Steve Dudley’s* seven-year-old son, Alec*, threatens to run away every couple of months or so, and when he does, Dudley helps him get his bag ready. “Alec gets his little suitcase and packs it full of stuffies, and I talk him through doing a better job of packing the things he’ll really need, until he chickens out,” he says. So far, Alec has never actually left the house.
Michael Ungar, a Halifax-based family therapist and author of I Still Love You: Nine Things Troubled Kids Need From Their Parents, says that wanting to and even attempting to run away is a common power move, particularly among strong-willed kids. “They are using the strategy to get attention and to get their parents to acknowledge them. Running away isn’t the goal—getting control is,” he says.
School-aged kids threaten to skip town over things like not wanting to do their homework (Alec usually says he’s leaving for this reason, and that he’s going to find a new family that won’t make him do it), wanting more screentime or in hopes of a later bedtime. Other times, the threat is said in anger or as a way to manipulate you: Your kid knows it will break your heart if she says she wants to leave. Whatever the reason, laughing it off, getting angry (“Fine, I’ll help you pack!”) or taking it personally won’t help the situation.
So what do you do? First, stay calm. Ungar suggests telling your kid that you’d really miss her and you don’t want her to run away. “You’re making them feel like they do have control and that you’re hoping they make the choice to stay with the family,” he says.
But don’t roll over and give in to your kid’s demands, says Ungar. “You don’t want it so that every time a child threatens to run away he gets what he wants. You can’t say, ‘I really would miss you and therefore you can go to bed at any time you want, just don’t run away.’” But you can negotiate terms and conditions to give him a sense of control. “Having to do homework is non-negotiable, but perhaps when he does it is. Your child might be looking for a break after he gets home from school,” says Ungar.
Ungar says if you let your kid go through with packing a bag, like Dudley does with Alec, you also need a plan to carry through with the “running away” part. Have a place for your kid to go, like a nearby family member’s house or a blanket fort in the basement. “The child can exercise her autonomy up to a point and have a safe space to run to while she calms down,” he says.
Rina Gupta, a Kingston, Ont., child psychologist, says that when a kid says she wants to leave home, it could be symbolic of bigger issues than not wanting to do homework. “This could be a clear statement that there is something they’re not happy about at home, or they may feel like what they care about doesn’t matter.”
Have a chat with your kid after she has calmed down to find out if there’s anything bothering her, Gupta suggests. “Ninety percent of the time when a child is sat down and has her feelings acknowledged, it’s enough to stop her from wanting to run away,” says Gupta. If she opens up and it looks like there is something really bothering her—like Daddy is always yelling or Mom is always breaking promises to her—Gupta recommends letting your kid know you recognize there’s a problem, and that you’ll work together to sort it out.
It can be hard not to take it personally when your kid expresses the desire to leave, especially if she throws in a few “I hate you” jibes, which Alec has done. “I try to see it as part of him starting to explore his independence and not as a rejection of me,” says Dudley. “And once it’s over, he is all cuddles and ‘I love you, Daddy.’ Then we unpack his bag, and it’s like it never happened.”
* Names have been changed
If your kid has recently gone through some trauma (like the loss of a loved one), don’t play along and watch him pack or encourage him to leave, says Michael Ungar, a family therapist in Halifax. “A traumatized child doesn’t need to experience the rejection of a parent saying, ‘Fine, leave then.’ ” Rather, this behaviour might be a sign that your kid needs some support from a counsellor or therapist.