When your child threatens to run away from home

Power play ...
Power play ... Photo: Getty Images

People around Australia breathed a collective sigh of relief Monday morning when Bondi run-away Michelle Levy was found safe and sound.  But while this case has ended happily it has highlighted an issue that many parents find themselves facing: how do you respond when your child threatens to run away from home?

While not speaking directly about the Bondi case, child behavior expert Martine Oglethorpe says there are generally two types of runaway. There are those who are responding to a situation that they don't know how to handle and see running away as "quick fix". The other type is the child that either constantly threatens to run away or does so frequently. This, according to Oglethorpe is a "power play".

Found: Michelle Levy.
Found: Michelle Levy. Photo: NSW Police

"When this happens the child is looking for power within the family, it's a way they can manipulate their parents – 'if you don't let me do this, then I'll run-away' it's a tool that they can use to frighten their parents."

Oglethorpe notes that when this happens it can be because a child is not feeling accepted or listened to at home. "Parents can let their kids know that it doesn't matter what mistakes they make and that they will be able to work through it with them," Oglethorpe explains.

Helping children to work through their mistakes and providing a "safe space" for them to talk about their lives are key actions.

Oglethorpe also suggests that parents help their children to develop their general problem solving skills. "When children don't have good problem solving skills, running-away can seem like a good way to solve a problem that they've got – so one thing to do is help them develop this skill."

Problem solving can be as simple as talking to your child about their day-to-day lives and asking them questions such as 'what could you have done differently?' and reminding them that there are always options.

You can avoid getting in to "power-play" situations with children by avoiding scenarios that become "us" and "them." "Look at things from your child's perspective and ask them questions. Offer them compromises – show them that there are other ways of solving their problems."


Social worker, teacher and missing persons researcher Sarah Wayland suggests that parents adopt the "talk before you walk" concept as a way of managing the challenges of a young person threating to run away. She notes that conversations around the topic of running away or going missing should include acknowledging that children do run away and providing them with some ideas of where they could go if they feel that they need to leave the family home temporarily.

"Make an agreement with them that if they take off they let someone know they are OK. Suggest places they can go such as a friend (whose parent can look out for them) or a relative who is on their wavelength," Wayland explains.

Wayland also notes that if your child does run away then how you deal with their return is also important. "When a young person is located or returns of their own volition some families like to respond by pretending the missing episode didn't happen, an idea that 'they are safe now, let's just get back to normal'.

"But it's important (when the dust settles) to talk about what they learnt while they were gone, what happened for those around them while their whereabouts were unknown and what they might do differently next time," says Wayland.

Every year in Australia 35,000 people are reported missing to the police, which equates to one person every 15 minutes, according to information from the National Missing Persons Coordination Centre. More than half of those reports relate to children under the age of 18 years; almost 97 per cent are located within a short period of time.

Wayland notes that young people are more likely to go missing again after their first disappearance, "so it is vital to have those conversations."

Where to go for help:

Kids helpline 1800 55 1800

Lifeline 13 11 14