Primary Sources: Are Youth Who Run Away and Return Home More Likely to Take Risks?

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Photograph of a teen holding a skateboard and looking down a steep hill.

“Risk Behavior of Runaways Who Return Home” (abstract). Elizabeth Mayfield Arnold, Eun-Young Song, Claudine Legaultc & Mark Wolfson. Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies: An International Interdisciplinary Journal for Research, Policy and Care, Vo. 7, No. 3 (June 2012).

What it’s about: Researchers at Wake Forest University wanted to see if youth who ran away and returned home were more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors than their peers who had not run. They also wanted to learn why youth ran away, and whether they typically received services after coming back.

The authors pulled data from a telephone survey of nearly 1,200 youth between the ages of 16 and 20 asking questions about underage drinking, unprotected sex and other risky behaviors. Their analysis showed that youth who said they ran away at least once were more likely to report using substances and having sex without birth control. Additionally, runaway status was more strongly linked to risk-taking behaviors than other factors like race and family structure.

Why read it: When it comes to research on runaway youth, most studies focus on young people who become homeless rather than those who return to their families. Yet experts say that the majority of young people who run away come back at least once, even if the circumstances that caused them to leave have not improved.

Making the connection between young people’s runaway histories and future risk-taking may help agencies to develop interventions for youth who return home. Understanding what causes youth to run in the first place can also lead to better efforts to prevent future runaway behavior, substance use and unprotected sex.

Biggest takeaways for family and youth workers: Of the 73 youth who said they ran away, more than half attributed their decision to problems at home, such as abuse and fighting about the rules. Yet only 22 said they received follow-up services, like mental health treatment and family counseling. These numbers reflect the need for improved services focused on family dynamics. Family therapy in particular has been shown to increase family functioning, the authors write, while behavior-based family interventions may help youth who already use drugs or have unsafe sex. Teaching parents and youth how to safely address conflicts at home, for example, may help families stay together and prevent youth from becoming homeless.

Additional references: National Runaway Safeline offers “Let’s Talk: Runaway Prevention Curriculum,” a 14-module curriculum that helps youth build life skills and find alternatives to running away. The training also teaches youth about resources available if they leave home, including the NRS crisis hotline.

During the month of November, family and youth workers can also participate in National Runaway Prevention Month to raise awareness about runaway and homeless youth. The 2013 event features a 30-day calendar of activities (PDF, 160.8KB) with dozens of ideas for getting involved.

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