Date added: 03/11/20

I have been thinking about the link between trauma and running away. In work with traumatized children and young people, running away can be one of the most challenging and troubling themes. However, as a universal theme, it is one of the most important matters we need to find a way of thinking about and working with.  We can’t just 'lock' children up or ironically ‘throw them out’ after they’ve run away.  

First, I should make it clear that I am not implying that the American actor Willie Aames was a traumatized child.  I use the quote only because I think it makes at least three useful points. One is that running away as with many behaviours can have different meanings beneath the surface.   Secondly, Aames implies that his behaviour was a form of communication.  It also seems that no-one picked up on his communication in the way he was hoping for unconsciously.  Thirdly, he makes it clear that his conscious view only emerged many years later. So, as a child, he didn't know why he was running away.  If he had been asked, he probably could not have given a meaningful answer. Even though the quote says that he wanted someone to run after him, this doesn't explain why he had the impulse to run.  Why did the impulse develop when he was five?  

For most children, there is a point in their development where they realize they can run away.  This may just be a sign that the child has a healthy curiosity about what else might be out there.  The child realizes she has the potential to go outside of her parent’s world.  It may be a way of experimenting with crossing boundaries.  To run away one must go over a line.  This possibility, which is more of an interest in exploration and discovery may enter the child’s imagination and dreams even if it isn’t acted out.  Is the urge to run away a move towards independence?  “Once I ran to you, now I’ll run from you”, as the lyrics to the song ‘Tainted Love’ say.  The child might feel excited and slightly fearful about the possibilities.  

A traumatized child may have far more troubling connections with the impulse to run away.  It is clear, one of the terrifying things about trauma is that it is inescapable at the time.  The body is unable to escape, leaving the mind and body unprotected from the full terror of what is happening.  The only form of escape, especially for children who face repeated traumas such as abuse, can be to dissociate. In other words, their mind becomes removed from the body.  As if it isn't happening to them.  Physiological and psychological mechanisms kick in to reduce pain and increase the chance of survival. 

As a result, the child's body might feel useless to him.  He may feel let down by his body and ashamed of his 'failure' to escape (van der Kolk, 2014). We often see traumatized children who are lacking basic physical competence.  Many have difficulties in co-ordination and can appear clumsy.  Self-esteem deteriorates and the problem of having an incompetent body and mind grows.  

As a child begins to recover from trauma, he will begin to gain confidence.  He will become physically and mentally more capable.  For the reasons I have mentioned, gaining a sense of physical mastery is extremely important for these children.  Running might be one of those areas of mastery along with other physical activities.  Their previously 'useless' bodies now begin to feel more capable.  One upshot of this is that they can now experiment with escaping. If a small child has been unable to escape terrifying situations at the hands of an adult, as he grows bigger it must be liberating to be able to run away.  The message might be, I am no longer powerless, and I can get away when necessary.  Just the experience that it is possible might be enough.  The child can't necessarily trust that there won't be a need at some point. 

If a traumatized child feels empowered by being able to run away, in some ways it might be an important step forward.  If this is the case, we need to be careful not to be punitive and harsh in our response.  This would be a bit like punishing a victim for giving up the victim role.  I would add that it is generally a good thing not to be punitive and harsh towards a traumatized child.  This isn’t likely to induce a feeling of wanting to stay.  In fact, what we do on the child’s return can be crucially important.  How do we express our concern but also provide her with the space to discuss, explore and say anything that might be important?  Does she feel welcomed back? How do we feel about having her back?  Sometimes people may feel relieved and angry at the same time?  

Even if there is a healthy aspect of development in a child running away, those being run away from are not likely to welcome it.  So, what are the kind of questions to consider?  One well known and key question is whether the person is running away from or to something.  Or as the American novelist Sherwood Anderson said it could be both?

Something may be going on in the living situation that the child is running away from?  For example, is she being bullied?  On the other hand, is someone luring her away?  Are there unsafe, frightening situations that she is either running away from or to?  Does the child just feel safer, freer and in control being away from people?  Is she running away from the vulnerability of forming a good relationship?  Is there something positive she is running to?  Such as a wish to be reunited with family.  Even though we might have concerns about the family the wish for connection is natural.   

As I have said, running away is often a very difficult experience for those who are being left behind.  It can feel that a child running away is rejecting the care being offered.  On top of this, there can be a lot of worry and anxiety involved.  When I started work looking after ten traumatized boys it wasn’t long before I experienced a child running away.   Given the children’s lack of concern for safety and their vulnerability, the risks were significant.  We were in a therapeutic community on a farm, about six miles from the nearest town.  Sometimes by the time a boy who had run off got outside of the community, he would come back, already tired by his efforts!  This was one advantage of the location. Running away didn't put the children in such immediate danger as it might in a city.  There have been many reported instances of children in out of home care, getting involved with gangs, drugs and sex, etc.  This inevitably causes huge anxiety for the adults looking after the children.  The anxiety can escalate so that all attention is on stopping the child from running away and little on thinking why she may be doing it.  

It is also worth paying attention to our feelings and thoughts while the child is ‘missing’.  What is the running away evoking in us?  For example, is the child projecting some of her fears into us? Is she giving us a taste of what it feels like to be abandoned and run away from? 

