In a phone call with a parent this week, she relayed the story of her teenage daughter running away (briefly) and how, even with 25 years of parenting experience (and numerous parenting books, classes, and conversations) behind her, she found herself Googling what to do. Being able to share these challenging parenting experiences (and laughing about them later) helps make them more bearable. I asked her to write up the story (anonymously) so I could share it with you here at Sunshine Parenting.
My fifth and youngest child just turned 13. She has always been a very strong-willed, anxious, creative, stubborn, and dramatic girl. She is also highly sensitive: all movies are too loud, tags and seams in clothing are too painful, and all shoes feel like “a thousand bees stinging” her feet. Teenage hormones have magnified all of these delightful qualities. As a young teen, she has tons of friends with whom she must constantly connect via FaceTime, Snapchat, and Instagram and with whom she manages to be pleasant, charming, and funny, all characteristics she at one time—but not so much these days—shared with us. She currently “hates” school because it “sucks,” and is a semi-surly, whiny, reluctant, or sometimes completely silent participant in family activities, including dinner (which she always hates and describes as “beat”). Since the older four kids (the “Bigs”) are 25, 23, 22, and 20, they have flown the nest, so we fondly refer to our 13-year-old as the O.C. (“Only Child”), and we try to maintain our sense of humor when our energy and patience run low and she is naughty, acting out, defiant, or downright disrespectful.
You’d think we would have seen most everything after parenting for 25 years.
You’d be wrong.
Most of the time, we are at a loss over what to do with or for the O.C. We do and say all sorts of things that we would never have done with the Bigs. I mean, “sucks” was not a word they were allowed to use, even in high school. Neither was “stupid” or “butt.” Let’s just say, we have relaxed on the vocab restrictions (and some other stuff) quite a bit. The devices that are a major part of the O.C.’s daily life were not an issue when the Bigs were her age, so we really don’t know what the rules ought to be and are hopelessly inconsistent and usually flying by the seat of our pants.
Last night, my husband and I returned from a weekend visiting one of the Bigs at college, where we celebrated a birthday, watched the season-opening home football game, met all of his great roommates and friends, and just generally enjoyed spending time with him and with each other while the O.C. stayed home with the sitter, got together with friends, and ate out every meal. We had been back home for five minutes on Sunday when she announced that she had left her homework at school and had 10 assignments for English that she planned to complete during 1st-period P.E. in the morning. Keep in mind, school has only been in session for three days. What followed was some further “discussion” (translate: her crying and yelling “I hate you,” then running upstairs to her room as I shouted some really helpful things like “school is your job” and “you are not doing your best” before taking her phone, iPad, and computer away). My husband and I put our heads together and figured out the O.C. only needed to complete two assignments (not 10), so we left her in her room to cool off. I started to unpack and my husband sat down to watch football.
Here’s where it gets dicey: She left.
She literally just marched up to my husband and announced “I’m leaving,” to which he responded, “You may not take any vehicles.”
Then she walked away.
Right past my husband.
Out the front door.
It was 9 o’clock at night. Did my youngest child, who I know deep down is a big scaredy cat, really just walk out the front door? My sense of humor vanished. This is not something any of the Bigs had ever tried. Instantly, I was anxious and a bit angry: I was not pleased with my husband’s response at all, and I suggested that perhaps a little effort at persuading her to stay would have been a good idea.
That went over well, too.
Five minutes passed. Then seven. I asked “Should I call the police?” My husband said “probably.” Normally, he’s very helpful, but not this time. In fact, he seemed not at all worried.
I had taken the O.C.’s phone, so I could not call her. Not that she would have answered anyway. I told my husband I would call the police at 10 if she did not come home on her own. Then I reassured myself that she would not go far in the dark by herself. She’s a big scaredy cat, right? The biggest.
While I waited, I Googled “what to do when your teen runs away” and I found James Lehman’s article on the website Empowering Parents. Just the site’s name made me feel better. For whatever reason, I read the second of his two-part series on dealing with runaways, and I learned that Lehman calls running away “a long, dangerous time out.” Okay, “dangerous” was not comforting at all. Then I read Lehman’s “cardinal rule”: “Do not give this behavior power.” Hmmmm. I scanned the next 10 paragraphs about what to do while your child is out on the streets: file a police report, leave a paper trail, reintegrate your runaway when he or she asks to come home, and lots of advice about drug and alcohol abuse. Seemed a little extreme as the O.C. had been gone only 11 minutes.
Next, I read that Lehman doesn’t recommend that parents go searching for their runaway, because it gives the running away behavior too much power. I sort of intuitively knew that one. I kept reading, and clicked back to Part I, where Lehman explained that running away is really the result of a lack of good problem-solving skills. Okay. The runaway has run out of options in her own mind and thinks that running away is the only solution. Helping kids develop good problem-solving skills is essential, said Lehman: impulsive bolting is not among them. I vowed to work on helping the O.C. with those skills as soon as she came home.
Lehman also said it’s imperative to distinguish between “episodic running away” and “chronic running away.” Apparently, kids who run away episodically are usually trying to avoid a consequence, humiliation, or embarrassment. Those who do so chronically are acting out, trying to manipulate, and are in the midst of a power struggle with the folks. Since this has never happened before, I went with episodic, and I thought hard about which of those—consequence, humiliation, or embarrassment—she was trying to avoid.
I read the next paragraph on warning signs that a child is contemplating running away, things like hoarding money or possessions and “secretive behavior.” The O.C. left barefoot without even a jacket, and nothing in her hands, so I was thinking her run was not really planned out, but more spontaneous. Then I got to “A Step-by-Step Way to Teach Your Kids that Running Away Won’t Solve Their Problems.” I started wondering if I was already too late for this. Skimming further, I found “3 Things Parents Can Do in the Moment.”
Now we’re talking:
- First, try to get them to calm down (brilliant) and keep them in the living area. Don’t send them to their room where they might get the impulse to run (ugh).
- Second, ask “what’s going on?” not “how are you feeling?” (I could use that).
- Third, talk to your kid about what’s so bad about this situation that she can’t handle it.
At 9:20, my husband took our dog for a walk; at 9:25, he returned with the O.C. in tow. He had walked by her as she was sitting on a neighborhood bench about 2 blocks from our house. Yes, she had come home but, apparently, she was not intending to stay; rather, she had returned for a jacket before planning to leave again.
Not so fast.
Armed with my newfound parenting knowledge, I confidently went downstairs to see her. She was sitting on the couch wrapped in a blanket.
“Hi, Mom,” she said.
“What’s going on?” I asked (I am a quick learner).
She said she was cold and scared and there was a drone following her. Hmmmm. Then I asked her why she left; she said it was because she wasn’t wanted. I looked her right in the eye and said “really Honey, you aren’t wanted, by me?” She could barely keep from crying. Then she said “school is too hard, I have way too much work, and I hate it there.”
Now we were getting somewhere.
We talked about coping strategies and that maybe things might look better in the morning. I asked her, “What about this situation is so bad that you can’t handle it?”
She couldn’t come up with anything. There was nothing about the situation she couldn’t handle. Cha-ching! We had a great talk and she calmed down. About 10, we walked upstairs together and got ready for bed. I tucked her in, assured her that she was loved and wanted (and that she did not need to be afraid of drones), and then Googled “how to teach problem solving skills” so I would be better prepared for Monday morning.
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