Any parent knows it's the role of every teenager to assert his or her independence, but some struggle with this freedom more than others. They act out in extreme ways, run away from home, abuse drugs and alcohol, join gangs, commit crimes, threaten or attempt suicide, or behave in other ways that may endanger their lives and those near them.
Our firm has participated in hundreds of searches for missing and runaway children, as young as 10, as old as 18. During the 1980s, most of our clients had problems with sons. But that reversed in the 1990s; now there are more female runaways. It's shocking, but eighty-five percent of our runaway cases are girls between 12 and 14. They're involved in drive-by shootings and robberies, take drugs and alcohol, are pregnant, and have physically fought with both women and men.
We have set a standard for returning these children. When a concerned parent approaches us, we take the case once we have enough information-name, date of birth, common hangouts, names of friends, etc. We charge a flat-rate of $750, plus travel expenses to pick up the child. Our first step is to determine whether the teen is missing, which may become a criminal matter requiring law enforcement, or has run away. Although we have worked with numerous kidnapping cases, the vast majority of the parents we help are trying to locate children who have left home on their own.
These aren't easy cases, but we always have a plan. The second step in reuniting a family is to find the runaway, which usually is accomplished within seventy-two hours. We speak to her on the telephone or, if we can, meet with her to persuade her to return home. It's wonderful if she does, but that's only the beginning. Running away and disruptive behavior are merely dramatic symptoms of something gone wrong. Parents must make every effort to discover the underlying problems, find help to resolve them and guide their children to a better way to deal with the issues upsetting them.
Our experiences tell us to watch out for these warning signs of troubled teens and those prone to running away:
When we ask our clients about these signs, they're often familiar with them on a personal basis. If you find yourself nodding your head, you'll need to resolve the situation. Some of these suggestions may help you find direction, counseling and assistance.
A true-life story
We have an 800 number that we provide to troubled teens who have run away. The number is (800) 723-0793. Over the years, many parents have retained our services to find their runaway children. Our methodology is simple and highly effective. We receive a retainer of $750 and, unless we travel to bring a child home, we never exceed that amount. We have a profile for approximately eight different scenarios that cover ninety-nine percent of our runaway cases. In nearly every case in which the clients and our office follow our profiles, the child will contact our number or actually come to our office within five days.
In 1987, Holly Rivers was a know-it-all high school junior who had a loving family and many monetary blessings. I always insist that neither my staff nor myself try to analyze why a child runs away. What did the parents do wrong? How did the siblings contribute to the problem? How did he or she start to run with such so-called friends? How could someone so bright throwaway everything to be with someone so wrong? We leave these and hundreds of other questions to the people who have expertise in the area. But, if you want your child found, we can help.
Holly, I learned, was a great student and an even better swimmer. She had junior national times and was close to national times. She could dance like the wind and. of course, everyone knew she was headed for Stanford or USC.
Holly proved to be a difficult find. When I located her some three weeks after she left home, in a commune in Northern California, she was dirty and reeked of pot. She told me she was trying to find herself. I was smart enough to have brought a child psychologist with me who proved to be key. He persuaded her to speak with him and she later returned with us to her hometown. She initially stayed with friends while she and her family received counseling. Eventually, she reunited with her family and returned home. She even rejoined her classmates and graduated on time. She attended a junior college, since her grades had plummeted during her absence. During that time, occasionally she would drop our office a short note to let us know how she was doing. She was kind enough to often say to us that her life had turned around knowing that someone other than her family really cared about her. She progressed and eventually graduated from the University of Arizona.
Over the past six years the notes from Holly stopped, as we would expect. She was moving on with her life and we understood. Then in January 1996 we received an official-looking envelope that turned out to be her wedding invitation. Many of us were honored to attend. At the reception I was struck when I saw her at the head table and later greeting all her guests. What a change from that day when we found her at the commune.
Don't discount the obvious: The first step in dealing with a problem is to understand it. Your child may need to be evaluated by a professional. But you have to get your child's cooperation, which isn't always easy. An honest discussion about what is going to happen often opens the lines of communication.
Your doctor, school counselors or those in the family court system might be able to recommend a qualified psychiatrist or psychologist. We've found that an intelligent, street-smart child can fool most adults by telling them what they want to hear. You'll have to find someone with an outstanding reputation for dealing with teens. Make sure the professional can relate to your child. If the therapist only seems to antagonize your child, don't return.
