Tuesday Topic: What do I do when my Child “Runs Away?”

Two weeks in a row with Tuesday Topics! I think I’m on a roll. This comes from Charity,

Out of our 8 children, we have 2 runners.  kids who get overwhelmed by simple things, like  being corrected, or not being able to feel heard when they have to take turns in normal family conversations… how do you deal with those who run, especially when they have no history with you. i feel like the only reason i can hope that they won’t just run away from home is that eventually they will realize the world is scarier alone, and they will come back wanting to work on things here…

My friend and I were talking about this just yesterday.  She has a child who used to “run away” for short periods of time – think hours, not days. Other friends have kids who have run to a friend’s house and hidden out there.  Of course, this is far different from the terrifying situation of a child who literally runs away and doesn’t come home.

We live out of town and our driveway leads to the highway, which is fairly scary. While we’ve had issues with a child in the midst of a rage  “running away”, even into the snow with no shoes or coat, only once has one of our children left our property. Thankfully, she walked to a friend’s house who called to let me know.

How about your family? Do you have a child who “runs away” when things get difficult? How do you handle it? Do you let them go, follow them, call the police, call your husband home from work, what else…?

While this may seem like a strange question to some, this is a very real “how do we handle this???” moment for lots of families.

Please share your thoughts as a comment – even if you aren’t sure you can help. Let’s brainstorm together.

I am ready for some new Tuesday Topic questions! Please send them my way by emailing lisa@onethankfulmom.com  Put “Tuesday Topic” in the subject line and I’ll be much more likely to save it in the right place.

I hope to hear from you today.

Encourage one another,



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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.


  1. gobbelcounseling
    October 15, 2013

    I think it helps to give a kiddo a 'safe place' to run to. Likely this kiddo is a 'flight-er' on the spectrum of fight/flight/freeze. They need time to regulate in a safe place!

    1. Angela
      October 15, 2013

      Definetly agree. Also, would add that they would be left alone in that safe place, but supervised until they are ready to process. Also, seek therapy. Those flight coping skills need to be changed to appropriate ones for their safety.

  2. Karen NumberTwo Hannaford
    October 15, 2013

    My little one used to run. It started when he was 4. He is now 13. He's autistic and could not tell anyone his name or where he lived. We live in the city and he had no sense around roads. He also had a fascination with water and there are streams around here. Each time he ran away I would pretty much hold my breath until he was found (he didn't come back on his own). The first time, the policeman who brought him back told us not to let it happen again. Didn't LET it happen the first time! Very thankful that now he can answer his name and doesn't tend to run. Was rather unimpressed when having run a few times and been brought back in police cars, his older brother (about 6 at the time) said, "If I run away, will I get a ride in a police car?"

  3. Heather
    October 15, 2013

    I have 1 runner and 1 who has run once. We always notify the other parent. Our friends who live near enough that they might go there are aware of the behaviours and will call us. We call the police because our's is usually leaving the house following a violent outburst. We were advised the first time that if he were to commit any sort of crime and we had not reported him that we could be held legally responsible for his actions. In recent months we do sometimes allow about 30 minutes to see if he will calm down and come home, if he was just mad but not violent. We try to follow but a lot of times it's not possible. Sometime we try to stop them from going but usually that creates a physical risk for us. While we live in a suburban area it is on the edge of the city and some areas are not well lit. Since we're talking about African American kids leaving home in the dark (why don't they run in the daylight?), usually in dark clothes there's the added concern of them being hit by a car. It's hard to know your kid is out there. Luckily thus far they've been found or returned home in a short time in every incidence thus far.

  4. angela
    October 15, 2013

    No advice…. but I feel for you!!! That's scary stuff. Our kiddo has a lot of fear and being alone is one. He used to make like he was going to run away when he first came to live with us… he'd stomp off, but we called his bluff and never went after him. We didn't want him to think he would get any kind of reaction from it. Then one day he did. He ran away while hiking with dad up our mountain in the evening. Hiking is something we often do to calm the craziness… exercise is good for using up energy 🙂 Anyway, he ran off and it got dark and we COULD NOT FIND HIM. We have cougars and coyotes and deep gullies. I could just picture him falling off the edge of a steep part and breaking his neck or something. We searched (5 of us) and searched and called and called. He was either really really so angry he forgot to be afraid or he was so afraid of his own shadow he couldn't find his voice to answer us. It was pitch dark but he knows our mountain like the back of his hand. He found his way off and was coming out of the orchard when he answered. We never said boo about it. He NEVER tried it again. I think he freaked himself out but good. He has never even acted like he was going to run off again.

  5. prayingintruth
    October 16, 2013

    I have a runner here (he is 13). The last time he ran was probably the worst. He took off on his bike. I ended up slowly following him in my vehicle with my 4-way flashers going. My brother-in-law is a state trooper and he was ok with us just following him. After awhile, hubby took over for me, following him. He biked probably close to 15 miles and was exhausted emotionally and physically after this. What we are seeing is that when he feels "safe" here, he will not run. His flight or fight response is a mixture of the two. It's important to remember that when your children feel threatened in any way (even if we can't understand the "threat") that they flip into that part of their brain where they lose logical control and instead are able to only focus on "survival". It is a very primal instinct. In his case, following him made him feel safe. So our biggest job is to make him feel safe. We are working very hard.

