Granny Witch on Runaway Children

Geneviève Hone

Granny Witch on runaway children

and allowing safe space to heal hurt

Hone, small image.

Dear Granny Witch,

Maybe I worry too much about the future, but I’m afraid that my son will one day run away from home to become one of those lost teenagers who wander around the country, unable to find work since they have not finished high school. They end up in bus depots, begging for coffee money that will probably be used for drugs or alcohol. Eventually they disappear from the face of the earth entirely, leaving their parents to cope with a giant hole in their hearts, not even knowing if their child is dead or alive.

You probably will remind me to stay in the present and enjoy the time I have with my child rather than obsess about the dangers that youth are exposed to in our times, but I can’t just pretend I’m not worried, Granny Witch. Trevor, (not his real name) has been running away from home since he was four. The first time, he got angry with a three-year old neighbour who had wandered into our front yard and picked up Trevor’s favourite toy truck. When I stopped Trevor from yanking the toy back, he took off and started running along our busy road. A lady from further down the street, whom I barely knew, caught up with him and brought him back home. I felt humiliated and furious with Trevor. I scolded him and he shot back: “It’s your fault: you let that boy keep my toy.” I was shocked that he blamed me.  I took away his TV privileges for three days.

Since then, Trevor has actually run away only a few times (and we found him quickly enough), but he threatens to run away as soon as he is upset about something. This scares me no end and makes me feel inadequate as a parent. He’s only nine years old now, but one day he will be a teenager and the consequences could be worse. Granny Witch, we are as normal a family as any today. For sure, husband and I have had our share of problems and are now separated, but we still talk when necessary. Trevor stays mainly with me, which is what I want, but he sees his father regularly. I really worry about my son and must admit that I don’t understand his attitude. I provide food, shelter and lots of love and I put myself out a lot for him, but he just doesn’t see it. How can I teach Trevor to never try to run away from home?

Signed: Maureen, mother of a potential runaway teenager

  Image: Drawing by Julien Mercure showing youth hitch-hiking. Copyright 2016 by Julien Mercure.
  Drawing by Julien Mercure, 2016.

Dear Maureen,

By defining yourself as the “mother of a potential runaway teenager”, you risk falling into the trap of seeing your son mainly as a potential runaway kid, which could mean that you would deprive yourself from imagining him as a future Nobel Peace Prize winner, which might be a better experience! I suggest you think of yourself simply as Maureen, a person who is doing her best to face the challenges in her life and who happens to be the mother of Trevor who is also doing his best to deal with the challenges of growing up.

All families inevitably face stress. Stress that is very high or lasts a long time may result in anxiety, anger, and sadness, and may eventually take its toll on the family’s mental and physical health.  When Life hurts too much, one might just want to get away from it all. In other words, one might want to run away. There are many ways to do this. Drinking, using drugs, overspending, overeating, gambling, driving carelessly, are just a few examples. So are pouting, refusing help, engaging in violent verbal confrontation and denying the seriousness of a problem to the point of even refusing to talk about it. 

In an ideal world, by the time people have children, they will have acquired the necessary skills they can rely on in times of high stress. They are able to tolerate some pain and frustration, to analyze problems and generate creative solutions, to manifest empathy, to ask for help, to set realistic goals, to communicate clearly. But children and teenagers haven’t acquired these skills yet, or at least not well enough to avoid making mistakes, at times serious ones. Acquiring and honing these skills is actually a lifelong process, and not always an easy one, for either the children or the parents.

Maureen, you brought Trevor into this world. He’s yours to love and educate. You give him your best, you provide a good home and yet one day he will leave you. That is precisely what you are raising him for. But of course, running away from home is not a safe way to leave. Why do children run away from home? Each situation is different, but in all cases, the children are manifesting that, for some reason, they need to put a greater distance between themselves and their families; running away is the means they have chosen to accomplish this. At this point, Trevor seems to need more space, and you need to keep him safe. Both you and Trevor might attempt to fill these needs separately, but you might find it much more interesting to work together! Let me suggest a few things.

Start with having a conversation with yourself. Ask yourself how you face the challenges you meet in your family life. What helps you “stay” rather than run?  What skills do you need to work on to support yourself when Life hurts? Acknowledge that you may have made a mistake or two while dealing with these challenges, but don’t be hard on yourself.  Remember that you were doing your best even through trying circumstances. Today, you have the opportunity to act differently!

Then, reflect on past episodes where Trevor ran away or threatened to do so. What pain, frustration or anxiety might have triggered these episodes? Try to discern if there is some kind of a pattern in Trevor’s behavior at those times. Remember that your hypotheses on what Trevor was thinking or doing during these episodes are just that — hypotheses!

So, initiate a conversation with Trevor on the subject of running away. Trevor is nine years old. He has all kinds of opinions that he’ll be willing to share if he senses you are really interested.  A good way to start the conversation might be to share your observations. “Lately, you’ve threatened to run away from home. A couple of times, it was after we’d had a fight about screen time, but the other times, I couldn’t see where you were coming from. I just figured that something hurt quite badly.” And then stop talking and give Trevor time to answer. Listen! Be attentive and empathetic. Recognize that life at home may not always be up to his expectations. Redefine “running away” as looking for a better place, at least temporarily. State that it’s normal to occasionally need to create some distance from loved ones. Together, find a couple of places where he could go to when he needs a break. A favorite aunt? A grandmother who makes great cookies? His father? Talk to him about keeping safe. Tell him that at nine years old, he needs to know where you are, and that is why you tell him how he can reach you. Remind him that you also need to know where he is, so if he leaves home without telling you where he is going, you will quickly look for him and enlist help from friends, neighbors and the police.

Don’t try to say all of this to Trevor all at once. He would soon tune you out. Rather, create opportunities to have short conversations spread over time. This usually works better than one lengthy “discussion” which risks sounding like a boring sermon. Quickly end a conversation that is going nowhere. Just say: “Maybe this is not a good time to talk about this. Let’s do it when we are not so tired.” Remember to always listen carefully: this is what will help you and Trevor learn to work together on solving issues and even have fun doing so!

Dear Maureen, I wish you all the best,

Granny Witch


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