Preventing children from running away Q&A

Tracey Haycox and Sandra Scott As part of Mumsnet's ongoing campaign with Aviva and Railway Children to raise awareness about runaway children, Tracy Haycox, director of Children and Young People's Services at SAFE@LAST, and psychiatrist Dr Sandra Scott answer Mumsnetters' questions on teenage psychological issues, as well as how to approach the issue of running away with your child.

Dr Sandra Scott's experience includes family therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and parent/child work. SAFE@LAST, a Railway Children partner, offers a range of services to children, young people and their families, including preventative education, a helpline, one-to-one support, family work, street-based youth work, a refuge and return-home interviews.


Signs to watch for

Q. CheeseStrawWars: Is there a 'typical' background of a child who is likely to run away, in terms of the family dynamic?

A. Tracy Haycox: It would be so much easier for us all if there was a 'typical' background. Young people from all geographical and economical backgrounds run away from home. However we have found that conflict in the home is a very common reason.

We know from research conducted by The Children's Society that young people in care are three times more likely to run away, and there are higher rates of running away in stepfamilies and in households where there has been a change in adults where young people live within the past 12 months.

Q. Isitme1: On average, is it just low-income families that are affected?

A. Tracy Haycox: Research from The Children's Society found higher rates of running away in low-income families. Other research has suggested that family change and other family issues may be more important than income level. At SAFE@LAST, we have known children and young people from all economic backgrounds to run away from home. Having or not having money does not stop families from falling out, it just means they fall out about different stuff.

"There is no one personality type that runs away and another that does not. There are many factors that contribute to a child's decision to run."

Q. Jennybeadle: Do children who run away usually give warnings, or are quiet, thoughtful children as likely to do it?

A. Dr Sandra Scott: There is no one personality type that runs away and another that does not. There are many factors that contribute to a child's decision to run. In most cases their circumstances play a much more significant role in their decision making than their personality type. Of course, certain traits such as impulsivity may increase their risk, but it is usually their perceived circumstances that are the decisive factor.

Q. EduCated: I volunteer with a youth group once a week. I've got to know some of the members reasonably well, but only see them for a couple of hours a week. Are there any particular things to watch out for in this short space of time, which might suggest a young person is struggling?

A. Dr Sandra Scott: You mention that you have got to know some of the members well. This is good as you may be able to pick up on changes in behaviour, mood and attitudes despite only seeing them for a couple of hours a week. Negative changes can suggest a young person is struggling. If you have a good relationship with them, you can let them know they can view you as a source of support if this is appropriate to your role in the youth club.

I do not know your background or qualifications, but depending on your circumstances you may need to get a second opinion from a colleague/supervisor at the youth group, or even an outside professional, to decide who is best to talk to them and how best to approach the subject and proceed.

Q. pepperrabbit: At what point does the idle threat to leave home, said in the heat of the moment, become a reality that the child considers a real (or only) option?

A. Tracy Haycox: If only we had a definitive answer to this one, then maybe we could work it out with our children and young people and stop them running away. This is different for every child or young person. Some will do it instantly, others will go away and think about and even plan it in some cases. There is no exact moment. Maybe as parents we need to think about how we respond to our children and young people in the heat of the moment, to try to be part of making sure the threat never even occurs.

Q. CheeseStrawWars: In your experience, have children tried and failed to talk to their parents about the problem before they run away, or do they tend to just not talk to their parents at all?

A. Tracy Haycox: For every child and young person the situation is different. Some children and young people try as hard as they can to talk and their words fall on deaf ears, others think they have been listened to and nothing changes and some don't bother but take action and run away.

Communication is a hard thing to get right, especially when you're talking about your feelings and particularly if you haven't got the right words and are feeling upset.

Providing help and support

Q. Isitme1: How can you know that a teen is having issues and what do you recommend parents do to help?

A. Dr Sandra Scott: Generally, a good guide to your teen having an issue is a change in behaviour. For example, if you start noticing that they get quieter, more withdrawn, more disruptive, more challenging, sleep much more or less or stop seeing old friends. If you notice a change then it's important to pick the right time to talk to them and gently broach the subject of what you have noticed.

