Help for Troubled Teens

It is crushing for parents dealing with a troubled teenager that was once a good kid, smart, athletic, family oriented and fun to be around. Now they are underachieving, defiant, disrespectful, depressed, changing friends, withdrawn, vaping, using drugs/drinking, dropping out of their favorite activities – some are refusing to attend school.


It has escalated to more than typical teenage behavior, the parent has lost control and authority over their teen – they have exhausted their local resources and now need residential treatment to help with their troubled teenager.


Parents have reached out to local therapists, tried outpatient treatment, and possibly a short stay at a psychiatric hospital – hoping for that magic answer. Some parents will have their child move in with a relative – hoping a change in environment will change the attitude.  As these local options slowly fail, all roads point to therapeutic boarding schools to help for troubled teens.


Finding Help for Troubled Teens


If this is your first time searching for schools for troubled teens, you will an education on the language you will be finding online as well as a better understanding of behavioral boarding schools for troubled teens and the lingo they use.


Let’s start with some common thoughts that parents have when dealing with a troubled teenager.



  1. “My teen needs a Military school to teach them a lesson!” WRONG.


Military schools are a privilege and honor to attend, they are not for defiant, drug-using, depressed, or other behavioral issues students. They do not provide mental health services – and if your teen is using drugs, drinking, or vaping now – by attending an open campus, it is likely s/he will consider the use again. However, this time when he is caught (typically three strike you are out) and the parents will forfeit their tuition. This is the same for any of the behavioral issues they are asked to leave or expelled for – you will be risking your tuition as well as setting your child up for failure.


Read: Myths of Military Schools.


  1. “My teen needs a wilderness program to appreciate what they have at home.” WRONG.


Wilderness programs are short-term programs will typically yield short-term results. It usually did not take 4-6 weeks to get to where you are right now, it will not take 4-6 (or 9 for that matter) weeks to turn it around or have long-lasting behavioral results. Parents are usually guided (or misguided) into wilderness therapy by educational consultants that understand these programs come with step two.


Step two is moving on to a therapeutic boarding school (which you could have started with). We educate parents to find step one initially so your teen has consistency without program hopping. This not only helps your teenager from bouncing to therapists, staff, and environments – it can be most cost effective to the family.


Since 2001 we have consistently heard many misconceptions about wilderness programs – and parents need to separate fact from the myths.


Myths and Facts of Wilderness Therapy:


Myth: Many parents are led to believe that most therapeutic boarding schools will not accept a teen that has not completed a wilderness program. That simply is not true. 

Myth: Any teen that is using drugs needs to do a wilderness first. This is not true.

Myth: All teens do wilderness first, if not they will not succeed. Again, not true.

Fact: Wilderness programs are not necessary to enter a many therapeutic boarding schools and residential treatment centers.

Fact: Wilderness programs are an expensive band-aid. They will cost a family from $450-650 per day and the duration is about 4-9 weeks. The fact is — long lasting behavioral changes cannot take place in short-term programs. Therefore, most students that attend wilderness programs transition on to a residential boarding school.


There is likely a need for wilderness therapy for some students, but to state that all teens need wilderness prior to treatment or will not be successful without it — is simply untrue.


What are These Abbreviations and Their Meanings?


  1. The two most common types of schools for troubled teens are therapeutic boarding schools (TBS) and residential treatment centers (RTC). What is the difference between a therapeutic boarding school (TBS) and residential treatment center (RTC) and what does my teen need?


The short answer is it depends on the state and how the state licenses residential programming.  There is no national standard and each of our fifty states have the responsibility to set their own licensure requirements for private-pay residential programming; many states divide up the enforcement between numerous governmental departments and some states do not even regulate private-pay residential care. The scope and specifics of state regulations vary greatly, and some states do not require independent licensure at all.  Therefore, parents must do their diligence when researching residential placement – knowing that the program does have state licensing is important.


What these programs all have in common is that they are all addressing physical, emotional, behavioral, familial, social, and intellectual/academic development; it is how that is addressed which differentiates between the TBS or RTC.


RTC’s typically have more clinical care than a TBS, however we have also seen emotional growth programs that have a strong clinical foundation. We suggest you interview the program/school that you believe best fits your teen’s emotional needs, which includes their enrichment therapies such as animal therapy, art therapy, music therapy, sports and more. It is important to find a setting that will stimulate your teen or young adult in a positive direction.


  1. What is CARF and JCAHO accreditations? Are they necessary in choosing residential treatment?


CARF is Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities is an organization that oversees programs for behavioral health. If a program/school is CARF accredited, in some cases you may have a more insurance coverage. CARF accreditation can be considered a quality standard of care.


