Runaway Teens: A Complete Guide for Parents  

Clinically Reviewed by Dr. Rob Gent, PhD, LPC 

Runaway teens are a frightening reality for many parents and caretakers. It can be devastating to discover that a loved one has left home without warning, especially when that loved one is a young teenager. Runaway teens often leave home at ages 13-17 for various reasons, such as family conflicts, abuse, or social pressures. However, another common reason for teen runaways is drug use.  

Once teens hit the streets, they become vulnerable to many dangers, including homelessness, violence, and worsening mental health issues. It’s important to understand the reasons why teens run away, including drug use, and try to prevent it from happening. But if it does happen, swift action is necessary to locate and support teens. With the right resources and support, runaway teens can get back on track and reclaim their lives. 

Dr. Rob Gent takes a closer look into why teens run away and how parents can respond to this event.  

Why Do Teens Run Away? 

According to a study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, most teens run away due to poor family dynamics and bad relationships with parents, as well as issues with substance use, depression, and abuse.

Mental health issues and running away  

There is an understandable association between teens who face safety and stability issues within the home and report having anxiety and depression. The difficulty is the combination of the developmental period of adolescents where intense emotionality can be tied to thinking distortions and making impulsive decisions such as running away when there is conflict that could be managed. However, parents need to understand that running away is not always a direct result of mental health issues, such as bipolar disorder, and can also be a form of risky teen behavior. 

Adolescents can have a difficult time developing one’s autonomy and trying to find others with similarities. This is associated with teens running away when there is alienation experienced from parents due to sexual orientation, traumatic events, parental divorce, or even overwhelming peer pressure at school. As we can all imagine, these factors and pressures lead to heightened anxiety and depression, which are associated with increases in substance abuse, oppositional defiant disorder, increased aggression, and distorted emotions and thoughts.     

Substance use issues  

Teens who run away often turn to substance use as a coping mechanism or a way to numb their emotions and mental state. The stress and trauma they experience can push them towards drug or alcohol abuse to escape reality temporarily. Substance use can worsen their mental health issues, making it even harder for them to cope with their situation. This dangerous cycle of running away and turning to substances further exacerbates the underlying problems of alcohol abuse that led the teen to run away in the first place. 

Common triggers for teenage runaway episodes 

Common triggers for teenage runaway episodes vary but often include situations where teens feel misunderstood, unsupported, or overwhelmed. Factors such as family conflicts, abuse (physical, emotional, or sexual), neglect, substance abuse within the family, mental health issues, and peer pressure can all contribute to a teen’s decision to run away for the first time. Additionally, issues like feeling isolated due to sexual orientation or gender identity, and becoming pregnant at a young age, can also be significant triggers for some teenagers. 

Recognizing Warning Signs That Indicate Teens Might Runaway

Recognizing signs that your teen might run away is crucial to intervening early and preventing potential harm. Some common red flags that a 13–17-year-old is thinking about running away can include:  

  • Sudden changes in behavior 
  • Withdrawal from family and friends 
  • Increased secrecy 
  • Defiance of rules 
  • Sudden decline in academic performance 
  • Unexplained physical injuries
  • Possession of large amounts of cash or new belongings without explanation. 

Additionally, if your teen starts talking about running away or shows interest in stories or movies about runaway youth, it could signal that they are contemplating such actions. 

How To Prevent Teens From Running Away  

Parents can talk with their teens about thoughts of running away, co-regulate with them, and set boundaries as needed to prevent them from running away. Encouraging open and honest communication with your teen while creating a safe space for them to express their feelings without judgment can help them discuss triggers and stressors that make them feel like running away and falling into old behavior patterns.  

Seeking Professional Help 

If you notice warning signs or feel overwhelmed, don’t hesitate to seek help from a therapist or counselor specializing in adolescent mental health. Professional support can provide guidance and strategies to address underlying mental health issues that may be making teens feel like they want to run away. 

