When faced with a stressor, most creatures have an in-built mode of survival that dictates whether they fight or flee. In the case of humans, this knee-jerk reaction, while blunted by civilisation, is still very, very pronounced. It can blindside you at the most unexpected of times. When talking about the untrained – i.e. the younger members of society who come up against an adversary for the first time – the urge to run and avoid the fight becomes even more predictable. And so perhaps it is not fanciful to consider that teen runaways are usually the most prolific. “Running away could be an impulsive act followed by an unhappy situation, especially when kids are concerned,” explains Dr Dhanesh Gopalan, Clinical Psychologist Openminds Psychiatry, Counseling and Neuroscience Center.
These triggers may be invisible spikes that poke at the person, for instance emotional and mental stress that is localised to their immediate surrounding. It could be a bully, fighting parents, embarrassment over marks, looks or possessions. Or it could be a fear of violence at home.
Another contributor that’s known to get someone to take the difficult way is substance abuse – and the vicious circle of isolation and self-loathing that goes along with it. “Another reason may be due to the [fact that the] child wanted to hide some recent things like stealing, drug use, etc. and he doesn’t want his parents or elders notice it and [he] chose the easy way to avoid any punishments [by running] away,” says Dr Gopalan.
Whatever the reason, it’s an avoidance tactic. “It’s obvious that the kid wanted to avoid the present perceived unhappy situation like inappropriate parenting, ongoing academic stressors, etc.,” he adds.
When type matters
The thought is common, the deed is not. What experts say a parent should look for, if they are faced with such cases is if the person is an episodic or chronic exiter. The former may point to a lack of processing ability or problem-solving capability; this can be rectified. "When children run away from home after something significant has happened, it could be a way of avoiding some consequence and embarrassment. The most common cause of episodic running away is a form of escapism which is disapproval from parents," explains Dr Sneha John, Child & Adult Psychologist, LifeWorks Holistic Counselling Centre, Dubai.
"An unconditionally accepting environment, frequent communication between parents and the child and the cultivation of problem-solving skills within children may help avoid such situations," she adds.
Is it a habit?
Meanwhile, if you are dealing with someone who makes runing away a habit, it may point to an intent to manipulate – to seek validation through a pointed absence – basically, to feel better by making someone else feel miserable. Usually, this is the culmination of a pattern that was established in his/her early years.
Children, explains the doctor, obviously like it when their demands are met. When they are confronted by parents who for one reason or another say no – “generally due to unreasonably high cost involved or due to concerns regarding the safety of a child” – they baulk at the expectation not being met.
Then comes the learned behavior of years past. “From the early years, these children would have learned that skipping a meal, or hiding somewhere around the house after an argument with parents, or something, making parents panic, [would result in attention]. They would have enjoyed the attention received from that situation. Later on this may [have] become as a pattern,” he adds. To break this cycle requires help – for the person doing it to acknowledge and consciously make an effort to change.
'Not a fun thing to do - for anyone'
Still, it's important to remember that no one runs away because it'll be a 'fun' experience, says Dr John. Home is where the comfort is, so to take the drastic step of walking away requires serious intent and justification, to oneself. "It is a myth that children run away as it is a fun experience of expressing their freedom," she explains.
That said, it's not always a parent's fault; there are no obvious signs that a child is planning to run away, so there's little you can watch for. "Parents can look for secretive behavior such as minimal communication with parents, lashing out at parents for small issues, spending majority of time outside the home, reluctance to come home when called, coming home after the family has gone to sleep, hoarding of money and disappearing of things of value," says John. Any of these red flags should raise a conversation about what's causing the child discomfort at home.
Just know, wanting to run away is a natural response to a stressor – to rationalise and then decide on a plan of action, now that’s what the next step should be.