A Guide to Help Runaway Youths
She was a smart girl,” said Sreejith, referring to his stepdaughter, Ananya. “She got good grades too,”. Annaya’s mother, Loveena, added, “until seventh grade.” Ananya grew up in Mangalore, a city located about 352 km west of Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka.
“At first, Loveena said, “she just started skipping school with some friends. They weren’t bad kids. Most of them didn’t even smoke” Soon, however, Ananya started sneaking out of the house at night to hang out at friend’s homes, staying up late, talking and listening to music.
“We tried everything, Ananya’s mother said, “but nothing worked.” Finally, her mother and stepfather decided they were unable to control Ananya and concerned about her influence on her younger brother and two sisters, they send her to grandmother’s place in Kochi, Kerala.
Ananya ran away from the grandma’s home but was soon caught and placed in a boarding school, where she met another runaway named Megha. Ananya and Megha became fast friends. Two months after Ananya’s arrival at the boarding school, she and Megha cut a hole in their bedroom window screen, crawled out, and crept to the quiet country road that ran by the boarding school. By the time their absence was discovered, Ananya and Megha had hitched a ride to port Kochi.
Megha took, Ananya to an apartment complex she had once lived in an assortment of dreary dingy apartments populated by prostitutes, small time criminals, drug addicts and runaway.
Megha left soon after their arrival, but Ananya stayed on. Her pretty face and figure made her the center of attention among the men-many of them two or three times her age-who played cards, drank beer, and smoked pot in the rooms and hallways of the complex.
On September 12, 2022, however, Ananya’s mom and stepdad received a call.
Ananya had been found dead in a pool of blood on the floor of apartment 113. She had been shot in the head at close range by a nineteen-year-old boy who was high at the time of the shooting.
Ananya was fourteen when she died.
Problem of Running Behavior
More than one million Indian teenagers run away from home every year. Some estimates place the numbers much higher, perhaps between two and four million. The average age of these runaways is fourteen. Seventy percent are from middle and lower middle-class families. 16 percent from affluent homes, and the remaining 14 percent are from poor backgrounds.
“At least half of all youth who run away from home,” writes Gary D. Bennett, “stay within the town or vicinity in which they live, many going to a friend’s or relative’s house. Most runaway episodes seem to be poorly planned, reflecting impulsive behavior, and most runaways return within a week. Generally, the length of time gone from home increases with age.”
Keith Wade, a program supervisor at a shelter for runaways, adds, “There is a pattern to running behavior. Kids run for the first time overnight, typically to someone close to them, a friend or a relative. But the more they run the further they go, and the longer they stay.”
Wade also observes that the runaway problem is not only becoming more serious and widespread; it is also spreading to younger kids. “The average age of the kids we see here now is 14 1/2 and it was 16 when I started. [T]hat’s an 18-month decline in the average age in five years, which is significant. . . . Thirteen-year- olds used to be rare; now they are common.”
Wade says he has also seen a change in the problems of runaway teens, both before and after their “running behavior” begins. “The kids have worse problems. When first came, the typical girl we’d see would be experiencing communication problems at home, and maybe there was some abuse. Now we’re seeing kids who have already been hospitalized for depression or because of suicide attempts.
Kids who run away from home these days bear little or no resemblance to the comic-strip image of Dennis the Menace with a kerchief on a pole slung over his shoulder. It is an increasingly common and frequently tragic problem.
Dr. James Oraker says, “My experience suggests recent that teenagers who run away fit into one of three from categories: the runaway, the throwaway, or the just plain bored.” He elaborates:
The runaway is running from a situation he or she can no longer tolerate. Conflict is so great that members of the family can hardly stand each other. . . The pressure builds until the young person finally leaves home.
Another type of runaway is the young person who lives two lives. One pleases the parents, but a second, secret, life violates what the parents want. Parents become suspicious and begin to ask questions. It becomes more and more difficult to remember what excuse was given. The young person fears that the parents will “find out” and leaves home before the “lid blows.”
The throwaway was usually rejected as a child During adolescence, the rejection becomes more and more open and blatant. . . To escape, the young person may start drifting; he or she leaves home with no resistance or is told to leave home for the sake of the family. . .
Finally, there is the just plain bored. The message I hear from them is, “No big conflict. My parents and I just agreed that home was sort of a ‘place to land’ for all of us, so I decided to do what everyone else is doing- drift. I really get into looking at people and seeing what’s happening in other parts of the country.” These young people are difficult to help because they don’t want help. . . Some of them are committed to nothing and desperate for love. This category of runaways is possibly the most frustrating to work with.
Causes of Running Behavior
Factors contributing to running behavior include abuse, alienation, rebellion a perceived lack of control, and fear.
