11.12.1997

Inside the mind of a teenage runaway

Mother-of-six Lynette Burrows recalls the emotional turmoil that drove her to flee from home as a child
 
Inside the mind of a teenage runaway
 
THEY have everything before them. They have their health. They have ambi­tions. They have the excitement of experiencing everything for the first time. Anything is possible. So why are so many young people unhappy?
 
We think of youth as being a period of optimism but, for many, it can be the reverse. At an age where our dreams are still possible, so are our night­mares. Hidden behind superfi­cial exuberance, particularly in the company of friends, are irrational fears and brooding melancholy.
 
And in a world which they feel they can no longer face; in which they have no real power, there is only one escape — and that is to run away.
 
Recently, there seems to have been a rash of runaway children. Agony Aunt Anne Atkins's 12-year-old daughter, Lara, took herself off on Sun­day because she felt "sad" and wanted her family to know it. Alex Davies, 17, fled from his mock A-level exams, only to be rescued by a chance encounter with his parents, who were scouring the streets of Lon­don for him.
 
The question is, are such young people being deliberately troublesome or delinquent when they disappear? Are they really trying to hurt? I don't think so. Perhaps I am more sympa­thetic because I ran away several times when I was a child and I can clearly remember the reasons. I did it because, at the time, my parents were unhappily married and, somehow, I formed an impression of how worried they would be.
 
I hoped they would be united by my absence in a way they were not by my presence. I pictured them drawn together by grief; looking sadly at my empty Wellingtons and untouched supper.
 
I imagined their conversations as it slowly dawned on them that I had gone. How they would regret not being nicer. The sad thing was, it wasn’t to me that I wanted them to be nicer. It was to each other. What else can a 12-year-old girl do?
 
You don't understand what you are trying to do, only that when you come home, they are united and mutually supportive in their condemnation and anger. And that, at least, is something.
 
This is just one example of the tortured logic children use as they try to solve problems which are really too big for them. My experience is tragi­cally common today and we are told that as many as 80 per cent of the young people sleeping rough in big cities are fleeing a family break-up.
 
On the other hand, the fact that homeless young people are such a feature of our cities ensures that other children with far less serious problems will join them. Now that I have six children of my own, I feel just as sorry for the parents. We grown-ups are, after all, only people at a later stage of our lives than our children. We are not a superior race. We, too, have a lot to learn and we don't always get things right. We can be too demanding and make our children feel they have to meet an impossible standard in order to be acceptable.
 
Or we can be too lenient, so that the child feels alone and unsupported, even when this is far from the truth.
 
With the best will in the world, parents make mistakes of emphasis. No two youngsters are the same, even within a family, and it is a part of the incredible flexibility and ingeniousness required of parents that they have to recognise this and act accordingly.
 
However, parents do not always realise what is wrong. Children feel pressure to do well in exams, for exam­ple, but they probably don't blame parents or teachers for it.
They know what is being done is for their benefit and they should feel grateful but they can't cope. So they run away which, in the circumstances, seems rather a sensible thing to do.
 
It certainly has the instant effect of making parents realise there are more important things in life than exams and that, perhaps, they should take more time to talk about this fact.
 
Children have little power to alter the circumstances in which they live. They cannot order changes, since they don't know the alternatives. They can­not withdraw their labour, since no one would notice. And they cannot take their custom elsewhere, since they don't want another family.
 
The only way they can dramatise and draw attention to their feelings is to do something which will excite the love and concern of their parents.
 
Running away may seem the only way a child can stop the world.
 
In a society in which parents spend all their time telling children to hurry up, brush their hair, do their home­work, get up and go to bed, the young are seldom heard by mothers and fathers. All parents should take heed of these runaways, perhaps, by listening to their own children and focusing on the little anxieties that might seem trivial in the rush of the day.
 
OF COURSE, it is not easy being either parents or chil­dren. No doubt Lara Atkins and Alex Davies are hap­pier today than they were last week and so, of course, are their families. I know that if one of my children ran away, any fury at their sheer stupidity and recklessness would swiftly become tears of gratitude and relief on their safe return.
 
But, as the little girl that I once was, I understand the actions of these chil­dren perfectly: they had a problem; they had to show it. And now the problem is, at least, out in the open.
 
But thank God they are home.