What to Say and Do if your Child Threatens to Run Away.

On Friday, November 14, I was watching the news report on the tragic death of a teenage boy who ran away from home after fighting with his parents about his over-use of a video game.  He’d been missing for many days. He apparently died from a fall from a tree.

Fighting between parents and kids happens all the time. There are some unfortunate children for whom home is truly a horrible place to be and when they are old enough they take their chances on the street.

But in most cases the homes are safe and the families are loving.  When children passionately want to do (or not do) something and they run up against parents who pressure or block them, they often think of running away.  Some threaten to run away.  Few act on it.

This news story was one of those ordinary family struggles that turned extraordinary when the boy accidentally died.  The parents and the boy got into a power struggle about his video game behavior.  He threatened to leave home and his father helped him pack his knapsack.

When children actually run away, they usually realize, in a relatively short time, that not living at home is uncomfortable and scary.  They come back with a new respect and appreciation of home.  The parents are relieved their child is home safe.  Each is changed by the experience. They figure things out.  In this family’s case, the outcome was tragic.  The family never got the chance to reconcile.

Realistically, parents cannot stop their children from running away. Yes, parents can confine them to their rooms, but not forever.  When children are determined to run away, they will figure out how and when to do it. They are usually hurt and angry. They feel unloved. They feel powerless to influence their parents.  In an attempt to regain power,  they run away.

Some children will put themselves at risk to prove a point.

What to say and do if your child threatens to run away.

1.  Take seriously repeated threats to runaway.  Ignore frivolous threats.

2.  Parents need to extricate themselves from the power struggle. It takes two to fight.  When children are passionate about what is going on, most are unable to stop fighting. Parents are the ones that need to make the shift.  They need to stop fighting without abdicating their authority.  Not easy to do. Then children are less likely to actually leave.

3.  As best you can, let go of your anger.  If you are unable to, then talk about it.  Children need to know they are cared for and it is difficult for them to feel loved when parents are angry.

4. Tell your children in words that you do not want them to go.  They need to hear it.

5. Acknowledge that you cannot stop them from going.  By acknowledging your child’s power they do not have to push so hard to prove to you they have it. This means they no longer need to fight.  They can now choose to stay.

6. NEVER CALL A CHILD’S BLUFF.  Doing this escalates the power struggle and backs the child into a corner.  They are more likely to leave even though they do not want to.  They are more likely to do   something that puts them at risk.  NEVER HELP THEM PACK or do anything that makes them feel unwanted. It makes it harder for a child to come back home and save face when they do.


Parent(s), “I don’t want you to go.  I want you to stay and work this out with me (us). I really care about you and I worry about your safety and well-being if you go.”

Parent(s), “I wish you would not go.  I do not like your decision, but I respect it.”

Parent(s), “I know I’m angry.  It’s because you are really important to me.  If I didn’t care about you I would not be angry.”

Parent(s), “I will be really sad if you go.”

Parent(s), “If you want to stay with your friend Jimmy or your grandmother for awhile, let’s arrange it.

Parent(s), “No matter what happens, you are always welcome to come back.”

Parent(s), “When you come back we will work things out so we can live together in a way that works for all of us.”

Parent(s), “I’m glad you’re back. Let’s just enjoy today and talk about things tomorrow.”

Parenting is not easy.  Few parents are prepared to handle situations like this.  As children get older, the stakes get higher.  My hope is that parents learn to handle power struggles in a healthy way and fewer tragedies happen.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea

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