“Youth don’t run for fun or adventure,” says Wade. The majority don’t run to anything. They run from something, usually abuse, emotional, physical or sexual. Or just plain neglect. They are victims when they run, and often they are victimized again.”
A study of adolescents and young adults at Covenant House, a center for runaway youth, discovered that 86 percent of the runaways they interviewed reported suffering some form of physical abuse in their homes before running away.
“Running away is an attempt to solve a problem, says Oraker. The problem, he says, is commonly “alienation-strong feelings of separation or rejection that explode inside. . . Alienation is usually a family problem that brews for years. He suggests that many teens who run away are simply doing what their parents have been doing for years, except that Mom and Dad may have “runaway” into their jobs or into drinking, for example.
Rules without relationships lead to rebellion and running behavior is often an expression of rebellion. (See also Rebellion – Bijoyful) One mother of a runaway said that her daughter “didn’t like rules. That must have been why she ran.” The girl’s father concurred. “We had rules set up for all the kids, and none of them followed ’em to a T, but she went out of her way to let us know she didn’t want to. You couldn’t hold her no matter where she was.”
A healthy parent-child relationship is no guarantee that a young person will not run away, but it certainly helps temper the adolescent tendency to resist and rebel against rules, which may, in turn, prevent and/or address running behavior.
A Perceived Lack of Control
Bhasker Pandey ran away from his suburban Mumbai home in late 2021 in order to avoid the painful chemotherapy treatments he had been undergoing in order to combat Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Bhasker’s parents returned home from work on Wednesday, December 26, to find the note he left behind. “He felt he had no control at all” Pandey explained. “We had basically told him, ‘You’re going to get chemo’ and that was that. Bhasker’s case ended happily four weeks later, when Bhasker returned home with an agreement to explore less painful treatments.
Adolescents, like adults, need to feel a sense of control over their lives. They may respond positively to appropriate parental guidelines and boundaries, but the teen who begins to feel as though his parents-or someone or something else control everything he says or does may respond by shedding his parents’ control and running away.
Dr. Oraker describes one teen girl runaway as an example of the fear that is occasionally a factor in a young person’s decision to run away. (See also Anxiety – Bijoyful) He writes:
She was out of tune with her family and with society. She had deep personal fears of failing and not being able to make it anywhere. For her, drugs, sexual involvement, and running away were ways of coping with those fears.”
Other possible reasons a teen may run from home, according to Gary D. Bennett, include:
- To avoid feeling a lack of love
- To escape a “situation”
- To avoid punishment
- To respond to friends
- To seek attention
- To ease emotional problems
- To act out feelings the teenager has about parents, siblings, or other “important” people in his life
- To find a meaningful family relationship (often a teenager may be detached or rootless)
- To avoid disappointing parents when the teenager feels something he has done will not please them
- To attempt to control, i.e. he exploits the threat of running away in order to manipulate the parent
- To test independence and prove he can make it on his own without parental supervision.
Effects of Running Behavior
Running away from home seldom-if ever- solves the problems to which the teen is reacting. On the contrary, leaving home is often just the beginning of the teen’s problems.
Survival becomes a critical dilemma [for many] since most runaway episodes are poorly planned. Food is obtained by begging or shoplifting. If shelter isn’t available with friends, then a runaway must resort to living and sleeping in bus stops, railway stations, basements etc. When money runs out, work is usually impossible to find because the runaway is underage and doesn’t have the skills maturity, or legal acceptability to be hired.
The realities of running behavior and of life on the street make runaways extremely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. News magazine reports:
Vulnerability to Exploitation and Abuse
Many teenage runaways end up as tragic figure. An internal police report made public in September (2016) said that one female recruiter for a local brothel took in runaways and put them to work as prostitutes. Then, in late October, the Youth Victims Project, a joint investigation by social agencies and the police into allegations of abuse of street kids by men issued another report. Project members identified 183 girls, some as young as 10, who had been sexually abused by up to 100 men. Usually, the men picked up the girls at downtown haunts and took them home, where they gave them drugs and alcohol and, in many cases, raped them after the girls were too impaired to resist. Still, many girls clearly went willingly with the men-and declined to report the attacks. The men provided for the girls at the basic levels shelter, food, clothing and companionship.” said the report. “The victims regarded the sexual exploitation as a small price to pay for the attention they received.”
In addition to a heightened vulnerability to exploitation and abuse, running behavior is also often accompanied by criminal behavior. Bennett writes:
Problems with the law are inevitable because running away and the necessities of survival create circumstances, which lead to illegal behavior A runaway may be charged with such offenses as disorderly conduct, hitchhiking possession and use of alcohol and other drugs, being declared “wayward” or “uncontrollable” and shoplifting.
