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Rescuing our runaways

  • Psychologists and child rights lawyers highlight the need to modify parenting styles to suit children’s personalities

By Sumudu Chamara

The past few months saw several incidents of children including teenagers leaving their homes and parents, and these incidents led to questions about parent-children relationships and different circumstances that lead children to consider leaving their homes and parents.   

While in one case, two boys had left their home due to alleged abuse by their parents, in another case, several girls had left their home due to what media reports said was a desire to meet a foreign actress. In another case, a girl that went missing had come home after the Police started searching for her, and the reason for her going missing in the first place remains unknown. 

Although these missing children were found later, children leaving their parents and homes, seeking some form of freedom, comfort, or necessity, thereby risking their lives in the process, is a matter that calls for attention, and therefore, understanding the root causes and remedies are of great importance. 

Factors causing children to leave home and parenting styles

Clinical psychologist Dr. Kanthi Hettigoda said that instances of children leaving home are more prevalent among teenagers than among young children, and that such decisions may be due to a plethora of different reasons and circumstances.

Speaking with The Morning, she explained some of those reasons, noting: “Teenagers may decide to leave their home seeking more freedom, or as a response to issues they have been experiencing at home. There are also children who leave their home due to addiction to various substances and due to influence from individuals who have such habits. Also, relationships with and the influence of various groups such as gangs can also be a reason.”

Adding that it is not possible to always interpret the way in which children perceive and react to the above-mentioned situations, she said that in some cases, there may be signs of mental disorder. “There is a disorder called conduct disorder, and it is a children’s version of the antisocial personality disorder. Some children may leave their home due to mental conditions, and they are sometimes related to behavioural problems. They may have various issues such as disputes, and may leave home or school and engage in antisocial activities. However, such behaviours are not new, and if we look at the situation a few generations back, we can see that such issues existed then too.” 

However, she was of the opinion that when it comes to the recent incidents of children leaving homes, this may not be the case. She added: “There could be other reasons. Children hearing of or seeing similar incidents through the media could have also been a reason. They watch movies and various programmes that discuss or show children who have fled their homes, and in some cases, such can have an influence on children to do the same. At the same time, teenagers have a tendency to seek attention and they may try to get that attention through acts such as leaving their home which can be seen by them as a heroic act.”

According to Dr. Hettigoda, in some cases, children may tend to leave their homes due to the fear of their parents’ reaction, especially harsh punishment, to something they have been a part of such as a relationship or a certain wrongdoing. In this context, she said, discussing parenting styles prevalent in Sri Lanka is of great importance. 

She explained: “In Sri Lanka, most parents do not adjust their parenting style according to their child’s needs, mentality, or age, and most parents treat teenagers as if they are young children. These parents tend to not give adequate attention to the fact that children grow and that their parenting style should change. Continuing the same parenting style, which was adopted when a child was five or six years old, to deal with teenagers is unacceptable.”

Prying into a child’s personal life, trying to get children to do what parents want or do things in a way parents want when children do not want the same, forcing children to associate with certain people, and directing children to achieve targets set by parents but not by children, are some of the situations Dr. Hettigoda said can make children’s life at home uncomfortable.

According to her, there are different types of parenting styles such as autocratic (dealing with children in a strict manner that limits freedom ), passive (dealing with children in a manner that involves giving excessive freedom), and democratic parenting (dealing with children in a manner that allows and encourages the expression of opinions and discourse, and ensures fairness).

She explained the consequences of autocratic parenting, noting: “Some children remain obedient to the autocratic parenting style until they reach a certain age, or until they see a person who they think is entitled to more freedom. However, once parents lose that control or stop employing such forms of parenting styles, children tend to use that freedom to the fullest, sometimes to extents that may even be detrimental, because they do not understand how to manage this newly gained freedom. In some cases, while being under pressure from restrictions, children may tend to seek more freedom when they realise that their freedom is limited.”

Dr. Hettigoda noted that children leaving their home could also be a consequence of an autocratic parenting style, and that when children talk about their rights, parents should not see it as an act of disobedience but as a good indicator of their development. 

With regard to steps that can be taken to create and strengthen healthy relationships between parents and children, she said that parents should be flexible enough to understand the importance of treating children according to their age, and that it is also important that parents obtain knowledge and understanding about children’s growth.

Simple steps such as giving children more privacy, especially when they reach teenage years, giving children the freedom they need, and respecting individual differences, can strengthen the parent-children relationship, according to Dr. Hettigoda. 

