When children of any age temporarily disappear for any reason -- as in the case of the three year old who dashes off down the street, or the teenager who stays out overnight without phoning -- parents' feelings of panic and fear are unimaginable -- unless you've been through it yourself. Clearly, if a child disappears (at any age) for a long period of time, you must contact the police. But often children run off temporarily, and parents must consider how to handle these incidents based upon the age of their child.
When toddlers and early elementary school aged children run away from us, it's essential that we implement a consequence swiftly in order to teach the lesson that they must remain close by. Beginning with an explanation to the child of the problem will help her internalize the rule as well as impress upon her the seriousness of the situation. An effective explanation can be made in the form of an "I" message: "When you run off, I feel terrified, because it's not safe to be on your own. I want you to stay close, and tell me before you go anywhere." After the explanation is given, the child needs to experience some consequences for her actions. For toddlers or children still in the stroller, you might offer this choice: "Either stay close by or you'll sit in the stroller." If your child is preschool age, but out of the stroller, try this: "Either stay close by or I'll put the harness on you." (Harnesses are available at most drugstores or young children's supply stores, and while I don't believe in using the harness on a consistent basis, I do think it makes an effective consequence for the misbehavior of running off.) The five to seven year old should also receive an "I" message, but the consequence for this age child changes slightly. You might try "Either stay close by me, or you'll be required to hold my hand when we walk on the street." If you anticipate that getting your child to hold your hand will turn into a physical struggle, then it's best to work with a consequence where you take away the next non-mandatory event of the day, for example: "Either stay close by me, or we won't play in the park after school," or "Either stay close by me, or there will be no playdate with Johnny today." The swift carrying out of these consequences is important -- if you hem and haw because you don't want to be "mean" or if you repeat the consequence without carrying through, then your children will likely increase their testing -- just to see if you really mean what you say. Especially because this is an issue of your child's safety, it's important to be firm and take away the playdate (or other consequence) immediately after your child tests you.
For children aged 9 - 12, consequences are also important. However, a new developmental issue comes into play here and should be considered carefully by the parent in addition to giving the child consequences. Within this age group, children are beginning to want, and need, more freedom and independence. Often when a child this age runs away from his parents in anger, it is not only an act of defiance and rebellion, but also a signal that perhaps he needs to feel a bit more independent from you. Of course, this presents some difficulty for most parents in New York City -- the amount of freedom you give your child has to be carefully monitored because of the very real dangers involved in living in a big city. Still, when a child feels satisfied in terms of the amount of independence he's being given, he's less likely to make a show of independence in a moment of anger. Therefore, the first step here, as for younger children, is to give a consequence, perhaps by taking away a privilege that your child enjoys such as television, staying up late on the weekend, or his allowance. This should be framed so that the child understands he made a choice: "When you choose to run away from me on the street, you are behaving irresponsibly. Therefore I'll have to treat you as less responsible, as if you were younger than you really are. Younger children aren't allowed to stay up until 11 on weekends, so you've lost that privilege this weekend." Once this consequence has been implemented, it's important to go back to the child, separate from the incident of running away, and discuss how he can feel more independent. You might ask him to write out a list of ways in which he feels he's not given enough independence and what would help him feel more satisfied in that regard. Ask him to make a list of at least 10, and tell him that you'll discuss them with him, and you'll pick one or two off the list, because after all he's growing up and deserves to have a bit more independence. Again, this must be separated in time from the running away incident, you wouldn't want your child to think that an act of misbehavior will be rewarded!!
The issue becomes even more complex when you have a teenager. The teen who "runs away" is probably not dashing off down the street. It's more likely that she is breaking a curfew, or not coming home at night at all. When the teen runs away temporarily, it is more likely that it is a statement about that teen's relationship with you. In this case, it's important to do some soul searching. Ask yourself the following:
* Is my relationship with my teen positive or negative?
* Does my teen feel emotionally connected to me in a positive way?
* Do I feel like I know my teen, her interests, likes and dislikes, her passions, her friends?
* Does my teen confide appropriately in me?
* Do I basically like my teen?
If you discover that your relationship with your teen is basically a negative one, then it's time to begin repairing the relationship. When our children become teenagers, we no longer have the kind of control over them that we did when they were younger. In fact, according to Mira Kirshenbaum and Charles Foster, PhD in their book Parent / Teen Breakthrough the only way parents of teens can influence their children during these years is by improving their relationship with that child. Their general rule of thumb is this: "Work only at improving your relationship with your teenager. If you think something will improve your relationship, do it; if not, don't." Utilizing this principal for the teen who has run away temporarily, I would recommend that you refrain from lecturing him or implementing heavy-handed consequences, and try genuinely listening to him instead.