Runaways also frequently struggle with malnutrition and poor health. They are often plagued by severe feelings of guilt, shame, and low self- esteem. They are susceptible to bouts of depression. Their psychosocial development is typically stunted, and they often become trapped in a cycle of dependency and victimization that can be extremely difficult to break.
Response to the Problem of Runaway Threats and Attempts
It’s not always possible to predict or anticipate running behavior in teens. The wise parent or concerned adult must be alert to the possible causes of running behavior (abuse, alienation, rebellion, a perceived lack of control, and fear) and seek to address conditions that may contribute to such behavior before the situation reaches a crisis point. In addition, because most teens run to a friend or relative first, it is sometimes possible to prevent further running behavior by addressing the reasons for such behavior as soon as its shown to be true. Some of the following suggestions may help a caring parent, youth leader, teacher, or youth worker to reach out to a teen who has shown or is showing signs of running behavior.
Pandey, the father of Bhasker, admits to having learned a valuable lesson from Bhasker’s running behavior: to listen “You need to really understand what they’re going through” he said.” Allow the young person to talk at length-about the reason(s) he or she wants to run away. Avoid the temptation to answer or argue what he or she says, criticism or correction will restrain communication and may prevent the concerned adult from discovering the true reason(s) for the behavior. Some helpful questions may include:
- When did you first think about running away?
- What makes you want to run?
- Can you remember a time when you didn’t think about running? What things were different then?
- What do you think running will do for you?
- What things do you think would have to change in order for you to not think about running?
“My characteristic way of approaching behavioral problems, says William Lee Carter, “is to consider matters from the teenager’s point of view. Although I am not likely to agree with the teen in all areas of concern, my knowledge of his or her viewpoint provides invaluable information that I can eventually use in providing a beneficial response.” Try to see things through the eyes of the teen without taking sides in any disagreement.
Bennett writes, “At whatever stage one becomes involved in the teenager’s return, reassurance and protection should be the message the child receives-certainly not fear of discipline.” Strive to communicate unconditional love, acceptance, and esteem to the teen.
Successful intervention in the problem of running behavior must involve the teen and the family. Oraker provides a sound and workable outline for helping a family and a teen who exhibits running behavior”
Step 1: Finding an arbitrator agreeable to the family members. Since lack of trust is operating and each person feels abused by the other, the person chosen to help with the healing process must be agreeable to all sides. The arbitrator can be a trusted, sensitive neighbor, a teacher or a friend.
Step 2: Talking out the problem. A sensitive arbitrator will begin to explore the problem and identify each person’s part. As this is accomplished, understanding will begin, things will begin to fit together. This step will take time and energy, but, it done properly, it will provide an adequate foundation for the family work of Step 3.
Step 3: Commitment to a plan. Once understanding has begun and the crisis is resolved, plans must be initiated to work through the problem. A skilled arbitrator will (1) draw out from each family member suggestions to assist in solving the problem; (2) help the family select a concrete plan of action [perhaps even drawing up a contract for each family member to sign]; (3) gain commitment from each member to a plan; (4) provide the tools needed to implement the plan (such as assigning specific rights and responsibilities to each individual); and (5) establish an evaluation procedure to measure success or failure [such as weekly “family meetings” to discuss progress).”
A final-but critical-factor in addressing running behavior is to encourage the family and the runaway to turn to God, to enter into a relationship with God, and to depend on Him for grace and strength in addressing and correcting the problems that have contributed to the behavior. Healing and wholeness cannot be achieved without His involvement in the process.
Oraker also suggests enlisting the parents and child’s participation in the resolution of the problem. “Develop a family strategy without an arbitrator,” he writes. “The goals of arbitration are to resolve crisis, initiate solutions, and equip a family with tools so they can work out their own growth. Thus, an arbitrator can withdraw as he teaches the family new skills for relating on their own.”
Do not assume that because a runaway returns home the problem has been solved. It will probably take months, perhaps even years, to fully address the problem. It may also take the intervention of a professional counselor, particularly if running away is a repeated problem. The causes and appropriate responses to running behavior are often complex and may be most effectively addressed by a qualified professional.
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Bijo Joseph is the founder of Bijoyful Foundation, a faith-based NGO (reg. 357152/sec. 8 co.) that aims to deliver positive changes in the lives of young people troubled with adverse mental health, addiction or other life challenges through range of strength-based, recovery and livelihood programs and support offered by counsellors, social workers and volunteers. He has the youth leadership experience of 17 years and with educational foundation from TISS, Mumbai & IIM Calcutta.