When it comes to missing kids, we can easily overlook one of the most important categories: teenagers. Of all children that disappear, abductions by strangers only comprise a small percent. However, buoyed by immense media attention, kidnapping cases end up dwarfing the less newsworthy, but just as significant, growing number of runaway teens. Over the years, new technologies and preventative measures have developed to keep our children safe from abduction. Even still, adolescents remain the largest group of kids that falls under the radar, which causes us to ask – could we be doing something to prevent this?
Whether you have a teen in your home, or little ones who have yet to enter that stage of life, there are many steps you can take now make your child feel as safe as possible. A common misconception regarding runaway teens is that because their decisions are voluntary, they will return home just as easily as they left. Unfortunately, when there is disconnect in communication, running away is often a teen’s cry for help.
Here is where you can step in as a parent. Many runaway teens come from broken homes, where understanding and communication are scarce. To take preventative action, you need to ensure that your teen is in an environment of trust and open conversation.
Language: Never use patronizing or derogatory language when arguing with your teen. Even if they are frustrated and angry, it is important to maintain a calm demeanor, and speak with your teenager rationally rather than defensively. Don’t use threats, or dare your teenager to leave. Even if they won’t follow through, it merely fosters more toxicity.
Eye contact: Always be sure to use eye contact when speaking with your teenager. Never waver, and make it known that you are giving them your full, undivided attention.
Level the playing field: When arguing with your teenager, it can feel like a power struggle. And even more so if both parents are involved in the conversation. It might be easier to put your foot down and assert your dominance, or gang up on your teen, but this method offers zero support for a child seeking help. By relinquishing some of your power and trying to see eye-to-eye, it opens the door for better communication.
Listen, sympathize, and understand: As a parent, it is difficult to fully grasp what issues adolescents go through. Perception is reality. On the surface, a teen’s life orbits around vapid friend groups and complaining about homework (or whatever it is those youngins complain about these days). It’s true they don’t deal with issues like bills, 401ks, and demanding corporate bosses, but it doesn’t render their problems any less valid. A teen’s biggest worry is being misunderstood by the people that matter most. By being sympathetic toward them, they won’t feel silenced, and will be less likely to run away because their voice has been heard.
See them, and be there for them: Sometimes, communicating doesn’t always mean using actual words. It can be tempting to jump right in and demand a play-by-play of everything going on in your teen’s head, but it’s not conducive to growth if your teenager is uncomfortable with sharing. If you sense your child is on edge, a simple, “Hey, I’m here for you if you need me,” can prove to be endlessly effective. Also, nonverbal actions like hugging, nodding, or a squeeze on the hand, are equally effective in curbing your teenager’s need to run away, or lash out.
Seek medical help: If all else fails, it’s never wrong to seek the help of a therapist or a professional. It’s always better to act rather than do nothing, and getting a professional’s assistance can help immensely.
When it comes to your teenager, the one person who best knows what they need is them. But forging a path for them, and making yourself the next-best resource for them to turn to, makes a world of a difference.