"Avoid leading questions and watch your facial expressions and tone of voice. Don't let your anxiety allow you to become negative, angry, judgmental or jump to conclusions."

Avoid leading questions and watch your facial expressions and tone of voice. Don't let your anxiety allow you to become negative, angry, judgmental or jump to conclusions. Let them do most of the talking at their own pace. If they really don't want to talk don't push it. Respect their decision and try again on another occasion. Maybe ask them how they would like to proceed.

Remember, there is no one answer. Find what approach works best for you and your teen. If you are stumped, then seek advice on how to go about this from people close to you who you trust and knows you and your teen. Sometimes it may be appropriate to get more information from the people in your teen's life who see them in a different context, eg school, friends, siblings, and relatives. Be careful with this approach though as you don't want your teen to think you are snooping or checking up on them.

Q. WowOoo: If a teen doesn't want to talk to their parents because something is too private/ embarrassing or they are afraid they'll get into trouble, who can you tell them to talk to?

A. Dr Sandra Scott: Good communication is important in any relationship, including your relationship with your children. All too often these emotive conversations can go wrong because of your feelings such as anxiety, fear or embarrassment. Get yourself in the right frame of mind first.

If you want your teen to open up, then you need to create an atmosphere where they feel they don't need to fear your response to what they have to say. You need to accept in advance you may not like what you are going to hear but it's important to be as receptive as you can be. Maybe run through worse-case scenarios in your mind beforehand to prepare your response and get your 'appalled' reaction out of the way in private.

Be honest with them and let them know how you are feeling, too, and that it's not just them who can find these conversations difficult. Sometimes it can be helpful to remind them you were once a teen too, in their position, squirming in front of your mother. Thinking and talking about your own experiences could help both of you and bring you together through the shared experience.

Q. WowOoo: How can I get a child to feel that there is always someone wise and sensible who can advise (especially in a small family)?

A. Dr Sandra Scott: Once again, good communication, mutual respect and trust are key factors in a healthy child-parent relationship. This can allow the child to feel supported and protected and know they will always have their parent to turn to. A note of caution is that there is no such thing as a 'perfect parent'. Sometimes you will be neither wise nor sensible. You will not always have all the answers and never pretend that you will. They won't believe you anyway. Being honest with your child about your own fallibility is also crucial to a good relationship with them.

Q. cats22: Who can a child/teen turn to if they feel the need to run away?

A. Tracy Haycox: We encourage young people to identify a trusted adult they can talk to instead of running away. This might be a teacher, mentor, youth worker or relative. However, young people can also call Childline on 0800 1111 or Missing People on 116 000 if they want to speak with someone in confidence.

Q. Isitme1: What work could schools do to help teens?

A. Tracy Haycox: In general schools can help teens by being aware of what is going on in their local community and making sure that they are helpful and supportive when their students need it most. Many schools offer a type of pastoral care to their pupils, which can often include counsellors, signposting about issues eg drugs/alcohol and listening services.

Additionally, some schools are very good at inviting outside organisations in to speak to their students about issues. For example, here at SAFE@LAST in South Yorkshire, we have a very popular education programme that deals with the issue of running away. In other areas there will be relevant organisations out there that are willing to speak in schools about issues such as homelessness, child sexual exploitation, domestic violence etc.

I suggest you contact your local school to see how they address the issues that teens face and if you feel that they are lacking, to make some suggestions based on any local knowledge you may have.

Q. Holly129: I work in the care industry where we run several care homes for children (age 8-19). The law seems to work against the best interests of the children. The staff are not allowed to stop the children from leaving the home, and we find many children do run away and put themselves at risk on the streets. How is it that once they're 'safe' they don't stay safe?

A. Tracy Haycox: It is a well-documented fact that many looked-after children run away from the 'new, safe' home that they are placed in. This is not always because they are being harmed there, but because they would just rather be somewhere else and sometimes anywhere else. Some young people see themselves as being very capable of 'staying safe' and 'looking after themselves', with care staff being very worried about the situations that the young people are placing themselves in.

