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Opinion & Essays - Jan, 2000 Issue #65 

When the Runaway Returns…
excerpted from the book, When the Runaway Returns,
copyright 1999 John C. Villines
Youth Services

Sometimes well-meaning parents will decide that their runaway teen should return home, as opposed to going to a wilderness program, therapeutic boarding school, drug rehabilitation center or other facility. It has been my observation that this is usually…almost always…a mistake. It won’t be long before the same oppositional behavior and poor choices that precipitated their “run” will again resurface. Unfortunately, these negative behaviors usually come back with increased magnitude.

Their return to the family unit will almost certainly be surrounded by all sorts of promises: they won’t continue to hang out with the same friends; they won’t smoke pot; they won’t stay out later than an assigned curfew; they will be respectful; they’ll do their homework; and any number of other “promises”. If they have run from a program where there was a considerable structure, they are likely to discount that as their motivation for running. Rather, most will point to how they miss their family, their friends, their home. “The structure was not the problem”, they say. Often they will indeed improve their behavior for a brief period of time after returning home. Then, they “test the waters”. It may be a relatively small infraction at first. Something like staying out an hour later than curfew. “Oh, but the movie ran later than we expected.” Pretty soon, more and more of the old behavior is surfacing and all of the same problems are again evident.

So, if the parent decides to take the runaway child directly back into the home, it is almost always a formula for failure. This is especially true if the child returns to an environment that is basically the same as when they ran away. The message the parent is giving the child is clear to the child: “You don’t have to live by my rules. You can run away from home, causing tremendous stress to your family, then just come back when you want to. You are in charge.” It rewards the child for unacceptable behavior and punishes the family. This is unfair to the child and rest of the family.

If the child does return directly to the family home, the probability for failure is increased. Some parents allow the child to return because they are intent upon giving the child “one more chance.” In rare circumstances, the runaway child is found and the parent fears there is not enough time to consult with professionals regarding the best facility for the child to attend. Then, by default, it is assumed that the child must return home. In actuality, competent educational consultants, psychologists, or other professionals can usually make an accurate, quick determination of what facility or program will best meet the needs of a specific child, given enough input from family members. There are also temporary residential facilities, which provide supervised boarding for the child until a placement can be made. Professional escort agencies are available around the clock to participate with the family in getting the child to the program or facility of choice. It is, therefore, almost always possible to make the necessary arrangements to get the child somewhere safe and healthy, other than back home.

But, if those rare circumstances do occur and the child must return home, in lieu of, or in preparation for placement in a more structured therapeutic environment, then the parent absolutely must make some changes in the home environment prior to the child’s return. The child cannot be allowed to return to the same environment. Otherwise, the same behavioral issues will erupt. Each situation must be assessed individually, but generally speaking, the home environment must now have clearly defined rules and expectations that are enforced. Privileges should be earned, not granted just because the child wants them. A TV, stereo, or telephone in their room when they first return? Absolutely not! Going out with friends whom the parents have not met? No way! Drug testing will also be a part of the routine, if substance abuse has been even a “small” issue. Family therapy and individual therapy will be scheduled and attended…all parties will comply with the therapist’s recommendations. There will be scheduled homework time every night and it will be used for homework or other academic study. In many cases, this may sound familiar to the child…familiar because it resembles the structured environment from which they ran. Remind them that they wanted to return home to be near their family and friends “the structure was not the problem.”

Now, how will this work? It won’t! That is, unless the parent sits down and writes out a contract that lists, one-by-one, in exact detail, each and every rule and expectation which must be adhered to by the child in order to stay in the family home. It is to be a contract signed by the parents and the child and it must clearly state that if the child violates ANY of the terms of the contract, then the child has voluntarily chosen to grant to the parents the right to rescind their permission for the child to remain in the home. The child may ask, “Well, what do you guys have to do in this contract?” The parent can answer them by showing them the refrigerator, the roof over their head, their clothes, their bedroom, their college fund, etc. (Oh, this brings up another point, the parents should not reward the runaway by going out and replenishing their wardrobe or paying for a new hairstyle, or getting those nails re-done.) Back to the contract. Other language that can be added: “Any failure on the part of the parent or parents to immediately exercise any right herein granted shall not constitute a waiver of that right.” In other words, if the child breaks a rule…yes, even a single rule…then they will be watching to see what the parent does. My recommendation is that the parent not immediately enforce their rights unless the initial breach is a serious one. The parent can point out to the child exactly how they breached the contract; they can wait and watch, and hope that it will be the last breach. That, or course, would be ideal.

“Ideal” is seldom the outcome, however, and any breach should be considered a potential warning sign. Therefore, at this point the parent should “hope for the best and plan for the worst.” That means consulting with knowledgeable professionals to find the appropriate placement and means of transporting the child. The parent should assume that the child will probably run away again if they are told “okay, you have breached your end of the contract…now we’re going to contact this program and have you enrolled.” Keep in mind, if they run away again, they don’t get the intervention they need. Instead, the plans should be quietly initiated to have them transported to the appropriate program, boarding school, or treatment center. Leave it up to the professional escort to advise them of what is happening when they arrive to transport them. It will be clearly explained to them that “this is not something the parents are doing to punish you…this is something you chose to happen when you breached your promise.” It will be a difficult transition for the parent and for the child, but a professional escort, transporting the child to an appropriate destination, is the beginning of the child’s next chance, and it represents a responsible intervention by loving parents.

Remember, the right program, school or treatment center can be found for your child. However, even the most conscientious and loving parents usually lack the information and objectivity necessary to accomplish such a match for their own child. It is essential, therefore, that competent professionals participate in the selection and placement process. Even then, the parent must realize that change takes time…time, commitment, and a lot of love.

Copyright © 2000, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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