Treatment options that can help teens who are struggling with running away could include outpatient treatment programs, virtual IOPs, or residential treatment programs that provide a nurturing 24/7 care environment.  

Summer Treatment Programs

If you’re looking for a treatment option in the summer for a teen struggling with thoughts of running away or other mental health challenges, look at our summer treatment programs. We design our programs to help young people build life skills and overcome difficult challenges like anxiety and depression.  

Co-regulate and communicate with your teen  

Whether struggling with running away or just being a “Teenager,” your teen needs repetitive and reliable experiences regulating their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors with you as a regulated adult.  Adolescence is a time of elevated hormones, emotions, and changes in cognitive development that needs to be grounded in moments of security with primary caregivers.     

As parents, establishing regular interactions that focus on being present, actively listening, and expressing unconditional care for your teen is essential in their sense of self-worth and resilience and managing conflict, anxiety, peer pressure, and life in healthy ways, NOT running away.  

Mother talking to daughter about why people self-harm and running away.
Mother talking to daughter about why people self-harm and running away.

Set boundaries with your teen 

Boundaries serve as the foundation of safe relationships and create the ability for others to experience unconditional acceptance, healthy intimacy, vulnerability, and a sense of belonging. These experiences create a positive sense of self-worth and broaden the capacity for those relationships to build  connections, feel trust, resolve conflict, and avoid dangerous and unhealthy responses such as running away.    

Boundaries need to exist for everyone in the family based on three primary criteria. That they: 

  1. Apply to anyone and everyone.   
  2. Are rooted in emotional and physical safety.   
  3. Serve to do what is best developmentally for self and others.    

Note that boundaries are not created to be “One Off’s” for the adolescent… Boundaries are unwavering and unchanging to ensure emotional and physical safety. Rules are often made  by parents because boundaries are not established and reliably followed through on… Children, adolescents, and adults need boundaries  to have trusting, safe relationships.  

Calmly respond to runaway threats  

Instead of reacting with anger or fear when a teenager threatens to run away, approach the situation with empathy and understanding. Validate your teen’s feelings while also setting firm boundaries and consequences for such actions. By creating a safe space for honest dialogue, you can work together to find constructive solutions and prevent further instances of running away. This is especially important for parents of 17-year-old teens, who may be more prone to making rash decisions. 

How To Find a Teen Who Has Run Away  

Talk about your fears and your potential reactions before, to mitigate anger, frustration, arguing, and unnecessary conflict. Allow yourself (as the parent) to be grateful that the “Symptom” of running away is coming up so you can explore the emotions, feelings, thoughts, and experiences generating the “Symptoms” of threatening to run.     

Remember that your adolescent is a hurting child and no matter if it feels as though you are unfairly blamed or they are trying to push your buttons, their threats reflect emotional distress, and for that, you can calmly feel empathy for them.     

Having a “Plan” in place will allow parents to remain much calmer and clear-headed rather than being reactive.  

Look around your teen’s room 

If a teen has already run away, one of the initial steps parents can take is to look around their room for any clues about their plans or whereabouts. Look for notes, messages, or belongings that may provide insight into where they may have gone. It is important to approach this task with sensitivity and respect for your teen’s privacy. 

Check call logs, phone bills, and search history   

Parents can also check their teen’s call logs, phone bills, and search history to gather more information about their possible whereabouts. While this may provide valuable insights, it’s crucial to remember that access to these records may vary depending on the level of privacy the teen maintains with their devices, such as their cell phone. Reviewing these records can offer clues such as frequent contacts or online searches that could shed light on their current situation, if possible. However, respect for privacy and trust should guide this process to maintain a healthy parent-teen relationship during such a challenging time. 

Contact your neighbors and your teen’s friends  

In times of distress, reaching out to neighbors and your teen’s friends can provide valuable information and support in locating a runaway teen. Neighbors may have spotted them or noticed any unusual activity, while friends might be aware of their plans or emotions leading up to their departure. By working together with your community, you can gather new information and potentially bring your teen home safely. Communication and cooperation are key in such situations to ensure a swift and coordinated response. 

