operate parents may ask the do-gooders if they are prepared to assume legal responsibility for the child or can threaten to press charges for “corrupting the morals of a minor.
” Many people believe these young con artists and let them stay in their homes without ever checking with their parents. They believe they are helping, when in fact they are not.
TOUGHLOVE® members in the United States came up with a successful innovation called UNWANTED POSTERS. The posters each bore a photo of the run-to with the word “UNWANTED” in large bold letters. Underneath the photo was the name of the run-to, the telephone number of a group contact person, and an inscription which read: “This child is UNWANTED in your home. He does not have permission to stay away from home, so please do not become an accessory to a RUNAWAY by taking him in. If you want to help him, call this telephone number to report his location.”
The more parents can undermine a run-to’s resources, the more hassle parents can create for the run-to’s allies, the more fearful the run-to is that the police are involved, the more embarrassed he is about everyone hearing about his behavior, the more likely that he’ll come around. Ironically, parental shame is the runaway’s biggest asset because it keeps parents from contacting other people.
When a run-to wants to return home, parents have the opportunity to impose the ‘non-negotiable conditions’ we discuss at TOUGHLOVE® meetings. This usually cites only three or four conditions for living in the home and indicates that consequences are applicable if these are transgressed. One condition will certainly relate to leaving the home without permission. What we are doing with this ‘process’ is we are changing a potential crises (the next time he or she leaves home) to a ‘controlled crises’! We now have the opportunity to change the paradigm by transferring the responsibility to our run-to.
A returning run-to has a real commitment to make and will need a place to live until the meeting is held. Not permitting the child to return home before he or she makes the commitment to change helps the family avoid another round of manipulation and wishful thinking.
A young person who values his raunchy lifestyle over his family is a young person who is not fit to live with. His parents are not responsible for his decision to leave and they need not burden themselves with guilt. People do not have to live with monsters, even if the monsters are their children. Taking an abusive child back without a commitment to personal change is not even helpful to the child – and certainly not helpful to the rest of the family.