Depression in adolescents, difficulties in diagnosing teen depression, treatment options, and hope for parents of depressed teenagers
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Can Boot Camp Help My Teen?

By Meghan Vivo

You knew this day would come. Tensions have been building at home and you’ve reached your breaking point. You want – or rather, need – change and you need it now. Research says boot camps aren’t “ideal” treatment programs for troubled teens, but you’re way past ideal.

But for the sake of yourself, your family, and your teen, take a moment to consider what’s really happening in your home. In most cases, behaviors like substance abuse, breaking rules, disrespecting authority, and failing at school are masking deeper emotional issues that need to be addressed before peace can return to your household.

Depression/Anxiety – Sometimes adolescents act out with drugs or alcohol, skipping school, running away, defiance, and other troubling behaviors because of an undiagnosed and untreated underlying mental illness. Teens who are depressed, anxious, or who have thoughts of suicide are struggling with serious mental illness.

A short-term, highly confrontational teen boot camp that focuses on punishment and discipline is not the best place for these struggling teens. There is no scientific evidence to support boot camp-style programs; in fact, evidence suggests boot camps can actually harm sensitive, depressed teens.

Adolescents with psychiatric problems usually require longer, more intensive, and more individualized treatment. A wilderness program or private boarding school that offers intensive therapy and mental health assessments, combined with medication, family counseling, and esteem-building activities will improve the teen’s functioning and family relationships without humiliating or demeaning the teen. The best teen programs create individualized treatment plans and meet regularly with the teen and her family to set goals, assess the teen’s progress, and refine the treatment plan.

In a nurturing, supportive environment, depressed teens build on small successes and begin to feel good about themselves again. Surrounded by a positive group of peers and caring staff, teens discover new talents and interests and become reinvested in their own futures.

Anger/Defiance – Anger, defiance, and rebellion are the most common reasons parents send their teens to boot camp. But there is usually more to a teenager’s anger than a need for more discipline. A parent’s divorce, the death of a close friend or loved one, strained family relationships, and other events can cause teens to act out in hostile ways.

Yelling, fighting with, and disciplining your teen haven’t worked so far, and aren’t likely to work just because the person yelling is bigger, meaner, and less tolerant. In fact, most experts in adolescent treatment believe that teens who resist authority and rules intensify their negative behaviors when resistance is fed back to them. A defiant teen will always win the “I’m angrier and more defiant than you” battle, no matter how scary or confrontational their environment is.

Even if your teen is successfully scared into behaving at boot camp, 4-6 weeks is rarely enough time to produce real change. He will still come home angry and defiant, if not more so, with new ideas about how to inflict his anger on his family. At boot camps, which are usually short-term interventions with little or no family contact, no one really undergoes any change – not the teen, the family, or the relationship between the two.

A better option is a specialty boarding school, residential treatment center, or wilderness camp. In these programs, teens meet with trained mental health professionals who specialize in working with angry, defiant adolescents. They establish trusting, open bonds with the teens in order to understand the root causes of the anger and work closely with families to repair strained relationships and open up healthy lines of communication. Independent outcome studies have repeatedly shown that wilderness programs and therapeutic boarding schools are successful in reducing anger problems and defiant attitudes in struggling teens.

Substance Abuse – Although substance abuse is a problem in itself, it is almost always a symptom of deeper emotional issues. When a teen starts using drugs or alcohol, it often launches a storm of negative behaviors, as the teen loses interest in school, friends, and his usual activities. Early intervention is key in addressing teen substance abuse, but not every program will lead to lasting recovery.

Though boot camps may successfully keep teens away from drugs or alcohol for a few weeks, they make no effort to address the real reasons teens use drugs or alcohol. Boot camp staff members are not therapists or specialists in adolescent development, and have little or no training in helping teens develop better coping skills, discover new interests, or build a strong sense of self-worth – all of which have proven crucial in treating adolescent substance abuse.

At wilderness camps and residential treatment centers, teens are removed from negative peer influences and lifestyles at home. In this new environment, teens not only get clean and sober but also have the opportunity to address their feelings with master’s and doctoral level therapists who specialize in treating adolescent substance abuse. Teens are challenged to accomplish confidence-building tasks, such as completing a ropes course challenge or trying their hand at rock climbing, are introduced to the 12 Steps of AA, and get educated about the disease of addiction. Positive behavior and change are then reinforced with greater privileges and respect from staff and peers.

Academic Underachievement – Teens perform poorly at school for a variety of reasons. They may have fallen in with a negative peer group that thinks it’s “cool” to skip school or fail classes; they may be struggling socially, being bullied or bullying others; or they may have undiagnosed learning disabilities, ADHD, or other learning challenges. Whatever the reason, they will all be treated the same at a teen boot camp – like juvenile prisoners.

Teen boot camps are not designed to boost academic performance or address learning disabilities. Rather, they have one treatment plan for all teens, regardless of what their struggles are, and that plan involves threats and intimidation. This approach is rarely effective with teens, particularly those with emotional or learning challenges.

At therapeutic boarding schools, residential treatment centers, and wilderness therapy programs, teens work with trained counselors and teachers who will help identify the cause of the teen’s academic underachievement and introduce him to techniques and activities that will reinvigorate a passion for learning. Teens are often able to catch up, or even get ahead, on academic credits and for the first time experience success at school.

Teens struggling with academic underachievement, substance abuse, defiance, depression, and other emotional or behavioral issues are people in pain who don’t know how to channel their emotions in healthy ways. Spending grueling days at a boot camp hauling logs, scaling walls, and listening to commands from a drill sergeant with little food, drink, or rest will not resolve the problem. You may get your teen’s attention, but it won’t be the kind of attention you had hoped for.

What all of you need is help and support, not more punishment. There are dozens of reputable programs that have been proven effective by independent research that can bring out the best in your teen. Visit or call the National Resource Center at (877) 637-6237 for more information about more effective alternatives to teen boot camps.

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