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Things to Consider Before You Ship Your Teen Off to Boot Camp
By Hugh C. McBride
You never had any illusions that raising a teenager was going to be easy. But the defiance, the anger, the continued confrontations over the most minute disagreements – these challenges are more than you ever expected, and are beyond your ability to deal with. Clearly, drastic measures need to be taken before your teen's behavior leads to expulsion from school, incarceration, or worse.
You've heard about boot camps for troubled teens – intense, "in your face" programs that promise to turn teens around by instilling military-like discipline and respect for authority – and this is starting to sound like an option worth considering.
Fighting Hostility with More Hostility?
You should know that boot camps aren't your only option. In fact, a number of studies have shown that although boot camps can lead to rapid improvements, the gains that adolescents make during their boot camp experience often don't last once the child returns home.
Much like the misleading results that come from following a "get slim quick" diet plan, the juvenile boot camp experience often leaves parents and teens worse off – and considerably more frustrated – than they were before they entered the program. This concept of diminishing returns is expressed in a juvenile boot camp fact sheet on the Aspen Education Group website:
• Angry, defiant, oppositional teenagers may fall in line while in the intensely overwhelming, military-like environment of a boot camp, but in most cases these short-term "scream camps" do not create lasting changes in troubled teens.
• It is more likely this type of setting will create more hostility and resentment toward authority figures.
• When adolescents are struggling to find their place in the world, they need to learn how to act in the world. The world is not a boot camp.
This isn't to say that a challenging experience can't also be beneficial – just that these challenges need to be part of a safe, nurturing, and esteem-building environment. Thankfully, such an opportunity does exist, and has helped thousands of troubled teenagers and their families: a therapeutic wilderness program.
A Healthier Option
Therapeutic wilderness programs are designed to make lasting improvements in the attitudes and behaviors of young people who have had problems with defiance, drugs, anger management, and a host of other challenges. Though it is often easy to dismiss issues such as these as being evidence of a "bad kid," in most cases, they are actually signs of underlying disorders that can't be punished into submission.
Boot camps often mask the symptoms, while wilderness programs are designed to identify and eradicate the underlying causes of these symptoms. This is similar to the way a painkiller can temporarily numb an afflicted area of the body without doing anything to treat the cause of the discomfort.
If you discovered that your child had a serious disease, would you ask your family physician to merely mask the symptoms until the child went away to college, or would you want your child to get whatever treatment is necessary to cure the disease and help him live the healthiest possible life?
A Beginning, Not an End
In the military, boot camp is often described as a time for recruits to be broken down, then built back up again. And given the dramatic successes that the U.S. military has achieved with young people who once appeared to have little promise and few prospects, it is understandable to form the mistaken belief that a boot camp can do the same for your child.
But just because a program labels itself a boot camp, and just because it features screaming drill instructors, rigid discipline, and harsh standards, doesn't ensure similar successes.
Here are a few thoughts to consider as you decide whether or not to send your teen to a juvenile boot camp:
• Research shows that teen boot camp gains are often lost once the teen returns home. Yes, a military boot camp results in significant changes, but the shift from a civilian lifestyle to a military mindset that occurs during boot camp is followed by many years of immersion in a military environment that embraces and supports those standards.
• Does the boot camp that you are considering feature an aftercare component? The professionals who run effective therapeutic wilderness programs know that a teen's time in the wilderness is just the first step on the road toward a healthier and happier future.
• Do you really think that your teen can be "scared straight"? If neither you nor your partner nor your teen's teachers have been able to reach her with reason, logic, threats, or punishments, why do you think that a group of strangers can? How realistic is the thought that nothing more than harsh words and hard work will result in lasting changes?
Therapeutic wilderness programs offer some of the elements that attract parents to teen boot camps – namely, a challenging experience that emphasizes responsibility and accountability. But reputable therapeutic wilderness programs also offer a host of other benefits, such as comprehensive therapeutic services (including regular therapy sessions with the teen both in the wilderness and at base camp), regular family updates, learning opportunities, and assistance with aftercare planning.
Boot camps often make the murky promise that they can end your teen's bad behavior (in other words, mask the symptoms). Therapeutic wilderness programs, on the other hand, offer your family the opportunity and the necessary skills to experience real healing by identifying and addressing the underlying problems that are keeping you from the future you deserve.
- Education Brings Hope to Teens in Substance Abuse Treatment
- Bored Teens More Likely to Drink, Take Drugs
- Teachers at Residential Programs for Teens Take a Specialized Approach to Education
- The Drawbacks of Juvenile Boot Camps' Confrontational Approach
- Things to Consider Before You Ship Your Teen Off to Boot Camp