“Parents are supposed to monitor, not control, children’s behaviours, and matters such as with whom children associate, what children do on social media platforms, what kind of friends children have, and whether children have relationships they do not divulge to their parents should receive attention,” she said, adding that parents should focus on preventing children from committing wrongdoings.

While giving the freedom children need is crucial, according to Dr. Hettigoda, having simple rules at home, such as cleaning after eating and being careful about the usage of certain words at home, could help a child understand the importance of protecting and respecting everyone’s rights. She stressed that this is particularly important because in terms of the Sri Lankan context, parents put a lot of effort into giving children knowledge, but rarely teach children life lessons and skills.

“In fact, the lack of problem-solving skills is one of the reasons some children leave their home when they face a minor issue,” she noted, adding that coping skills is also one type of the most important skills children should be taught.

Furthermore, she noted that it is based on the way parents treat children that children perceive the world, and that therefore, wrong treatment may result in children having a wrong idea about the world. Parents adjusting the parenting style based on the child’s age, gender, personality, and intellectual capacity, among other factors, is key to good parenting that makes children comfortable, according to her.

Giving children more freedom and legal support 

Meanwhile, former National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) Chairperson and incumbent Sisters-at-Law Founder Attorney-at-Law (AAL) Marini De Livera, told The Morning that there is legal recourse for children who face any form of inconvenience, including abuse or neglect at the hands of parents or guardians, and that the public should be more aware of such support mechanisms and also of the need for more opportunities for children to express their feelings. 

She explained the need for more attention towards children’s concerns, noting: “I have discussed the situation of children living in rural areas, and according to those children, there is a severe lack of opportunities for them to discuss their problems. Those children said that there was no one to discuss their concerns with, and that they were scared of talking about their problems with parents or teachers. In fact, some of them even said that they get scolded when they try to discuss their problems. They do not have an opportunity to express their opinions, but merely what they have been told or taught. For example, if a child has concerns about a romantic relationship, they do not have anyone to discuss those concerns with, and in a context where Sri Lanka is among the countries that report one of the highest suicide rates, this situation is concerning.”

De Livera said that although Sri Lanka does not adequately facilitate even the most rudimentary forms of discussions with children about children’s concerns, other countries have employed various methods of expression to encourage children to voice their opinions.

“We wait until children’s problems exacerbate and result in massive damages, and we have not created ways for children to express what they feel at home or at school,” she added.

She added that according to international laws and conventions, when a child has reached an age where he/she has developed the ability to understand what is said or done by parents, decisions that affect the child must be taken after discussing with the child, even if the child is around four or five years old, and that parents cannot act on their own accord. 

She identified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which Sri Lanka has signed and ratified, as one of the best tools that facilitate the protection of children, adding that signing it has resulted in positive changes in Sri Lanka as far as support systems available for children are concerned.

She added: “Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to sign the UNCRC, and we formulated a Charter (Children’s Charter of 1992) in accordance with its provisions. Also, we established a Ministry for Children, and a Secretariat under the Ministry.”

In response to a question about the systems that are in place to provide some relief to children who do not wish to live with his/her parents regardless of the reason, De Livera noted that in such situations, a child can be separated from his/her parents.

Adding that it is not acceptable to force a child to stay with parents that are not treating the child well, she said that there is a mechanism called “kinship care” to assist such children. Kinship care is when a child lives full time or most of the time with a relative or a family friend, often because their parents are not able to care for them.

She explained the implementation of this concept in Sri Lanka: “If parents treat a child in a rude manner or neglect the child, such steps can be taken. In every divisional secretariat, there are child protection officers and custody officers who are able to assist such steps. The relevant authorities can visit the houses, assess the situation, and issue a report, and thereby provide at least temporary measures for the wellbeing of the child. Also, a person can appear in court on behalf of the child and get a court order for kinship care, and it can also be done with or without a court order.”

Moreover, she said that if parents are found to have neglected a child, action can be taken against them in accordance with Section 308 of the Penal Code, which reads: “Whoever, being the father or mother of a child under the age of 12 years, or having the care of such child, shall expose or leave such child in any place with the intention of wholly abandoning such child, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to seven years, or with fine, or with both.”

According to the experts, while certain factors that affect children’s decisions to leave their homes are uncontrollable, with proper parenting methods, it is possible to create an environment where children and parents can deal with those together. However, the parenting methods play a big role in parent-children relationships, and poor parenting methods can not only be a factor that prompts children to consider leaving their homes, but can also exacerbate other issues.

As those who spoke with The Morning noted, the culture of ignoring children’s opinions, individual needs, and freedoms until parent-children relationships get damaged beyond repair, should stop.