How to Act When Your Child Threatens to Leave Home

If your child threatens to leave home, you may want to listen to them and not underestimate what they're saying, as it may be a warning sign.
How to Act When Your Child Threatens to Leave Home
Maria Fátima Seppi Vinuales

Written and verified by the psychologist Maria Fátima Seppi Vinuales.

Last update: 18 January, 2023

Many times, in an argument, parents don’t take things seriously when their child threatens to leave home. Sometimes they even assume an undesirable behavior and challenge them, saying things like “you wouldn’t dare”, “you’d be back in no time”, or ” you wouldn’t last a day”. Whether or not these threats are carried out, they’re packed with meaning. Therefore, it’s important to try to understand what lies behind them and how to act.

Why my child threatens to leave home

If your child threatens to leave home, it may be for a number of reasons. In other words, you need to pay attention to the context and the particular situation in which this warning presents itself. In this regard, you need to make a broader reading of the situation to identify the different influencing factors.

On the other hand, if you only stop to analyze that particular moment when they say something like “I’m leaving, I’m not staying here another minute”, it will be difficult to understand the problem in all its complexity. Some of the most common reasons why kids threaten to leave home are as follows:

  • They have a problem and fear the reaction of adults. For example, in situations of unintentional teenage pregnancy, because they’ve been warned of an expulsion at school, or because they’ve participated in a prank with friends that got out of control, among others.
  • They perceive that the family climate is negative. Consequently, they feel that they live in hostility, as there are continuous arguments with parents or siblings, among other situations.
  • Their separated parents formed a new family and the child doesn’t get along well with the new members.
  • They experience too much pressure. For example, when they’re forced to be the best in school or in the sport they practice and haven’t achieved the expected results.
  • They’re in a vital stage, where challenging and oppositional behaviors may emerge. As part of their identity development, adolescents are more prone to certain rebellious behaviors.

You may be interested in: My Child Doesn’t Want to Go to College

A teenager turning away from his father during an argument.
Teenagers want to differentiate themselves from adults and seek to separate themselves from their parents as a way of positioning themselves in the world. That’s why rebellion sometimes becomes a way to do it.

What to keep in mind if your child threatens to leave home

Some of the keys to dealing with these situations when your child threatens to leave home are the following:

Listen and pay attention

Don’t focus only on what they say, but also on their behavior in general and on their nonverbal language. Try to get away from your preconceived ideas (“it’s always the same with them”) and labels (“they’ve always been a difficult child”) to try to put yourself in their place and understand what’s driving them to make this threat and consider running away.

Avoid underestimating their threat and putting yourself in a defiant attitude

Phrases like “why don’t you go for it?” aren’t recommended. Also, it’s important that you warn them of the dangers and consequences of making that decision. The goal isn’t to do it from an intimidating, coercive, or manipulative point of view. On the contrary, it should be done as a way to set healthy limits. The young person needs to understand that they can get lost, that they may find themself in danger or uncomfortable situations, and that they’ll need money, among others things.

Avoid certain phrases

Sometimes, phrases such as “if you leave, don’t come back” or “go away, no one will even notice that you’re missing”, are pronounced with the purpose of hiding the fear that their loss or departure causes us. Sometimes, parents also resort to them to try to hide the feeling of frustration and incompetence they feel in their role. However, on the other side, the message your child receives is hostile and disinterested.

Choose empathy and understanding

Stay away from violence or confrontation. Surely the situation bothers you, but as an adult, you’re more likely to find a smarter way to handle it and empathize with your teen. It’s better to convey positive and appreciative messages.

A teenage girl with her back to her mother, both looking frustrated.
Talking and empathizing with your child is the best way to find a solution to the problem. Anger and violence only aggravate things.

Ask for support

If you feel that the situation is unsustainable or that there’s no viable solution in the short term, you can ask a relative (grandparents or aunts and uncles) to allow your child to stay at their home for a few days. This way, you’ll give them some space and bring some calm to the situation. Sometimes, distance allows us to rethink things differently. Above all, it’s important to protect your child and make sure they’re safe.

And if they do leave home…

If your child leaves home and then returns, when they do, it’s important that you express that you’re happy to see them back. This isn’t the time to tease them, complain, or make accusations. Then, you should find a time to talk about the issue, allow them to express themself, tell them how you felt, and invite them to find a solution together.

You may be interested in: 11 Attitudes to Avoid with Your Teenager

Learn to look beyond

Conflicts with children are often the visible tip of the iceberg. More often than not, there are underlying situations, and the fact that the youngster is threatening to leave home can serve as a red flag for you that there are other things you need to check out. Your children can serve as a source of learning about the type of parenting you do. Therefore, if it’s very rigid, it can cause them to feel controlled and trapped.

Also, it can highlight the fear you feel of being wrong, the fear that your children are growing up. However, it’s important that you try to open up, adapt, accept that this teenager isn’t your property, and propose a new way of relating to them. If you don’t know how to do it, let your child guide you, talk to them, and, if you need it, ask for help from other parents and professionals.

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The contents of You Are Mom is for educational and informational purposes only. At no time do they replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment from a professional. If in doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.