Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Characteristics of Help-Seeking Street Youth and Non-Street Youth. Why Do Youth Run Away from Home?


The issues most often cited by youth as leading to runaway behavior are problems pertaining to family dynamics. In particular, runaway youth describe a family environment that is disorganized, dysfunctional, unpleasant, or dangerous (Hyde, 2005; Martinez, 2006; Safyer et al., 2004; Thompson & Pillai, 2006; Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999a). Runaways may leave home environments characterized by physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect; fighting or arguing between parents or between parents and the youth; drug or alcohol abuse; and frequent changes in family structure, including divorce, death, or the addition of new members to the household (Hyde, 2005; Martinez, 2006; Thrane, Hoyt, Whitbeck & Yoder, 2006; Tyler, 2006; Tyler & Cauce, 2002; Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999a). Among the MHRAP sample, it was found that increased changes in family structure and increased family disorganization were associated with increased rates of running away (Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999a). Runaway participants in a qualitative study by Martinez (2006) also cited family dynamics as being among their reasons for having left home. For example, some participants stated that they left home in hopes of changing problematic family dynamics or finding out if their family truly cared about them (Martinez, 2006).

Both runaways and their parents acknowledge contributing to the dysfunction or disorganization of the family structure, either through their own individual actions or through dysfunctional interactions in the parent-child relationship (Hyde, 2005; Safyer et al., 2004; Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999a). Reasons focusing on the youth as a direct agent of runaway behavior include not wanting to comply with household rules; behavior problems; alcohol abuse; truancy; a desire to live elsewhere; and a desire for independence, adventure, or excitement (de Man, 2000; Hyde, 2005; Martinez, 2006; Paradise & Cauce, 2003; Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999a). Runaways may also see the act of leaving home as a way to assert or exert control over an intolerable situation at home, or they may leave home impulsively to gain immediate relief from their problems (Hyde, 2005; Martinez, 2006). However, Martinez (2006) notes that impulsivity is not unique to running away from home and marks many other teenage behaviors as well.

One perspective utilized by researchers to explain the connection between problematic family dynamics and runaway behavior is primary socialization theory (Thompson, Kost, & Pollio, 2003; Whitbeck, 1999). According to primary socialization theory, the family typically serves as a positive resource for the youth in that the family protects the youth from risks and promotes prosocial behaviors. When the family fails to fulfill this role, the youth may instead bond with deviant peers who encourage the youth to engage in negative behaviors such as running away (Thompson et al., 2003).

Chronic running away may signify a desire for early adulthood (Martinez, 2006), or an early or precocious entry into adulthood (Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999a). As boundaries and ties within the family are weakened and the support of the family is reduced, adolescents become increasingly self-sufficient and/or dependent on options or allegiances with people outside of the family, which may lead to runaway behavior (Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999a).

The risk amplification developmental model is a theory of risk behavior developed on the basis of the MHRAP data (Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999b). This model holds that there is increased risk specific to the life situations and behaviors of street youth. Specifically, psychologically harmed children leave home and enter situations in which multiple and cumulative risks are present, with negative developmental trajectories gaining momentum over time. For example, Whitbeck & Hoyt (1999a) found that, among the adolescent females included in the MHRAP sample, physical or sexual abuse within the family led to consequences such as substance use, affiliation with deviant peers, and street victimization, and that these consequences in turn led to increased likelihood of further victimization and emotional distress. Other studies have found that problematic family dynamics predict negative outcomes on the street (Thrane et al., 2006; Tyler et al., 2001). Failure to address problematic issues within the family or through social institutions such as schools and mental health services can lead to repeated running behavior and exposure to risk (Clatts, Goldsamt, Yi, & Gwadz, 2005; Martinez, 2006; Safyer et al., 2004).

Because poverty is often part of the family backgrounds of runaway and homeless youth (e.g., Sanchez et al., 2006; Thompson et al., 2003), Robert and colleagues (2005) caution against misinterpreting risk factors as solely related to homelessness when they might be more appropriately attributed to an impoverished family background. In a comparison between samples of homeless adolescents and non-homeless adolescents from an impoverished family, it was found that both groups had dysfunctional family backgrounds. However, a greater proportion of homeless participants cited family-related adversity, such as conflict and violence. In addition, the homeless sample had a greater number of behavioral disorder diagnoses (Robert et al., 2005).

Other risk factors associated with running away are found at the level of the individual or his or her environment. These include factors related to school, such as truancy and low academic achievement (Sullivan & Knutson, 2000); the presence of behavioral or psychological disorders (Kingree, Braithwaite & Woodring, 2001; Robert et al., 2005; Whitbeck, Johnson, Hoyt, & Cauce, 2004); long-term placement in foster care (Nesmith, 2006); and, to some extent, minority ethnic/racial background (Nesmith, 2006; Thompson et al., 2001; Kingree et al., 2001).

Exhibit 2 provides a brief summary of risk issues associated with runaway status among youth.

Exhibit 2
Risk Issues Associated with Status as a Runaway Youth
Risk Issue Category Leading to Decision to Leave Home References
  • Family dynamics (e.g., disorganized or dysfunctional household/family environment; fighting or arguing; substance use/abuse by family members; changes in family structure [e.g., divorce, deaths, extended family])
Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999a; Martinez, 2006; Thompson & Pillai, 2006; Hyde, 2005; Safyer et al., 2004
  • Poverty
Sanchez et al., 2006; Thompson et al., 2003
  • Abuse/neglect
Thrane et al., 2006; Tyler, 2006; Tyler & Cauce, 2002; Hyde, 2005; Martinez, 2006
  • Factors relating to individual motivation (e.g., unwillingness to comply with household rules; behavior problems; desire for independence, adventure or excitement; desire to assert or exert control over an intolerable home/family situation)
Whitbeck & Hoyt, 1999a; Hyde, 2005; Martinez, 2006; de Man, 2000
  • Substance use/abuse by youth
Paradise & Cauce, 2003; van Leeuwen et al., 2004
  • Behavioral or psychological disorders
Kingree et al., 2001; Robert et al., 2005; Whitbeck et al., 2004
  • Educational/academic difficulties (e.g., truancy, low academic achievement)
Sullivan & Knutson, 2000
  • Long-term placement in foster care
Nesmith, 2006
  • Minority or non-White/European-American ethnic or racial background
Nesmith, 2006; Thompson et al., 2001; Kingree et al., 2001

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