When you have a troubled teen, especially one that is addicted to or abusing drugs or alcohol, it can feel like your world got turned upside down. You may jump at the chance to get him into a treatment program that promises to build character, develop skills and get him sober. Many so-called treatment boot camps or wilderness therapy programs for teens can do these things, but you should be careful. Many are irresponsible and use untrained or poorly trained staff that put teens in dangerous situations. Do careful research before sending your child to one of these camps.
Tough Love Goes Too Far
Several tragic stories illustrate the need for caution when considering a boot camp or wilderness program for your troubled teen. The idea behind these camps is to use tough measures, physically demanding work, starvation and even abuse to whip teens into shape. Teens have died in these programs and left behind grieving parents unable to forgive themselves for sending their children away.
Several such dangerous programs that led to teen deaths were based in southern Utah. At one camp, a 16-year-old boy died after being abused by counselors and suffering from a perforated ulcer. His diary revealed that he spent one day without anything to eat but a lizard. A teen girl died after falling 70 feet during a hike. Another young teen died from overheating when his camp leaders wouldn’t let him rest while hiking on a hot day. Several other deaths have occurred at similar wilderness boot camps in other states over the last two decades. In some instances, leaders in the programs were tried and convicted while in others, there were no consequences and the camps remain open.
Finding Responsible Wilderness Programs
Spending time outdoors, learning new skills, and physical activity are all beneficial for troubled teens and for teens overcoming addiction. However, the wilderness and boot camp therapy programs in the U.S. are unregulated, which has led to dangerous situations. It is possible to find a responsible program that could benefit your child. The first thing to look for is a program that operates according to a set of ethical standards. If a program does not have standards to follow, it could be a free-for-all.
One of those standards should be the staffing of licensed professionals, including medical caregivers and mental health professionals. A major issue with many programs is a staff of untrained workers who don’t know how to work with troubled teens and who use abusive and ineffective techniques. If you have already been working with a mental health professional to help your teen, ask for recommendations for a good camp.
When you have found programs that meet these first requirements, research them thoroughly until you are comfortable sending your teen there. Talk to several of the parents of former participants to hear about their experiences. If a camp won’t give you any references, walk away. Also ask for a complete outline or guide that describes how the camp operates. The camp leaders should be willing and happy to give you this information. If anything in it gives you pause or concern, ask for clarification.
Wilderness therapy and boot camps are popular ways of getting troubled teens into line. It seems like a good idea to give them a good dose of tough love and discipline, but you must be very cautious. Take your time to investigate programs before sending your teen to camp. If you do, you can expect that your teen will benefit from the experience and come back a better person.
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