Most psychologists will want to speak with you first, then have a session with you and your child. The evaluation should be completed in a four- to-six-week period. The psychologist may then recommend some type of personal or group counseling. If you trust the professional, you should be able to trust this recommendation.
A great first step. But there's more.
Intervention can involve one-on-one counseling, group counseling or even a more forceful psychotherapy. Make sure the therapy is appropriate for your child. Don't let a therapist hastily place your child into therapy. Each type has benefits but will only help if it fits your child's needs.
The psychologist might recommend a personal "academic trainer" or that your child enroll in an alternative school. Keep in mind that tutoring can be expensive, but state and federal financial assistance usually covers all or most of the tuition. Even with a professional recommendation that a child needs placement elsewhere, many public schools don't want to release children or the funding they receive for them. Parents have sued school districts to fight to get their child properly placed. The law, which states that children are entitled to a proper education, was on their side.
Tutoring may be one of the best solutions getting a grip on the problem. An objective professional may have better luck reaching your child than you will. It's similar to when we make contact with runaways. They don't want to speak with friends, siblings, family members or relatives. But they often want to speak with someone new, someone who can relate to their situation without bias.
Self-help groups can be valuable, too, especially those affiliated with alcohol and drug abuse. Many groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon have earned their stellar reputations (check the Yellow Pages or the internet for the group meeting near you). There are also many self-help groups that deal with gamblers, overeaters, family problems and emotional distress. Ask a social worker for guidance.
The length of therapy is crucial. Some therapists believe therapy for teens should be constructive and concise, mainly because children this age are going through so many changes and can't handle prolonged counseling.
You may learn that your child will be best served in a home for troubled children where strict discipline is enforced. In the most severe cases, this may be a psychiatric hospital. The decision, obviously, is very difficult and fraught with intense emotions.
Investigate the facility carefully. Be wary of facilities that are similar to prisons and enforce a lock down every night. All they do is keep the teen in check for a short period of time and provide no long-term counseling or help. The troubled teen may leave such a place more confused and tougher than he or she was going in.
Visit the facility. Choose a school that has special programs that your child needs. Keep in mind that the teen may have to stay there for a long time on the road to rehabilitation, but be prepared to evaluate his or her stay regularly.
In the most extreme cases, you may have to seek intervention from the law. The juvenile justice system is the last choice when a parent has tried other options to no avail.
When your child gets arrested for the first time, you're thrown into a different world. The criminal justice system is a confusing and intimidating nightmare and the court has absolute control. The judge decides whether your child should go home, enter a private facility, live in a group home or be institutionalized. There's always the chance your child may get lost in the system. If this happens, you may consider hiring an attorney who specializes in the area of juvenile justice.
Generally, the first-time offense comes with only a short punishment. If you're lucky, this will be enough to make an impression on your teen and the process will not be repeated.
Depending on the offense, you will have to go to the facility where your child is being held and fill out paper work, get your child released and make contact with officers and the court system.
“As parents, we have to let our feelings of protectiveness evolve into guidance.”
It's terrifying for parents to learn that their child is missing. I can remember when my 3-year-old daughter wandered out of the front yard. I was frantic. Fortunately, a mail carrier was kind enough to bring her back to us. Those 20 minutes she was gone seemed like 20 years.
Our children's security is always our main concern. To protect newborns and toddlers, we childproof our homes by keeping hazardous chemicals, electrical outlets and other dangers from their curious hands and mouths. As our kids grow, it becomes more complicated as they're consumed by finding their own identities. By then we realize that we can't control them or their environments beyond what they'll permit. We have to let our feelings of protectiveness evolve into guidance.
How can a parent prevent disruptive or even dangerous behavior? Experts say you need to establish clear house rules and follow them consistently. Encourage honest communication from an early age. Teach your child how to make wise decisions.
Sometimes, despite your best intentions, your children will end up in trouble. Act fast, forcibly and with the child's best interests at heart. Hang in there and remember how you love each other. Accept who your child is, and listen to him or her more. Every parent and child can benefit from that.
Keep these numbers handy in case you or your child needs to talk to someone who understands what you're going through:
Regarding abused, missing, runaway or exploited children:
“The young do not know enough to be prudent and therefore attempt the impossible, and achieve it, generation after generation.” Pearl S. Buck