A Family Systems Approach for Preventing Adolescent Runaway Behavior

By Coco, E. Lane; Courtney, Linda J. | Adolescence, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview
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A Family Systems Approach for Preventing Adolescent Runaway Behavior

Coco, E. Lane, Courtney, Linda J., Adolescence


A family therapy approach, combining the conceptual frameworks of the Bowen model and Olson's Circumplex model, was used to restructure family relationships in order to prevent further runaway behavior of a 15-year-old Mexican-American female. A structured family interview was conducted to identify problems, a genogram was used to obtain the family's history, and therapy (family, individual, and mother-daughter) was provided to change the family system. The Family Satisfaction Scale was administered to evaluate the effectiveness of this therapeutic approach.


Runaway behavior for youths in the 1990s is usually not the result of a wish to have a Huckleberry Finn experience. It is often their dramatic way of dealing with longstanding problems or conflicts with family (Sharlin & Mor-Barak, 1992).

It is believed that between 1 and 1.3 million youths in the United States live in emergency shelters or on the streets (Feitel, Margeston, Chamas, & Lipman, 1992; Crespi & Sabatelli, 1993). Research indicates that the problem is more prevalent for adolescent females (Cohen, MacKenzie, & Yates, 1991; Kurtz, Jarvis, & Kurtz, 1991; National Network of Runaway and Youth Services, 1985; Sharlin & Mor-Barak, 1992). Cohen et al. (1991) found that homeless teens tended to be younger, female, and white. Further, these young females engaged in problematic behaviors, such as vagrancy, sexual promiscuity, prostitution, suicide attempts, and becoming pregnant (Sharlin & MorBarak, 1992).

Designing interventions that reduce or eliminate runaway behavior is a challenge for family therapists (Lappin & Covelman. 1985). The Bowen model of family therapy (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 1991) and the Circumplex model (Olson, Russell, & Sprenkle, 1983) provide a complementary framework from which effective interventions can be designed.


The literature uses the concepts of homelessness and runaway interchangeably. However, for the purpose of this study, the definition of runaway is "a youth who is away from home without the permission of his or her parent(s) or legal guardian; a situation in which a youth is absent from his/her home or place of legal residence at least overnight without permission" (General Accounting Office, 1989). Running away may be a phenomenon related to the search for self-identity, or it can be due to personal, family, or environmental problems. There is a correlation between runaway behavior and family instability (Sharlin & Mor-Barak, 1992).

The Context of Runaway Behavior

The types of runaway behavior were initially viewed dichotomously as "running from" or "running to" something (Greene & Esselstyn, 1972; Homer, 1973). Later, Barth (1986) elaborated on these to include three categories: the child who runs away from family strain caused by a crisis; the child who runs away from excessive parental expectations and control; and the child who runs away from a physically or sexually abusive situation. Assessment includes determining whether the child's behavior is new and amenable to change or habitual and well-entrenched. An additional category is the "thrown out" youth (Zide & Cherry, 1992).

The "running to" youth may have experienced some problems with family or in school or the community, but is often searching for excitement. This type of runaway usually comes from a more normal family situation and runs away for existential reasons.

The "running from" youth is unhappy about one or more major areas of life (e.g., conflict with, or alienation from, family). The family situation is often pathological, such as that involving an alcoholic parent, physical or sexual abuse, or extreme financial difficulties. Running away in these instances can be viewed as a rational decision to escape harm (Speck, Ginther, & Helton, 1988; Zide & Cherry, 1992).

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A Family Systems Approach for Preventing Adolescent Runaway Behavior


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