For years, many of us have been nearsighted when it came to the runaway crisis, but it’s time to put on our glasses and see what lies ahead.
Between 1.6 and 2.8 million youth run away in a year in the United States. Life as a runaway, throwaway or homeless youth can be traumatic with experiences ranging from panhandling to sexual exploitation to living on the street among other concerns. These are all very serious situations and shouldn’t be taken lightly if or when a youth returns home. Unfortunately, while many families understand there is a lot of work to do if a youth walks back through that door, they don’t realize that the effects of running away follow them far into adulthood.
The National Runaway Safeline (NRS) arms families, teachers and others who care about the future of our children with this knowledge, and conducted the first study of its kind to investigate the long-term impact of running away from home. The “Runaway Youth Longitudinal Study” (2011) used a national representative sample of more than 15,000 individuals who were interviewed at four points in time spanning 15 years from adolescence to adulthood. Specifically, the results of this study offer compelling evidence that running away from home as an adolescent is correlated with important health, economic and juvenile justice outcomes in adulthood.
For adults who ran away from home as adolescents, the likelihood of having suicidal thoughts increases 51 percent, they are more than three times as likely to attempt suicide, the likelihood of them being a smoker is 2.4 times as high, they are 67 percent more likely to use marijuana, and they are 53 percent more likely to report having a sexually transmitted disease. As adults, a former runaway’s annual personal income level is $8,823 lower on average and the likelihood of being a recipient of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), public assistance or welfare is 76% higher.
The negative effects of running away don’t stop there. Adults who ran away as adolescents are approximately 2.5 times more likely to be arrested and they are 99% more likely to sell drugs. The report also identifies differences between runaways and non-runaways in terms of demographics and risk factors. Stay tuned for further findings in the second phase of the Longitudinal Study, which will be released in early 2014.
Reversing these long-term problems, is complicated, but we can help by preventing runaway episodes in the first place. Here are a few tips to help parents better connect with their kids before a crisis occurs.
· Pay Attention – Listen when your child is talking with you. Don’t just nod your head while you’re watching television, reading the paper, or using your computer. Don’t just pretend to listen. Your child knows the difference.
· Understand Your Child – Try to sympathize with what your child is going through. Look at life – at least occasionally – from his or her point of view. Remember that when you were that age, your ideas seemed to make sense to you.
· Discuss Feelings – Talk about what it feels like to be a parent. Share with your child the things you need from him or her. Encourage your child to talk about his or her feelings, too. When parents share their feelings, children know it’s safe to share their own.
· Create Responsibility – Give your child choices, not orders. Help your child to understand the consequences of his or her actions. When punishments need to be administered, try asking your child what they think would be appropriate. Make sure the punishment fits the circumstance and is consistent with other actions you’ve taken.
· Administer Positive Praise – Describe your child’s positive and negative behavior and how it affects others. Be specific and offer praise to reward good behavior. Positive behavior acknowledged is positive behavior repeated. Try to praise your child rather than criticize.
This is a short list among many tidbits of advice to help guide families. Do you have other suggestions? We invite you to share your experiential wisdom with others by participating in NRS’ Youth and Parent Tips Campaign 2013. NRS is asking for tips for youth and parents from youth and parents, which can be submitted at: 1800 Runaway.org/Youth and Parent Tips through Sept. 8, 2013. An expert panel will select and feature the most helpful tips as a resource on the website beginning in November, which is National Runaway Prevention Month. Please help us, help others by sharing your knowledge.