My next door neighbor’s child came over because he was “running away.” What should I do?
MOLLY: A reader from Colorado wrote us this question about her 10-year old neighbor.
Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): This is a very poignant experience and I think that the neighbor has a few things that she must do straight away. She has to immediately contact the boy’s mom and let her know that the kid is in her house. This needs to be done first so that the mom doesn’t go out hunting for her child and get terribly anxious.
Then the kid should be allowed to hang out with the neighbor for a bit, depending on how the mother feels about it, and allowed to calm down and feel safe. Then the child can be gently taken back home.
It’s not unusual and it’s actually helpful for kids to have neighbors or relatives to whom they can go if things become a little unsetting at home. I know that when I was growing up, while I didn’t run away from home, I would go to the neighbors a lot to spend time away from my house. I became very close to the childless woman who lived next door and would hang out with her a lot.
MOLLY: Do you think the neighbor should ask the child what’s going on and try to get a feel for why he “ran away?”
MOM: Depending on the relationship with the child, yes, I think she could say, “Hey, what’s happening at home? Why are you running away?” This child picked her house for a reason and likely needs to unburden himself about something.
If she’s not comfortable talking to the kid, she could give him milk and cookies and then take him home or have his parents come get him. I think, though, that you should always talk to a child that shows up at your house looking for a refuge.
MOLLY: Do you need to worry about something bigger happening at home?
MOM: I think it depends on how upset the kid is when he comes over and what the reasons are for why he wants to leave home. Obviously the kid wasn’t going very far and was just looking for a safe place to be for a while. Kids will often do this type of thing if they are angry at their parents or ashamed of something that happened. If his home life is too chaotic or traumatic or unsafe for him, then we’re into a different ball game.
MOLLY: Then what would be the responsibility of the neighbor?
MOM: Well that can get very tricky. She may end up calling social services if it’s a matter of abuse. Hopefully it’s not that but rather just a child needing to be out of his home for a short period of time. It depends on what the issues are. It’s a very hard issue for the neighbor if there’s something really wrong.
MOLLY: How would you deal with the long term effects?
MOM: If it happened once, I wouldn’t consider it a very big deal. As usual, it’s patterns of behavior that raise our concern. If a child is coming over on a regular basis and there really is something disturbing going on at home, then the neighbor is in a very difficult position but will probably have to do something about it. Either talk to the parents, or in the end, if it’s something really bad going on, she may have to call social services.
Generally speaking, if it’s not a serious problem and a neighbor is available to lend an ear to the child from time to time, I think it can lead to a wonderful relationship between the neighbor, the child, and the child’s parents.
Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had an experience with a child running away from home. Or Contact Us if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.