Where can I send my troubled child? Why parents should be asking a different question to help their teens and adolescents
"Where can I send my troubled child?"
This search query will get you over 30 million hits on the internet – there is no shortage of options. Boot camps, wilderness camps, boarding schools – there are countless residential treatment centers that present themselves as the solution for troubled youth. But are they the right choice? Maybe the real question that people should be typing is “how can I help my troubled child, here and now?”
When behavioral issues overwhelm caregivers, sending a child away should be a last resort option; there are evidence-based alternatives, such as Multisystemic Therapy (MST), that achieve better outcomes than wilderness or boot camps while keeping the youth at home. However, current internet searches highlight boot camps, delinquency centers, and residential treatments as the top options, and often don’t mention the downside to these approaches.
Some options for troubled children are not always what they appear
It’s natural for parents who are overwhelmed by their child’s misbehavior to feel as though they need outside help from experts to correct delinquent and antisocial behavior. The strong desire to help their kids often propels parents to think that sending their child away is the only option they have. Seeking quick solutions, they start researching boot camps, boarding schools, and wilderness camps—options that are marketed with seemingly-desirable components and promises of radical transformation of youth, asserting that children will learn to respect rules, or be inspired by nature and reduce their outbursts.
However, most of these programs are not considered research-based interventions. While quotes and success stories are nice marketing tools, they’re not reflective of the effectiveness of the programs on a broad scale. Without independent studies to prove the outcomes, parents are relying largely on faith that these programs will work for their child.
And even if the programs work during treatment, parents should wonder if the effects will last. Outpatient programs like boot camps and wilderness camps remove the youth from their natural settings, taking them away from potentially negative peers and communities. The youth may very well change their behavior and adopt better habits while removed from such settings – but if those peers and communities have a strong influencing effect, the youth may be likely to resort to delinquent behavior when they return home. Treating youth in their home environment is much more likely to sustain success than is sending them away to an isolated environment.
Boot camps do not have a successful history, or even a clean one
Even more worrisome than the potential lack of effectiveness is the potential danger of boot camps, wilderness camps and the like. A recent article from Rolling Stone, titled “Life and Death in a Troubled Teen Boot Camp” exposed some of the darker details of the industry, such as youth being fed expired and moldy food, placed in shackles by staff, and even being beaten by both fellow campers and staff. The article reports that in the past 15 years, as many as 86 kids have died in troubled teen programs, many from starvation or exposure to the elements in wilderness camp settings.
What’s more, the camps lack basic regulation. Many states do not hold staff accountable with background checks, and alarming cases of sexual assault plague the news. Parents, driven to desperation out of love, send their troubled child off into the hands of strangers with little to no assurance that they won’t be injured or traumatized. And if that risk is not costly enough, the price tag for many troubled teen programs can be suffocating for families – boot camps can cost thousands of dollars for a month of treatment.
Expensive isolation is not the answer. Holistic in-home treatment provides longer lasting results
Wilderness programs sell themselves as a way for youth to reconnect with nature, to get space and re-center. However, most wilderness programs rely on isolation and tough love instead of holistic treatment. While isolation can provide an opportunity for more intense treatment, it also does not address the underlying causes that led to the bad behavior in the first place. In some cases, the isolated setting of such programs, in addition to being surrounded by other delinquent youth, can actually worsen behavior.
To create lasting impacts, troubled youth should be treated in the setting in which they live – and in which they developed negative behaviors. Community-and-home-based treatment models, such as Multisystemic Therapy (MST), can work with youth and families to address negative behaviors and their root causes, and create change that will sustain over time.
Where can I send my troubled child? Consider keeping them at home with MST
MST is a scientifically proven intervention for at-risk youth. Therapists work in the home, school and community and are on call 24/7 to provide caregivers with the tools they need to transform the lives of troubled youth. With over 60 studies assessing outcomes, MST is proven to change the lives of juvenile offenders and their families.
To learn more about MST's effectiveness in addressing youth violence, click here.
4 Lariviere, M., Couture, R., Ritchie, S. D., Cote, D., Oddson, B. (2012). Behavioural assessment of wilderness therapy participants: Exploring the consistency of observational data. The Journal of Experiential Education, 35.1, 290-302.