A colleague, Tuhinul Islam Khalil (2013) mentioned that in Bangladesh, children living in a large residential home where he worked were often running away and ‘dropping out’.  Contact with the children’s mothers was not encouraged as many of them were sex workers.  Tuhinul recognized that the children needed their ‘mums’.  He changed the organization's policy so that, 

Mum can come and visit any time they want. They don’t even need appointment to come. So, it is like magic, within a month the dropout rate has nearly gone.  

This was an excellent example of thinking about the underlying reason and meeting the need. 
Back to my days of trudging around the muddy fields looking for run-away children.  Sometimes I might find the child and he would return with me.  Often it felt like a game of cat and mouse.  This could be exciting for the child and maybe sometimes for the adult.  After a few hours, he would usually return on his own accord for a warm bath and food.  Simon Bain, a resident of this therapeutic community in the 1970s, commented (2012), 

Although, you could say, I wasn’t a success, the funniest and indeed my fondest memories are the ‘running outs’ we used to do, with the staff spending half the night chasing us. 

This raises the question as to whether the need to ‘run away and be found’ can be built into daily life.  For instance, hide and seek types of game or more adventurous orientation activities for older children.  I imagine that hide and seek is a universally popular childhood game.  Capturing why this game can be so meaningful, Winnicott (1963, p.186) said, 

It is a joy to be hidden and a disaster not to be found.  

The child has a simultaneous wish both to be hidden and to be found.  Symbolically this may represent the child’s inner self, being hidden but also wishing to be found.  Some children might feel like no-one cares enough to look for and find them.  They might feel they aren’t even noticed and seen.  ‘Out of sight out of mind’, as is so often the reality for traumatized children.  

Sometimes when a child ran away, being the one to go look for him could feel like a preferable activity to some of the alternatives, such as cleaning the house or attending a difficult meeting.  Of course, we couldn’t easily admit this, but it highlights one of the possible dynamics.  As adults, what might we have invested in the child running away?  Might the child be running away for the adult?  Is the child running away from something that he senses going on between the adults?   Thinking about what we do and feel in response to the run-away child may give us a helpful clue. 

In one of the training sessions I attended in those early days of my career we watched a video of a well-known psychologist, Bruno Bettleheim, talking about his work in a famous institution.  He said that sometimes a child could not be stopped from running away so rather than ‘run after him’ they tried to ‘run with him’.  I found this an insightful way of re-framing the problem.  Maybe sometimes our job wasn’t to stop a child running away but to make the running away safe.  To be alongside the child. 

Sometimes a child may run away on his own and other times with another child or group of children.  This can raise additional worries and questions.  Such as, is one or more of the children abusing another? What are they doing when they are away?  Are they getting into delinquent activities?  If they feel excited having adults on the run, do we make matters worse by joining in with the chase? If we don’t, are we like the neglectful parent?  What happens to any children who do not join in with the running away? Is all our attention on them distracted, so running away becomes a way of gaining attention? Is what we are providing in the home interesting, nurturing and stimulating so that there is a bigger pull towards staying rather than leaving?  

Knowing the child’s history may also give us important clues.  Is there a pattern of running away in the child’s life? Did important people in the child’s life run away?  Was the family always on the move? If the child did run away before what happened afterwards? Was she punished or moved to another placement? Is the running away a form of testing to see what we will do? 

Running away can also be a symbolic wish to escape fears and situations.  These might be connected to the past rather than a reality in the present.  A traumatized child feels as if the trauma or the possibility of it is still present.  Is being on the move, a way of avoiding pain?  If the child had someone alongside her to hold and work with her pain would the need to run away change?  If we work on facing the pain, might the need to run away get worse?  Thinking what the running may mean symbolically can be a helpful area to explore.  A psychologist, Rudy Gonzalez explained a useful example to me.  He had noticed in Australia that children in ‘out of home’ care would often be attracted towards a train track if there was one close by.  Young people and adults who have ‘behaviour problems’ are often referred to as being ‘off the rails’ or ‘on the wrong track’.  Rudy refers to Sharon who could often be found by the train tracks, 

We could have judged Sharon’s behaviour as being only destructive, which may have resulted in a punitive response. In contrast, seeing the behaviour as an attempt to act out a positive desire which was to get on the ‘right track’ led to a more empathetic response.  Through her behaviour, Sharon had introduced the symbol of the train tracks. Travel metaphors such as trains and train tracks are full of symbolic possibilities – excitement, envy for those on the train, danger, change, escape, being on the move, a new life. (Barton et al., 2012, p.99) 

I think that is a good place to finish, there is plenty to think about on this subject! 

Bain, S. (2102) Comment posted on John Whitwell: A Personal Site of Professional Interest, 

Barton, S., Gonzalez, R. and Tomlinson, P. (2012) Therapeutic Residential Care for Children and Young People: An Attachment and Trauma-informed Model for Practice, London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers 

Tuhinul Islam Khalil Interviewed in July 2013 by Ian Watson, Institute of Research for Social Science (IRISS), UK, Residential Childcare in Bangladesh.  [Episode: 40] 

van der Kolk, B. (2014) The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Viking: New York 

Winnicott, D.W. (1963) Communicating and not Communicating Leading to a Study of Certain Opposites, in

Winnicott, D.W. (1990) The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, London and New York: Karnac


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