According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), substance abuse among runaway adolescents is alarmingly high. But what accounts for this phenomenon and what can be done to prevent it from happening to your teen?

Why do children and teens run away from home?

There are numerous reasons why children run away from home. Some may be unable to accept their parents' rules. Others may have difficulty coping with the emotional impact of divorce or other instability in the home. Still others may be in conflict with siblings or may be the victims of abuse. Some simply leave spontaneously when they are faced with a difficult or painful situation.

How many children run away?

A 2002 estimate from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention indicated that nearly 1.6 million American youth run away annually.

What is the relationship between runaways and substance abuse?

In a study of more than 400 homeless young adults (aged 13 to 23) in Hollywood, CA, more than 70% abused drugs (16%), alcohol (12%), or both (43%). Another study found a correlation between living on the streets and abuse of more detrimental drugs, including intravenous drug use . It also found that age, length of time living on the street, being male, and being White all increased the chances of having a substance use disorder. The results of a national survey of young people who lived on the street found that, of those who had attempted suicide (30%), 50% attributed drug or alcohol use as directly related to their attempt. The research also determined that inhalants, hallucinogens, and sedatives were most likely to be associated with a suicide attempt.

How does the government help runaways and teens with substance abuse problems?

In addition to a national hotline (The National Runaway Switchboard, NRS), which provides support to runaways and their families, other government agencies have attempted to address the problem of substance abuse in adolescents in a variety of creative ways (Read NIH & the GRAMMY Foundation Team up against Teen Substance Abuse).

How can I reduce the chances of my child running away?

Be sensitive to your teen's emotional state, especially during difficult periods of family, school, or social instability. Don't be overly critical of their choices because much learning happens through mistakes. Create an open environment in which they feel comfortable asking questions about drugs, alcohol, sex, and your family's beliefs about these topics (Read How to Talk to a Teen about Drugs). Equip them with knowledge about the risks and challenges that they face, and teach them how to stay strong under pressure (Read Peer Pressure: Help Your Kids Say "No!"). Finally, get your child help if you suspect that they are having difficulty coping with life situations so that they don't turn to substances or runaway for relief (Read Teen Addiction and Rehab).