JCAHO is The Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations which is the seal of approval for hospitals, and some residential treatment centers have acquired this accreditation. JCAHO is a higher level of care, although many residential treatment centers are not JCAHO accredited, they will adhere by their standards. Being JCAHO accredited will help your insurance coverage.


More and more therapeutic programs are becoming CARF accredited not only to provide more safety and oversight for their staff and students, but to offer more reimbursement for insurance claims.


JCAHO is typically found in higher level of care facilities, although some residential treatment centers have that extra level of accreditation. You will note that hospitals are JCAHO accredited.


Both these accreditations are important; however, they are not necessary. For years residential treatment has been operating without them and have been successful. These are voluntary accreditations.


  1. What is NATSAP and IECA seals of approval that are some programs sites?


NATSAP is the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs. This is a self-made organization that was reprimanded in a congressional hearing in 2007 for their lack of oversight of their members. Participating programs and schools pay a fee to be members to have their seal of approval on their sites. More concerning is some parents are under the illusion that unless a program is NATSAP approved, it is not a quality program. That is simply not true. Not all schools and programs feel the need to be a member of this club, nor do they have to. Unlike CARF or JCAHO, it does not offer much in benefits.


IECA are the Independent Educational Consultants of America, and their members are known as Educational Consultants that pay the fees to belong to this self-made organization. Like with NATSAP, they have their own circle of schools and programs they support and unlikely to consider those that do not want to participate (pay) to belong to private clubs.


There are many excellent schools and programs in our country today that have been around for decades that have never been involved in private organizations (clubs) and have succeeded on their reputation. It is important for parents not to be dissuaded by the politics of the troubled teen industry.


Commonly Asked Questions by Parents of Troubled Teens


After decades of helping families that are searching for the right places to send troubled teens or young adults, these are the most common questions and concerns they have:



  1. “Should our teen help us choose the therapeutic boarding program?”


Absolutely, positively not. Up until this point of their life, they have not been making the best choices, what would convince you that they would make the right one now?


Again, with decades of experience, parents have attempted to work with their teens in hopes they would be excited about a school or a program, getting a new start – or possibly the animals or sports that the program offers, however what happens next can be anything but excitement.


Your child will start doing their own research online, telling their friends, and realizing they will not be able to take their phones, talk to friends, they will be on a schedule and life will not be the rainbows and roses they have been used to. In some situations, they might even miss holidays or birthdays.


If your teen is a flight risk, you are giving them time to map out their surroundings by telling them where they will be going – or even where you are considering sending them. It is never wise for a parent to threaten a child that they will be sent away, this only starts the program off with a sense of negativity.


It is the child’s behavior that has prompted you to make this decision, no parent simply wants to send a child to residential treatment for no reason. Every parent has their child’s wellness in the forefront.


This is a time for parents to be the parents, make the adult decision for the child that needs help. If you are placing a young adult, it is different. At 18+ years old they do have to be willing to attend. In most of these young adults’ programs your child can speak with the director and other students and get a full understanding of the program. Some young adults know they need this extra boost.


  1. My teen won’t attend a program; how do we get him/her there?”


This is probably one of the most common questions parents ask and are concerned about. Assisted transport is how most parents have successfully and safely brought their teen to boarding schools.


It is especially important to choose qualified and credentialed professionals. The transport service should be licensed and insured to transport teens and have various degrees and/or background in education, psychology, behavioral science, mental health, or other related fields.


It is natural for parents to be apprehensive about this, however after speaking with other parents that have taken this road, you will realize that many of these teens ended up becoming friends with their transports and it is not the nightmare they are imagining or reading on some of the troubling websites creating fearmongering. They may initially be angry, but deep down your teen understands they do need help.


  1. I fear my teen will hate me forever if I send them to a therapeutic boarding school.”


Again, another quite common concern of parents, especially parents of adopted children that fear that they will exasperate abandonment issues, is will their teen hate them forever if they are sent to a therapeutic boarding school or Christian boarding school?


Initially your teen may enter the program and not like you very much (it may feel like hate to you and them) but — they will grow from their fear and anger.


If you are the parent of an adopted teen, it is likely you have selected a school or program that specializes with adopted children — these are trained professionals and familiar with abandonment issues. Their job is help your troubled teen become healthy emotionally, this is their expertise.


Your teen will likely fear the new situation and may also promise to “do better at home” however you know that you have already heard all these promises and spent a long time trying. It is time to be the adult, be the parent and do what is best for your child.


Talking to other parents can be incredibly supportive for you — parents that have taken this journey before you, maybe from the same program you have selected for your teen.


