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Running away

F .G. Lennhoff on his work at Shotton Hall

Many factors cause unhappiness and tension in a maladjusted child at various times, and sometimes his emotions mount to the pitch when he feels that something drastic has to be done in order to relieve them. He generally has not enough trust in adults to go and talk things over with them and frequently he decides to pair up with another child, who he feels is just as restless as he is himself.

They talk together and one or other will suggest that the only solution is to run away. They feel they cannot face talking to the adult on duty, though they know they should inform an adult that they are going out, and they can think only of the punishments such episodes would have meant in their previous experiences. Generally, adults who dealt with them before were not able to take account of their unhappy state and could see only punishments as a possible deterrent to them and to other children. The children at Shotton Hall are seldom punished for misdeeds, but they still fear that they will be punished.

Somewhere to run to
Because they are frightened children, if they run away at all, they run a long way, getting lifts in cars or lorries if possible. Since we bought our farm (eight miles away from the school) many children who used to feel the urge to ‘run away from it all’ and would have absconded, now volunteer to help at the farm. This is not only because they enjoy the quietness and the trial of their strength, but also because they feel they need to get away from their problems. Often, after a day at the farm, they are able to talk with an adult about the underlying reasons for their restlessness. Indeed, now, absconding is usually confined to new children who have not yet settled down into our kind of life at school. They are not at peace with themselves and have not reconciled the idea of their old environment with that of the new. Until they have come to terms with these ideas, the urge to abscond will not die.

Coming back
If they do run away, they are brought back with the minimum of fuss, and without being loaded with guilt for their escapade.

I generally fetch them home in my car and as we talk and drive, this is often the basis for a new understanding between us, and sometimes the basis for a real relationship. If absconding is not undertaken for deep reasons beyond their comprehension, but for some frivolous reason, they are allowed extra opportunities for earning money, so that they can contribute towards the cost of the petrol used to fetching them. Without chiding or fuss, they realise that repeated running away only costs time and trouble. Later in their development, children will talk freely about their early attempts at running away, and will show the others that it is not considered a serious offence that will reap severe punishment at our school. Somehow, this helps rather than hinders, and it often contributes to a child’s understanding of the school’s philosophy.

Facing problems
Some people consider that absconding is to be regarded as a black mark against the school, but we measure our success or failure not against incidents like these, but from our progress in creating the right atmosphere for therapy for each individual child. The more relaxed the atmosphere, the more understanding a child feels he gets – and the less need he has to run away. Early absconding is no reason for despair, for gradually the child learns to accept the available help when he is feeling tense.

If the child is willing to talk, we try to explain that when he runs away he is taking his problems away with him, not escaping from them as he thinks. I usually tell a story of my own life, to illustrate that a change of address does not solve a problem; this is often a help to the child, because he realises he is not alone in his urges and that his problem is not an isolated one. He sees, perhaps for the first time, that there are more ways than one of tackling a difficulty.

Modelling self-confidence
Much help is needed to build up enough self-confidence in the child to cope with his own life, and this is often greatly complicated by the attitude of the parents. Sometimes the parents are no more capable of facing reality than their children are. We are reminded of Hugh, a boy from a well-to-do family who have completely rejected him. They cannot face up to unpleasant reality on his behalf and sometimes they cannot even bring themselves to open letters about him from the school, in case there is some ‘bad news’ about his behaviour!

There are many more symptoms than these, but to review them all would lead only to repetition. We always use similar methods of dealing with them quickly and easily, in as relaxed a manner as possible, and without condemnation-with practical and positive encouragement and frank, but not punitive, discussions of the situation. 

This feature: Lenhoff, F.G. (1992) Running away. The Child Care Worker. Vol. 10(6), p. 19. Acknowledgments: George Allen & Unwin