Regarding the horrible revelation in Cleveland in May, 2013 when 3 women who had been held captive for ten years were rescued, several news outlets reviewed how the missing-persons list works. “Hundreds of thousands of people are reported missing each year,” the Wall Street Journal stated, “the vast majority of whom turn out to have run away, FBI data show.” Those numbers are misleading.

Millions of children run away every year

Actually, the data is worse. According to the National Runaway Safeline which obtained statistics from peer-reviewed journals, “between 1.6 and 2.8 million (that’s not a typo) youth run away in a year. 47% of runaway / homeless youth indicated that conflict between them and their parent or guardian was a major problem.”

“Over 50% of youth in shelters and on the streets reported that their parents either told them to leave or knew they were leaving but did not care.”

“32% of runaway and homeless youth have attempted suicide at some point in their lives.” Why do they run away? Why do they get into drugs, sex, and cutting? Is there a connection among all these youth problems?

To get an idea of the answer, let’s look a little closer at the history of two of the three girls who were held captive for a decade and how they came to be kidnapped. First, let’s look at Amanda Berry, the brave girl who orchestrated their escape. According to news reports, she had piercings in her ears and eyebrows and liked Eminem’s music.

What do runaway children want?

For those who wouldn’t know Eminem from an Oreo, Wikipedia explains that this “artist” shot to stardom on the basis of lyrics featuring “drug use, sexual acts, mental instability, and over-the-top violence.” For example, one of his songs “ends with his encouraging a man to murder his wife and her lover.” What is the attraction of such so-called music?

Music speaks to the heart. To what inside these children does Eminem’s music speak? Perhaps an interesting way to learn the answer is to conduct a little research. Ask your children if they ever listen to Eminem and whether they relate to the lyrics. If so, what is it about those lyrics that is meaningful to them?

I’d like to venture a guess. Profiles on pedophiles show that these monsters target lonely and alone children, children without a support system and without close supervision. The piercings, in particularly on the eyebrow, that Ms. Berry had, indicate that she felt out of the mainstream, off the beaten path. When you take these clues together with the music she listened to, it creates a view of a girl alone and fighting her way in a tough world. (Perhaps that was a blessing, too, because she was tough enough to finally extricate herself from her prison, never giving up on freedom.)

Repair broken relations with your child

A bit of information on another of the three girls who escaped, Michelle Knight, sheds even more light on this difficult problem. The news states that “because of the strained relationship between Ms. Knight and the family, a missing-persons report wasn’t filed.” Therefore, her family did not know that this young woman had been kidnapped and just assumed she had left home on her own volition. Locked up and mistreated for ten years, no effort was made to find her.

Research shows that children who run away have been abused either physically or emotionally. Emotional abuse can be “merely” emotional neglect: not listening and not caring. Often, these children themselves think that the rules at home were too strict. However, working with these children myself has shown that the problem is not at all that the rules were too strict but rather the strictness was not paired with love. Discipline must be delivered lovingly to work.

What the children experience, instead, is a feeling of personal rejection. This translates into: They do not love me because I am not good enough. Not only am I not a good person in my parents’ eyes, but I am worthless. Of course, the parents never intended such a message but there is a huge gap between the giving and the getting. The parents often think they are giving discipline but the children are getting a different message.

Children who self-harm have similar histories

We get an even clearer idea of what the children hear as opposed to what parents thought they deliver when we study children who cut themselves. These adolescents report a dead feeling inside, an emptiness that can be filled for a brief moment with a sharp pain that is the only thing that feels real to them. Why do they feel so empty? The one thing that fills a person and makes him feel alive is a sense of being loved: by parents, by God and by himself. Without parental love, it is hard to feel Godly love and without the love by parents and God, it is even more difficult to feel self-love.

Other children may not resort to such drastic measures but their unhappiness is no less important to attend to. Their unhappiness comes from the same source: a perception of worthlessness coming from messages they believe mean their parents do not love and value them. These children may “only” hang out with the wrong crowd in the search for something that lifts them up out of their pain and emptiness.

So the real question is what are parents doing that causes such a terrible reaction and what can they do differently? Let me give you just one example.

I’ve had a blog for many years, even from before people called it a blog. Once, a teen emailed me in response to an article I had posted on my website to explain how she started cutting herself. She said that she could not get attention from her mother. When her mother was preparing dinner for the large family and the teen wanted something, her mother would say, “Don’t bother me unless you’re bleeding.”

That parent worked hard to prepare a beautiful meal and everything was in it but love. A parent simply cannot speak in such harsh terms to her child. The statement above does not translate into a joke that says, “I’m busy.” It translates into, “Your needs are not important to me.”

How should parents handle difficult children?

Now, for argument’s sake, let us suppose that this particular child was always the whiney type who demanded more attention than was appropriate. How should a parent wean such a child off of that without being rejecting? One possibility would be to smile lovingly at the child and say, “I will give you attention at dinner but I must continue my work right now.” Alternatively, the mother could triage for the seriousness of the problem first, even while working, by just asking what the problem is and then responding accordingly.

On the other hand, it is also critical that parents understand that what may seem minor to them may be major to the child. A girl who is ignored by her peers, a boy who doesn’t make the team, a child who is made fun of, a teen who didn’t get the grade he expected may be quite upset and feel as though this problem is in the category of “bleeding.” What should the busy parent do? The answer is that the child’s feelings really are more important than whether every side dish gets made or whether all the dust is well vacuumed. The parent should stop to be a good listener, hear the pain in the child’s story, and respond with kindness, not brusqueness.

If doing that is something difficult for the parent, there is help available: Get counseling.  And the time is right away.

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