As the program progresses, family therapy and parent workshops continue to reunite all of you and work through the conflict that tore you apart. Eventually your teen will be able to understand your decisions and have gratitude for this experience.


  1. “My teen is very smart; will he/she fall behind academically?”

When these teens enter boarding schools for troubled teens, most of them were A, B students and are now underachieving or barely attending classes. Many parents were dealing with school refusal, the simple act of getting out of bed to attend school was impossible.

Therapeutic settings first and foremost get your teen back on track emotionally, but they will also be working on your teenager’s academics.

Now that your teen is in a structured and consistence environment, they become more focused and start feeling good about themselves, which helps them to improve academically – either to get caught up or surpass where they were at their school at home.


  1. “Don’t these programs have bad kids; my child is not that bad?”


If no one had troubled teens or young adults, there would not be any help for troubled teens. Most therapeutic programs are enrolled with good kids that come from good families, likely had good family foundation, however, took a wrong turn.


The excess use of technology has not helped this generation, screen-addiction, social media – they are not only facing peer pressure at school, but it is also in the palm of their hands 24/7/365.


Doing your due diligence in researching schools helps you to be sure you are placing your teen in the most appropriate setting. Your teen will be with kids like themselves – and their families are like you, begging for help to get their child back to happiness and a functioning adult.


One of the best ways to help your feel secure is speaking to parent references, asking about the population of other students, and if possible – visiting the program. It is important to note, that not all parents do visit the programs prior enrollment (whether it is a cost factor or time issue), however speaking with families that have recently or currently enrolled can be priceless.


  1. Are these programs only for the wealthy people?


The sticker shock of residential treatment can send some parents into feelings of hopelessness – however there are financial options, and we also discuss using your medical insurance as much as you are able to.


There are educational loans available for all people, like college loans, parents must qualify for them. Some parents will take a line-of-credit on their home if that is an option, and others may turn to relatives for a loan or gift monies.


There are resources through organizations like The United Way that has free programs, however the hurdle is the child usually needs to be willing to attend.


As far as scholarship programs, when you interview a program, you can ask they if they have any available. It would likely be a reduction in tuition rather than a scholarship. It never hurts to ask.


  1. What happens when my child comes home (graduates the program)?


It is normal for parents to be worried about their teen coming home, however this journey has involved the entire family. During this time there has been trial runs with home visits, family therapy, a transitional home plan that has been prepared and discussed many times for everyone to fully understand. Another words, you are not alone in this process either.

Some core components of an aftercare plan:


1. Family engagement. It is imperative that family involvement does not stop because the program ended. Set-up a routine to regularly check-in with each other, such as breakfast, dinner or driving your teen to school or their activities. Stay interested and involved in their daily lives and especially their digital ones.


2. Therapeutic support. Before your teen leaves treatment, have a therapeutic support plan in place that is part of coming home. This can include a therapist, school counselor and if your child requires ongoing medication, possibly a psychiatrist. The first appointments should be arranged for when they get home. You may also want to consider a mentor or teen coach.


3. Back to school. Another particularly important part of the transitional plan is to determine your teen’s educational path. Will they go back to their same school or switch schools (if so, have you enrolled him/her already) or have you signed them up for virtual schooling? (Do not panic, these are all issues that are thoroughly discussed in your transitional home plan with the program therapist and staff that know your child’s needs) prior leaving the school.


4. Consistent structure. Helping your teen maintain a balanced and consistent daily schedule with their daily life — such as school and their activities is imperative. This includes sleep patterns, recreational hobbies (sports, dance, etc.), exercise, limited screen-time, jobs, social life, and other areas in life, will lead them to a healthier lifestyle at home.


5. Relapse plan. No one is perfect, there will be bumps, but the positive side is the likely will not be as bad as it was before. Your teen has learned coping skills (and so has the parents), it is likely they will be angrier at themselves for slipping up. Be prepared by having your boundaries and consequences outlined in your home plan. If drugs or alcohol were involved prior your teen’s treatment, create a plan to avoid the people, places and moods that accompany the substance use.


Bonus tip: Most of these teens entered treatment with the love of their cellphone or video gaming. During the transitional plan, it is time to create your technology agreement for the entire family.


Do you have a question for us? Are you searching for schools for troubled teens for your difficult teenager or young adult? Contact us for a free consultation, since 2001 we have been helping parents find the right therapeutic boarding school for their individual needs.


Also read:

What Are the Goals of Therapeutic Boarding Schools?

Are Therapeutic Boarding Schools Successful?

Are Therapeutic Boarding Schools Effective?


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Family consultants help parents find reputable residential schools and treatment programs for troubled teens when they have utilized all of their local resources and are overwhelmed by their online searches.

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