Research Roundup: Why Do Young People Run Away?

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Photograph of a teen girl crouching on the sidewalk

For people in the runaway and homeless youth field, it's the million dollar question: What makes a young person more or less likely to run away or leave home and become homeless? If we knew the answer, perhaps we could end youth homelessness entirely.

Of course, the reasons may be as varied as the young people who run away.  But several recent papers have shed light on some of the factors that may make youth more likely to leave home. The three studies highlighted here used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, or Add Health, the largest and most comprehensive nationally representative survey of adolescents. Here is what they say about what may put youth at risk for running away:

1. Unstable home life. Adolescents from families with a lot of aggressive and antisocial behavior may run away as a means of escaping this environment, a study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln finds.

2. Having run away before. The same study noted that even runaways who leave the streets may choose to return after a period of time, putting them once again at risk.

3. Substance use. The researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln also found that homeless young people were more likely to use illicit substances such as alcohol and marijuana, and that this behavior usually started before they left home.

4. Peer influence. Researchers from Tulane and Wichita State University found that young people who ran away associated more often with peers who drank, smoked, used drugs and skipped school. These friendships were no less close than the friendships of teens with healthier behavior. The researchers speculate that more “antisocial” peers may encourage running away as a solution to problems at home.

5. Same-sex relationships. Researchers from North Carolina speculate that social stigma that can surround teens' same-sex attraction and relationships may distress teens emotionally, make them feel depressed, and cause tension and conflict with their parents. Indeed, other research shows that a large proportion of youth on the street identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning.

Read the Articles

Risk Factors for Running Away Among a General Population Sample of Males and Females.” Youth & Society, Vol. 42, No. 2 (2011).

Precursors of Running Away During Adolescence: Do Peers Matter?” (abstract). Journal of Research on Adolescence, Vol. 22, No. 3 (September 2011).

The Association Between Same-sex Romantic Attractions and Relationships and Running Away Among a Nationally Representative Sample of Adolescents” (abstract). Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, Vol. 28, No. 6 (2011).

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