Coping with a Child That Withdraws or Runs Away

If you have adopted a child who has experienced trauma, you may well also face a child who withdraws from you at times of stress. He might also refuse to make eye contact or generally tries to remain self-reliant. As a parent, this is hard. But for the child it is even harder.

How To Connect With a Withdrawn Child?

First and foremost, your child should be seeing a therapist, preferably one trained in attachment and adoption. It is essential to ask the therapist about participating in counseling sessions with your child to reinforce that the primary attachment should be growing between you and your child. Our partner, Creating a Family, has an excellent resource on this topic if you are interested in learning more.

It’s also helpful for you, the parent, to receive support because it is so tough to parent a child that doesn’t seem to want or need your attention and love. Consider counseling for yourself and look for an in-person or online adoptive or foster parenting group.

On the Creating a Family radio show/Podcast Parenting Toolkit for Harder to Parent Kids, the following valuable suggestions were offered:

  1. Don’t take it personally. This is far easier said than done, but it is excellent advice when dealing with a child that does not want to connect. This behavior reflects your child’s past life experience, not his current life situation. This behavior likely served him well in his previous life. Connections mean exposure, and exposure means possible pain. Try hard to remember his vulnerability when parenting this child.
  2. Make playtime a priority. Use board games, funny television shows, and other silliness to interact with the child. Laughter breaks down barriers. Games often provide a safe way to communicate, especially if you can keep it from being too competitive and focused on connecting.
  3. Don’t push your child. Start slowly by merely being near each other without touching. Try small tasks together like making cookies or drying dishes side-by-side. Play the staring game in short increments that you can increase over time, to improve eye-contact and face-to-face connection. Again, keep it fun.
  4. Learn his love languages. Remember that not everyone expresses love and connection in the same way. Perhaps your child is showing affection to you, but not in the way you are accustomed to receiving it. Your child might show love by going on a walk with you or throwing a football. Maybe he is trying to connect by helping you unload the dishwasher without being asked.

It’s one thing for a child to withdraw from you, but it’s another thing entirely for your child to physically run away from you. Indeed, your approach depends upon the unique situation in which you find yourself.

How To Parent A Child Who Runs Away?

If you are struggling with a child who runs away from you or your partner, you should ask yourself a couple of questions to begin crafting a safety plan:

  • What pattern to his running away can you track? Is there a trigger you can identify?
  • What type of physical and emotional danger is your child getting into when she leaves?
  • Is there a particular person or place to which your child runs?

Having answers to those questions will help you work with the therapist to address your child’s running. In addition to attachment and adoption-focused therapy with your child, here a few practical suggestions to implement for a child who runs away:

  • Provide a safe place and person to which your child can run. With your child’s input, create an agreement with a family member or friend whom you trust. Give your child permission to “crash” at their house to allow time for her to decompress. All parties should agree to let you know where your child is and that she is safe. Agree not to bother her for a set period of time.
  • Walk behind your child when he runs. This is vital safety advice if your child is too young to be off alone. Don’t talk to or at the child; walk or jog along, keeping him in your sight. Remember that this may work, or it may make them run faster, depending upon your unique child.
  • Keep your therapist or an experienced friend “on call.”
  • Create a plan for what to do if your child runs away – in advance and “just in case.”
  • Keep these numbers stored in your phones for that moment – for both you and your child: the local crisis center, contact info for your therapist, a safe, trusted friend who has been through similar events, and your child’s friends’ home contact info.
  • Set up and learn how to use the phone tracking system if your child has his own phone.

If you are seeking more information on hard-to-parent behaviors, consider these parenting strategy resources offered by our partners at North American Council on Adoptable Children.