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Runaway:Indicators of Risk

It is important to understand why youth run away and what factors may increase this risk. This section includes information on both youth and family related factors that may increase a youth’s vulnerability towards running away.

Behavioural Signs and Risk Factors

A youth’s decision to run away may be triggered by a number of factors; however, not every tween or teen who presents the behavioural signs or risk factors outlined below is at risk of running. The important thing is to pay close attention to changes in behaviour. While some runaways appear to be running from what they perceive to be an intolerable home situation, other runaways gravitate towards what, for them, appears to be a more appealing or exciting lifestyle. These youth may not be thinking about the risks associated with their actions.

Behaviours to be aware of:

  • Threatening or talking about running away
  • A change in your child’s typical mood or behaviour (e.g., depressed, anxious, irritable, withdrawn, isolating themselves from family or friends)
  • Signs of self-harming behaviour such as cutting, substance use, and high risk sexual behaviours
  • An increase in reckless behaviour and/or rule breaking (e.g., coming home late or not at all, using alcohol/drugs, fighting, lying, stealing)
  • Spending excessive amounts of time online to the extent that it is interfering with other areas and responsibilities in their life
  • Developing new relationships outside their typical social network, including high risk peer groups and gangs, resulting in changes in their behaviour (e.g., increased rebelliousness, argumentative, dismissive)
  • Saving money for no apparent reason or keeping belongings packed

Risk factors:

  • Youth who are in unhealthy dating relationships
  • Youth who have difficulty making friends and/or are being bullied (at school or online)
  • Youth who are experiencing difficulty in school
  • Youth who may be questioning their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression
  • Concerns regarding pregnancy
  • Unexplained gifts or expensive items

Family Dynamics

If you are concerned your child may be thinking of running away, consider sources of stress within the family that may be contributing to your child’s thoughts of running away:

  • Major changes (e.g., divorce, remarriage, moving, changing schools)
  • Perceived unreasonable consequences or expectations at home
  • Family conflict or domestic violence (this may relate to one or both parents/siblings)
  • Lack of acceptance, love, emotional support/connection from family (e.g., family does not accept youth’s sexual orientation, friendships or dating partner)
  • Trauma or loss (e.g., the loss of a parent or someone significant)
  • Parental vulnerabilities (e.g., addiction, mental health issues, criminal activity)
  • Chaotic or unstable household environment
  • Physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse
  • Neglect (i.e., lack of food, clothing, shelter or safety) or parents who are rarely at home (i.e., not physically available)
  • Financial difficulties

Youth in Care

Children in the care of the child welfare system are at a greater risk of running away. In addition to the behavioural signs and risk factors outlined above, children who have been placed in care may have lived in multiple placements and not have had the opportunity to develop a stable, secure relationship with a caregiver. Without a stable connection to a caregiver, there is an increased risk that a child will run away. When dealing with youth in care, careful consideration should be paid to the unique supports they may need.

The information provided above is intended for information purposes only. It is not intended as legal advice. Readers should assess all information in light of their own circumstances, the age and maturity level of the child they wish to protect, and any other relevant factors.