Crisis of identity causes teenagers to run away
Akhbar Satar 

The problem of missing children is a topic of concern for the police, parents, teachers, society and indeed all associated with the welfare of children. The police have issued statistics showing the number of adolescent boys and girls going missing and this is increasingly worrying.

It is very sad to hear that in the first half of this year there were 447 cases of girls running away from home and 276 are still missing. Of the total missing boys and girls, 345 were found while 378 are still missing. The majority of them were aged from 13 to 15.

Alarmingly, from 2012 till June this year, there were 482 cases of children running away, of which 12 went missing. To date, seven are still missing. The police are still investigating and will not close the cases but will review them periodically. Until the youngsters are found, the cases will not be closed.

But with a 323 million population, the United States is facing a more serious problem in missing people. According to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center Missing Person File, there were 88,040 active missing person records last year, of which juveniles under the age of 18 accounted for 33,706 or 38.3%.

Based on the above data, the average of missing teenagers in the US are 92 persons per day as compared to four a day in Malaysia. Of course, one needs to compare the comparative statistics of total population versus missing persons.

Criminologists believe there are three types of people who run away from home. Firstly, there are the adventure seekers who want to live freely, second are victims in families involved in drug activities, and lastly, victims of domestic violence.

Associate Professor Dr Mohd Fadzil Che Din explained that the main cause of adolescents running away from home was stress in the family. This is followed by the influence of the wrong type of friends, wanting to be free, disagreements with family, or otherwise bored and lacking in parental love.


Two main reasons

Based on research and police reports, there are two main factors that cause teenagers to go missing: peer group influence and pursuit of freedom. Adolescents want to have freedom and their own identity. In addition there are many studies conducted by criminologists which indicate that the average age of missing youngsters was between 11 and 14.

Adolescents of this age are often associated with a crisis of identity or mental disorder as they are in the process of seeking direction in life. The issue of identity crisis often involves the question of image and personality, and way of life. Developing a sense of identity is an important part of the teenage years. Renowned psychologist Erik Erikson believes the formation of identity is one of the most important aspects of a person’s growing-up years and potentially, one of the most important sources of self or external conflicts people face in personality development.

Thus, it is possible a teenager will be confused when choosing a way of life and might succumb to just acting or doing everything according to their feelings. This may result in behavioural patterns which are not in line with positive norms. They can also be influenced by western thinking and lifestyle and trying to be modern, glitzy and glamorous, and open to every sphere of modern life.

In general, from the police’s point of view there are two categories of missing persons in Malaysia. Firstly, it is related to criminal cases involving kidnapping and human trafficking by syndicate or individual who will turn the victim into a drug addict, beggar, prostitute or organ taking or otherwise kidnap for ransom. The second category is “missing” out of the person’s own will, meaning he or she wants to go missing.

Psychological factors which cause someone to run away from home may be the pursuit of freedom, lured by friends or through the influence of peers they contact via social media. Obviously, this second category is quite a concern as it is among the main contributors to being raped, forced into prostitution or murdered. Based on police investigations, girls as young as eight may use WeChat to exchange racy photos with men.

Certainly, they feel encouraged to reveal more information about themselves in social media, not realising the damage it could cause. There are many users who even posted sex photos or nude pictures of themselves on Facebook and end up being blackmailed or falling prey to strangers. Parents have to know who their teens’ Faceboook friends are and make sure they do not put up their personal details on social networking sites such as Facebook and WeChat.


Parents must listen

Household conflicts, divorce, physical or emotional abuse, drug issues, labelling of teenagers, love and economic problems are among the other reasons why teenagers run away from home. Other factors include the lack of religious holdings and good ethical behaviour. Ethics in Islam include keeping promises, honesty, transparency and telling the truth. Based on Islamic teaching, a Muslim must not only be morally healthy but must also contribute to the morals of society as a whole.

A child’s behaviour is of course related to the family system and upbringing. Parenting style should also change and parents should be good listeners and spend quality time with their children. The failure of parents to give attention and provide affection to their children also encourages teenagers to run away. The family’s behaviour should be the main and positive example of what the child should be striving to follow and emulate.

Society has a role in crime prevention. We should drop and stop the notion that crime is someone else’s problem. Prevention of juvenile delinquency needs the efforts of the entire society to ensure the harmonious development of teenagers with regards to their personality from early childhood.

According to the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, the runaway problem occurs in all strata of society but is more prevalent in middle- and lower-income families. Of course, some rich families also face problems with their teenagers.

Many parents think that food, water, shelter, quality education and materialistic things are all a child needs.

The young might believe that running away will make parents realise they’ve made a mistake. Teenagers who are stuck with this disorder will be a burden to the family, society and country.

Regardless of why our children run away, their return home may be difficult and challenging for everybody. If they come home, avoid major discussions or lecturing them. They may suffer from fear, anger, stress and relief to sadness. Give them time to settle to show that we care. Let them know you have been worried and you need to talk about what has been happening. Whatever it is, the teenager should be given a second chance through counselling to protect his or her future.

We must save our children, we must bring them home to safe and loving families and we must all do our part for the good of our country.

Datuk Akhbar Satar is the director of Institute of Crime & Criminology, HELP University, a criminologist and certified fraud examiner. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 256.