I would suggest that care staff build very good relationships with the local police force and placing authorities and consider carefully the 'care plans' which are in place for the young people in their care, making sure that the young person is part of the plan.

Q. Sirboobalert: Dr Scott, what about the options when family therapy and CBT aren't suitable? I have seen both handed out and then further down the line it has become clear that these are not appropriate for situations. What do you feel needs to change to make sure that young people - and their families - get sufficient support, rather than the 'one size fits all' that CBT has become?

A. Dr Sandra Scott: I am sorry to hear that you seem to have had some unfortunate experiences with mental health services. Of course no therapy, however effective it is, will ever be appropriate in all circumstances. As you put it, there is no 'one size fits all'.

"A young person has to be given assurance that you will not judge them and, especially, that you will not blame them."

The first step in receiving help is identifying the problem as precisely as possible. So, the first step should be a thorough assessment.

To prepare for this, adequate and relevant information must be gathered from as many sources as necessary. Sometimes however with psychological problems, even when these steps are carried out as well as they can be, not all the information comes to light and not all the problems are correctly identified. It is a common occurrence that as therapy progresses more issues come to light. Accordingly, the initial treatment may need to be adapted or changed completely as the problem changes or evolves.

The important thing is for everybody involved - therapist and clients - is to recognise and acknowledge as quickly as possible when treatment is not working adequately and reassess the situation. Sometimes this will require commencing a new and more appropriate treatment. The best safeguard is ongoing reassessment and good open communication between the therapist and the client, both of which are standard good practice.

Running away

Q Eastpoint: How long does a typical runaway stay away from home?

A Tracy Haycox: Recent research from The Children's Society found that 38% of young people only stayed away for one night. However, 16% had stayed away for more than four weeks. Obviously the longer young people stay away, the more risks they are exposed to.

Q. Iliana Dupree: How do you ensure runaways effectively communicate their issues so that you can help them to find safety in abuse cases?

A. Tracy Haycox : Talking about your life to anyone is a difficult thing to do and as a young person you may not even have the right words to communicate your situation fully. Effective communication with a young person is dependent on a number of factors including the trust the young person has for the person they are talking to and the young person's mood for example.

A young person has to be given assurance that you will not judge them and, especially, that you will not blame them. It is important that before the young person speaks they understand what will happen to the information and also who will hear it. This way they can make informed choices about what they say.

Q. Jenny beadle: How often is running away 'just' a need for a bit of space for a while, or is it always about a complete break?

A. Tracy Haycox: Young people often claim they need space as someone in the family is 'doing their head in'. I think we can all identify with that at times. For different young people it is different things at different times, some cannot return to the place they live in and need a complete break, some just need to be away for a bit.

Support on returning

Q. Iliana Dupree: What do you as professionals do to learn from those with first-hand experience?

A. Dr Sandra Scott: As a professional working in mental health you are constantly learning from those with, as you describe, 'first-hand experience' and effectively updating your knowledge base. Getting information like this from a very different perspective can be hugely informative.

Q. Jenny beadle : How much support is available for runaways who return to their family home?

A. Tracy Haycox: A recent Freedom of Information request found that two-thirds of councils had no dedicated runaways project. This means that the amount and type of support available is dependent on the area in which they live. According to government guidance, all young people should be offered a 'Return Home Interview' from an independent person and support afterwards to address the issues which led them to run away.

At SAFE@LAST, we provide these interviews and one-to-one support, but in some areas there is little or no support available. To find out if there are any services in your area you could contact your local authority.

For more information on what to do if your teenager is missing, you can visit our missing teenager help and advice section. 

Disclaimer: Please note, this Q&A is intended to provide you with practical information and advice. To the extent permissible by law, Mumsnet Limited (along with partners participating in the Q&A) assumes no responsibility for information published on this site and disclaims all liability in respect of such information. Please see our full Disclaimer here for more info.




Last updated: 9 months ago