Helping troubled teens develop skills to deal with their own problems

Dr. Purushothaman
November 29, 2013

Some of the most popular solutions for "troubled teens" are boot camps or school discipline. However, several criticisms of this solution have come forward in the last few years. In addition, new data shows that there are effective treatment programs that avoid the pitfalls of boot camps and the twin revolving doors of school discipline or the justice system.

One of the leading critics of boot camps says they are becoming outdated because they handle struggling teens "in ways that don't address their true difficulties." Ross Greene is a psychologist and author of the recently published Lost at School: Why Our Kids With Behavioral Challenges Are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them. Ross notes that many schools are still focused on disciplining teens when what they need to do is identify and deal with the lagging skills that cause teens to fall into trouble.

Greene argues, "Well-behaved students aren't behaving themselves because of the school discipline program. They're behaving themselves because they have the skills to handle life's challenges in an adaptive way." According to Ross, "We're losing a lot of kids and a lot of teachers because we still view challenging kids the wrong way. It's an exercise in frustration for everyone involved.

"In other words, these kids have a development delay, a learning disability of sorts… in the same way that kids who are delayed in reading are having difficulty mastering the skills required for becoming proficient in reading, challenging kids are having difficulty mastering the skills required for becoming proficient in handling life's social, emotional, and behavioral challenges."

In discussing the popular option of "boot camps for troubled teens," Dr. Edward Latessa essentially echoes Greene in decrying a root problem with these: their focus on discipline over treatment and rehabilitation.

Latessa writes, "What are they teaching you in boot camp? Drills, ceremony, discipline, how to say yes sir, no sir. Well the problem is that's not related to delinquent behavior." Latessa counters that good programs focus on behaviors, attitudes and coping skills that help students face and deal with real world problems. Today's successful treatment programs focus on practical skills as simple and straightforward as how to avoid risky situations and negative friends and remaining assertive with peers intent on leading them astray.

"If teens practice these skills then they have the ability to deal with situations when they get into them. Good programs teach those things and they do it in a way that it is modeled, practiced, and reinforced."

Indeed, a recent study backs up his claims. Treatment programs that focus on behavior and attitudes and are properly licensed have documented success. The National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSP) surveyed 1027 adolescents within a year after discharge from one of its member programs. Analysis showed that "adolescent problems improve significantly during private residential treatment and that, with only a few exceptions, discharge functioning and in-treatment change are relatively similar, regardless of adolescent background, history, problems, and treatment factors."

In order to be a member of NATSP, treatment programs must be "licensed by the appropriate state agency authorized to set and oversee standards of therapeutic and/or behavioral healthcare for youth and adolescents" or the program must be "accredited by a nationally recognized behavioral health accreditation agency." In addition, its therapeutic services must have "oversight by a qualified clinician."

Changing behaviors and attitudes is the key to helping teens deal with their own troubles, far more effective than discipline imposed by any outside agent. Today's effective programs are focused on attitude changes and bestowing practical skills so teens avoid trouble. As Gordon Hay of Venture Academy, a school and summer camp for troubled teens in Ontario, says, "Boot camps are heading toward extinction."

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