  6. daysofwonderandgrace
    October 16, 2013

    Ahhh….Yes. My DD did two kinds of running when she was angry. If she could catch mom and dad both outside the house, she’d lock us out and hide out in the house. Or if we were in the house, she would silently run away. Besides the door, she tried to get out through basement egress windows. The time that was the last straw for me was when she silently went out the back door in winter, in snow, with no coat or shoes I only noticed she’d been gone when she came in the front door, cold, with snow-covered socks. She said she’d been sitting in the rocker on the porch trying to decide what to do because she’d wished she’d run away with her boots on. That was my wake-up call: that she was capable of more than just flirting with the idea of running away.

    My friend Dorothy taught me something very important: to be honest with ‘authorities’ in our family’s life that running away is a problem. Running away can be a life health/safety issue and professionals will take it seriously. But it isn’t a problem until we recognize that it is a REAL problem—as opposed to our fears and our kids’ actions being a personal cross we bear silently. As Dorothy counseled me, “One of these days she may run away so thoroughly that you need to call the police or otherwise get mental health intervention to help. If that happens you want at least a note in the general pediatrician’s file stating that you’ve reported your concern that she runs away.” Until then, I had not been forthright with anyone that we had this problem in our family. And although I wasn’t consciously aware of it then, I think now that my silence was in part due to shame –the feeling that if I was a better parent, she would not feel the need to run. That was something I had to get over for myself in order to reach out for help for all of us.

    Now, two years after I intuited that there was an attachment piece to her behavior, in therapy, we’re beginning to get a handle on the family dynamics that provoke her to these extremes. We could not have made this progress without professional therapists because even after reading lots of books, I did not discern the key dynamics in our family. But my intuition (turned out to be right) was that our home was her most challenging environment. At the time, we were homeschooling her, which was forcing her to spend 24/7 in a place that kept her constantly near the edge of being triggered/enraged. Her brain had very little down time from that biochemical high-alert state. In desperation, I made the stop-gap decision to send her out to school mid-year. (She started in January after running into the snow with no plan in December.)

    In retrospect, for her, going out to school has been wonderful. Without any attachment dynamics in play there, she spends a good stretch of her day off high-alert and while she still has meltdowns regularly here, she rages less frequently – so she’s much less often provoked to the mental place where she feels the need to run. At the same time, with the guidance of a therapist, we’ve been able to strengthen her attachment with me enough so that most of the time, now, when she’s emotionally disregulated she seeks me for comfort –which is the emotional opposite of running away.

    While we still have hurdles to overcome, reading this question made me realize I no longer fear her running away. That has been good for me because understanding she had the capacity to do it provoked my own anxiety (What will I do if she does? What if I don’t notice? What if she doesn’t come back?) and managing the dynamics in our family is even more difficult when I am anxious.

    Last, I realize that kids’ ability to make a turn-around is widely variable. My DD was adopted out of an insecure foster care placement at six months. Her diagnoses are FAS and ADHD, but her IQ is not significantly impacted. That poses its own set of challenges because she’s capable of making plans like, “Next time I can run away better if I take boots.” Our situation may be very different from children with a different constellation of challenges. But WHILE you are seeking outside help, you might buy time by considering if there are things you can do now at home to reduce the factors the children find provocative. Like Tim Kimmel’s book, Grace Based Parenting, helped relieve me of much of the obligation I felt to correct behavior. That was exactly what I needed to practice heavily for a season and even now that that season has morphed into another in which she often accepts my correction, I find those ideas have broadened my repertoire as a mom. I think God has used that as ground on which He can and will continue to work healing. We are far from finished, and I suspect never will fully be there. But with time, running away proved to be a season that passed. I had no reason, then, to guess it would. But God's mercy on us was, and continues to be, great.

  7. sleepyknitter
    October 17, 2013

    We had a child who was a runner, I think more for rebellion than from trauma (though she had had plenty of trauma, but her demeanor about the running suggested she was trying to demonstrate that she was rebelling). I think we would have handled the situation far differently had it seemed to be about trauma rather than as a way of "getting back at us" for what she felt was unfair discipline. She boasted online to friends that she would "run away" every time she didn't like how we did things. The first time she ran, we didn't know she wasn't in the house until friends called 15 minutes after the "inciting incident" to tell us she was at their house, which is where she ran the next two times. We weren't sure how to handle the situation. The third time, police stopped her — they thought she was a much younger child — and they came to our home to discuss the situation. We told her that she would not be allowed to go to school the next day because she had run away (school was her chance to get away from us, so she took that seriously). We knew that she would stubbornly attempt to go to school anyway, so we put away her shoes the night before, but bless her heart, she was so stubborn that she was willing to go barefoot and tried to get on the bus. We had her attention at that point, so we said that whenever she ran away, she would not be allowed to go to school the next day. She never ran away again. I don't think she is a true "runner" in the way that we tend to talk about it in the adoption/foster world. I think she was just experimenting, finding out where the boundaries are. She's a wonderful girl, lots of rough edges from past trauma but a wonderful human being.


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