By Leslie Davis
You've tried everything to keep your teen from running away from home: setting the alarm, keeping 24-hour watch, moving their bedroom to the second floor. But they somehow still manage to sneak out, leaving you wondering where they are, who they're with and if they're safe.
If you have a teen who has run away on more than one occasion, you know how scary it can be. You also know how powerless you feel to do anything about it.
While you may feel helpless when it comes to preventing your teen from disappearing, there are some things you can do to prevent it from happening again, according to Jason Drake, LCSW, clinical program manager at Island View residential treatment center for adolescents in Syracuse, Utah.
Make Sure Your Teen is Safe
Your first priority should be making sure your teen is safe, Drake said. Call the homes of your teen's friends or other family members first to see if your teen has landed with one of them. If your teen has run away more than once, investigate the places they ran to in the past. If all of these turn up empty, or if your teen has been missing for a significant amount of time, call the police so they can track your teen down.
Seek Outpatient Therapy
Teens often run away as an avoidance mechanism to prevent them from having to deal with their issues with family, friends or school. They may also seek escape through drug or alcohol abuse or self-harm (such as cutting).
"A runner is typically someone who avoids issues or problems, and running away is an extreme form of avoidance," Drake explained.
Seeking outpatient therapy can help your teen address their issues and problems and learn healthy coping mechanisms to deal with them, instead of avoiding them in the hopes they will just disappear. Outpatient therapy can come in the form of individual therapy, group therapy and family therapy, and a teen who is dealing with extreme avoidance issues may need all three.
While outpatient therapy can be effective for helping your teen break an impulse to run away, this method of therapy may not work for all kids, Drake said. "Kids who run away tend to avoid, and in an outpatient setting they can continue to avoid," he explained. "They don't have to participate -- they can choose to be silent, dishonest or manipulative."
Enroll Teen in a Residential Treatment Program
If outpatient therapy is not effective for your teen, you may need to consider a residential treatment program such as Island View, which can keep your teen safe while helping them face their issues and learn healthy ways to cope.
Island View is uniquely positioned to treat teens with avoidance issues, or those who have a problem running away from home. To ensure the safety of all students and to prevent kids from running away, the residential treatment center keeps the external doors on its dorms locked. Students who have a history of running away from home are placed under 24-hour supervision by staff until they have proven that they will no longer attempt to run.
"If your kids continue to run away, they need to get somewhere that is safe and secure. They need somewhere they can expect to confront those issues in an environment where avoidance is no longer an option," Drake said. "At a residential treatment center, it's not only hard for kids to run, but it's really difficult for kids to avoid their problems for long."
Island View uses a multi-disciplinary approach to get to the root of a teen's avoidance issues. All onsite staff members, from the teachers to the nurses to the therapists, become familiar with a teen's needs, and work to help them address their core issues. Other students at the school also become knowledgeable of a teen's problems and will often hold teens accountable if they are attempting to avoid a situation or planning to run away, Drake said.
"Our students really deal, address and work through their avoidance issues," he said. "Once they get to the other side, they feel better about themselves and their lives, and their desire to run diminishes or goes away completely."
Get Involved to Ensure Success
An important component of helping your teen work through their avoidance issues and reducing their desire to run away is family therapy. Unless parents get actively involved in the process of helping their teen, the skills teens learned through therapy will not be permanent.
At Island View, family involvement is considered vital to a full recovery by students. The residential treatment center gets parents involved through weekly therapy sessions, quarterly parent seminars, multi-family group therapy and home visits, when teens can test the new skills and tools they've acquired.
"For kids to be successful at home, parents need to make changes themselves," Drake explained. "Both the parents and the kids need to be invested."
Your teens will learn new ways to cope while they are at a residential treatment center. When they return home, they will want to put those skills to use. If you are not equipped with the skills to support your teens and help them adapt to a new family dynamic, there is a chance they will return to old behaviors.
"Parents need to be active in the process, and recognize that there are things they need to change as well," Drake said. That may mean having to seek treatment for your own issues, whether they involve marital problems, substance abuse, a mood disorder or another issue.
If your teens have a habit of running away, they are likely using it as a way to cope and avoid deeper issues. Getting to the root of those issues can help ensure that your teen doesn't want to run anywhere but home.