Primary Sources: What Factors Predict Whether Youth Will Run Away or Become Homeless Again After Returning Home?

Photograph of a young man sitting in front of a brick wall.

"Two-year Predictors of Runaway and Homeless Episodes Following Shelter Services Among Substance Abusing Adolescents” (abstract). Natasha Slesnick, Xiamei Guo, Brittany Brakenhoff and Xin Feng. Journal of Adolescence, Vol. 36 (2013).


What it’s about: Researchers at The Ohio State University wanted to see what factors might predict substance abusing young people running away more than once. For two years, the researchers surveyed 179 young people, ages 12 to 17, who had visited a youth shelter in Columbus, Ohio. Of this group, 156 people completed all the follow-up assessments. During each phase, youth were asked if they had run away, experienced homelessness or lived in an arrangement such as couch-surfing or sleeping outside since the last survey. Participants were also assigned to one of three home-based interventions (Ecologically-Based Family Therapy, Community Reinforcement Approach or Motivational Interviewing) for six months.

The study then looked at individual and family characteristics to see if they could be linked to repeatedly running away or experiencing homelessness. For example, were young people enrolled in school? How often did they use substances? Were they involved in gangs? Did they have symptoms of depression? How did they perceive their families' levels of cohesion or conflict?

Why read it: Past studies show that many runaway youth leave home more than once because of unresolved conflicts with their families or a lack of support. Even when they participate in programs like family-based therapy and report improvements, young people may leave home again. Despite these trends, researchers have primarily looked at which factors lead youth to run away the first time, rather than which ones shape future behavior. Better understanding why young people may run away more than once can help family and youth workers use targeted interventions that increase the odds of families staying together.

This is also one of few longitudinal studies--meaning that it was done over a period of time--that uses a sample of young people who had lived in shelters. The young people in the study, therefore, may have experienced more dire circumstances than first-time runaways.

Biggest takeaway for family and youth workers: Sixty-four percent of the youth surveyed said they ran away or were homeless at least once more since returning home from the shelter. These youth also reported more frequent substance use and a weaker sense of family cohesion than did youth who didn't leave home again. Young people’s take on family conflict (as opposed to family cohesion) was not a strong predictor of future behavior.

Based on their findings, the authors encourage therapists to focus on building feelings of support and connection among families instead of just dealing with conflict. Substance abusing teens, they write, may also benefit from continued rather than short-term therapies to address family issues, as well as programs aimed at curbing their substance use.

Additional references: We recently shared the results of a study examining whether youth who returned home after running away were more likely to engage in risky behaviors like substance use. Our feature "Beyond Addiction: Understanding and Treating Substance Abuse in Young People" is a good primer for youth and family services professionals.

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB, or the Administration for Children and Families. Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of this and other publications.)

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