Use GPS tracking   

If parents have concerns about their runaway teen’s whereabouts, they can consider utilizing GPS tracking as a tool to aid in locating them. GPS tracking can provide real-time information on their movements and help determine their location. Certain mobile apps and technologies can offer a sense of reassurance to parents worried about a runaway teen’s safety. By monitoring their movements in real-time, it can aid in pinpointing their location swiftly and accurately. However, parents need to use this technology responsibly, respecting boundaries and privacy while prioritizing the teen’s best interests and maintaining open communication.  

Call the police   

If parents cannot find their teens, it is crucial to call the police immediately. Law enforcement agencies have the resources and experience to handle such situations, ensuring a swift response to maximize the chances of finding the teen safely. By reporting the situation to the police, parents can initiate a formal search process and leverage professional assistance in locating their missing child. Time is of the essence in such cases, and involving the authorities promptly can make a significant difference in reuniting families and ensuring the well-being of the runaway teen. 

Contact the National Runaway Safeline 

Contacting the National Runaway Safeline can provide parents with valuable support and guidance when dealing with a runaway teen. This organization offers a confidential helpline that parents can call to access resources, receive advice on handling the situation, and possibly establish communication with their runaway child through mediation services. Call 1-800-RUNAWAY for immediate assistance.

What To Do When Your Runaway Teenager Comes Home

When your teenager comes home, it’s important to show unconditional love, talk with them in a safe space, and contact a mental health professional if there is an underlying mental health condition that caused them to runaway. 

1. Show your unconditional love  

Imagine how your teen must be feeling about running away and then coming home; it is probably multiple emotions including confusion, fear, embarrassment, self-doubt, anger, shame, relief, etc.  This is a critical moment for all of those emotions to be accepted by you and not judged. This is not about the emotions but the experience of being unconditionally accepted by primary caregivers.   Remember- Acceptance is not agreement. You may disagree with their behaviors, but you can accept the teen as inherently valuable and show them that.  

Creating an experience of unconditional love for your teen when they return is essential because it demonstrates that rules, privileges, and supports may need to change, but the parents always feel inherent value for the teen regardless of the behavior.  Parents want safe behaviors, but safe behaviors come from experiencing unconditional value, which may require extra structure and support to do what is developmentally best for the teen.    

2. Actively listen and talk to your teen in a safe space  

Develop a plan for the necessary structure and support in place to meet the teen’s and families’ developmental and relational needs. Identify emotional, relational, and behavioral patterns that led to the elopement and come up with healthy alternatives. Establish or reestablish the boundaries of the house and how they apply to anyone and everyone for emotional and physical safety and development. Don’t make promises that you can’t keep and do not get the teen to make “Commitments” in that moment. Talk openly about NOT “Blaming” others and setting an environment for empathy and listening in a safe space for open communication about home life. 

3. Connect with a mental health professional if needed  

Parents should be aware of signs of overwhelming anxiety, shame, depression, and peer pressure all along the way. If there is withdrawal from relationships, interests, hobbies, and social interactions, then begin with a curious conversation with a mental health professional. Do NOT wait until there is severe depression, substance use, isolation from parents, inappropriate use of social media, disordered eating, defiance, or other maladaptive behaviors.     

Be proactive about knowing what is going on emotionally, relationally, and behaviorally with your teen. Doing a “Consult” with you and your family should be welcomed by a mental health professional to assist in optimizing your relationship and developing a plan for when overwhelming distress happens. If the teen has run away or just returned, contact a mental health professional immediately.   

Runaway Teens: Wrapup  

In dealing with teens who have runaway, it is crucial to address the emotional, relational, and behavioral patterns that led to their elopement. By understanding these underlying issues, healthy alternatives can be established to foster a supportive environment for both the teens and their families. 

If your teen has run away or is discussing thoughts of running away alongside mental health challenges contact us or call us at 866-479-3050. We’ll help you and your teen find a treatment program that can help. 

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit embarkbh.com.