Treatment Program, Boarding School or Treatment Center?

These terms are often used by the public interchangeable, but while they all involve helping troubled teens change their behavior, there are differences in the settings and focus of each one. To best help your teenager that is experiencing problems, it is important to understand the differences and what each involves.

For some teens, they may attend only one option, while for other teens, they may become a sequence overtime, particularly if problem behaviors do not change early on. There are advantages of each and it depends on the setting the family wishes to have, as well as the behavioral issues that are occurring.

Troubled Teen Treatment Programs – These are generally short-term and very focused programs that focus strictly on the problem behaviors and a need to change them. This could be alcohol or substance issues, acting out, defiance, etc. These programs often occur in a more informal setting such as a wilderness camp, instead of a school or institutional setting. However, they are based on setting rules and structure for the teens and teaching the consequences of failure to stay within those boundaries. They often occur over a summer or a short ‘vacation’ period since the focus is on behavioral issues, not academics, and most parents will not want their teen to fall further behind in school.

These programs generally promote a “tough love” approach where the day-to-day setting is much like a military boot camp where rules and instructions are to be followed, never questioned and penalties are handed out quickly for any sign of defiance. There will often be a restriction on the amount of contact, if any, that the teen has with their parents or the “outside world.” This can involve a weekly phone call that is allowed or contact by letter only. The goal of these programs is to quickly change problem behaviors and offer a “wake up call” to teens that may have started down the road to trouble. The restriction in contact between the teen and their parents is often used to reduce the possibility that the teen’s pleas of “I’ve changed. Don’t leave me here” will convince parents to allow the teen to “escape” before true change has occurred.

Boarding Schools – this is an academic institution (school building) with residential housing onsite that allows teens to work on their academic subjects toward their high school diploma or GED, while at the same time, learning to change their behavioral problems and issues. These schools often cater to students from young teens through the early twenties. These schools should be accredited by national and/or state agencies for their educational programs.

In this setting, the child is living away from their family with residential advisors or monitors in their dormitory areas. In addition to school classes, they will also likely attend group and individual therapy sessions with counselors and be under the care of psychiatrists and medical doctors if needed. The school may also offer a number of extracurricular activities as a “regular” school would in order to promote cooperation and team building skills.

The teens may or may not go home for school break periods and generally stay at the school for several years. In the earlier stages of the process, communication between the parent and teen will sometimes be limited, while the school is assisted the teen in becoming adjusted to the structure of the school and to being away from their family.

Some schools also provide occupational classes and trade skills for older students who have already finished high school to gain basic job skills and learn how to live in the “real” world. This can include classes on how to interview, get a job, maintain employment, and support themselves and their families.

Residential Treatment Centers – in this setting, teens are staying in a group home with other teens, typically around 5-10. While this is more of a residential, “regular” home setting, the teen is living with treatment “parents” that provide structure and monitor behaviors. The teens will usually go to a private or public school in the nearby community, but instead of living with their family, they will return to the residential home each evening. They may or may not be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities, as these are often earned through good behavior in classes and at home.

The teenagers will live in shared bedrooms and interact as a family that eats meals together, may attend church in the community, and will have chores around the home and tasks to help out. The “parents” will not only provide monitoring of the schoolwork, but also help to teach the teens skills that will allow them to better function in the world. The teens may also attend outside individual or group counseling sessions. The goal set for some teens will be to eventually return to their “real” family after the behaviors have been changed and stabilized, while for others, they will live in the residential center until they become adults and then move out on their own.

As you can see, while there are similarities in the approaches that may be used in each of these three options, there are definite differences as well. A family that is considering what is best for their teen will need to look at what the focus needs to be and the length of time and setting they desire. They must examine the goals that need to be set for the teen, whether strictly behavioral ones or behavioral combined with educational ones, and determine which of the above options fits best for the family.

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