|Q: I have
a 15-year-old son who has established a pattern of running away. I've
been advised to call the police when this occurs. What do you suggest?
A: Running away is indicative of a child who has entered a fear state. When we, and all animals in the animal kingdom become threatened, we go into a primitive response called the "Fight or Flight" response. It is an inborn genetic response, which helps to protect us; it is a survival response.
understanding, it perplexes me to think that calling the police on a
child in this survival response pattern would ever be recommended. Why
would you call out the police to address a child who is simply acting
from his body's primitive, automatic, and inborn response? Your
child is acting from an unconscious level. It isn't a conscious
response; it is an unconscious reaction. Addressing it from an
authoritarian and fear based approach will only keep your child in this
pattern; hence, you described it as an "established pattern."
We have somehow come to believe that we can force change by provoking fear and threat. This is completely unnatural. Have you ever seen nature force a seedling to grow? This is a choice that has to come from an internal place from within a person.
To give such advice about sending the police is an example of doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result (this of course, is the definition of insanity). Statistics reveal that more than one in 100 adults in the United States have been in jail or prison. This is an all time high. When are we going to realize that this isn't working?
Our own fear keeps us in a constricted place, locked in from seeing other alternatives. Fear keeps us in a crazy loop of trying harder, "upping the ante," and driving more consequences in order to get our children to behave and to be compliant.
Here is the traditional parenting crazy loop:
This problem is, love has not been a part of the solution...that is why the crazy loop has continued. If you want to end the cyclical turmoil in a family, put love into action. Unfortunately, many of us have no blueprint for what this looks like, so it challenges us at a deep level to consider that it would actually work.
The next time your son runs away (and I also suggest looking closely at the circumstances that led up to this event and determine how much fear from both you and him contributed to the situation), I want you to plan a celebration for his return. Instead of calling the police, call the caterer! Seriously, bake a cake or some cookies. Make a banner that says, "Welcome home, son. We missed you."
When a child returns, what we typically do is dump our fear onto the child. Instead of saying, "I was scared for you," we typically say, "How dare you leave this house and not tell us where you were going!" We need to realize that it took a tremendous amount of courage for the child to walk back into that door, knowing the parent was going to lecture him about everything he had done wrong.
Put love into action when he walks in the next time. "Son, I'm so glad you're home. We missed you." It takes putting your fear aside and getting down to your core feelings. You did miss him. You are glad he is home. Let him know how special he is in your life. If you've lost these loving feelings towards your child due to the intense dysregulation going on, revisit pictures of when he was younger and when times were calmer and more pleasant. Get yourself back into a loving place with him.
Later in the day, take the time to be with your child and listen to him. Talk about what it is that drives him to leave. Really listen to him. Give him space to voice himself. Stay out of being defensive. Know that when he feels heard, he will be able to hear you. When you give him the gift of being understood, you then can take the opportunity to express your fear. "I just get so scared when you leave. When I don't know where you are, I can't do anything to help you at that point. I also can’t do my ultimate job for you as a parent, and that is to keep you safe."
Be courageous enough to try something different. You have the capacity to interrupt the negative crazy loop and to change this established pattern with your child. It takes trusting that love never fails.