Sage Education Group


As parents consider the difficult decision of how best to help a struggling teen or young adult, many will ask questions such as the following.

How long will this take?

Arnold Lazarus observed that the answer to virtually all questions is “It depends.” The type of program, the nature of the difficulties (for example, mood disorders may be more quickly resolved than generalized immaturity), the speed and depth at which the teen and parents are able to engage in treatment all may influence the length of treatment. It’s unusual that a residential program for adolescents or young adults will be shorter than 6 months or longer than 24. Parents who decide in advance to “give it 6 months” or set another arbitrary guideline regarding the length of a program are likely to be disappointed, as the course of treatment may be neither predictable nor smooth. Similarly, it is not useful to tell a child, “Just try it for three months and if you don’t like it you can come home.” The message is that change is optional, that you may not expect the intervention to be effective, or that the child may lack the attributes necessary to succeed.

As a parent, what’s my role in my son’s or daughter’s treatment?

For years, admissions and therapy staff have observed to me that the best predictor of a student’s success is the commitment of the parents. And after years of watching students and their parents make their way through these programs, I’ve come to agree. Of course, there are exceptions. A parent with an untreated mental illness or alcohol addiction, for example, may be unable to engage meaningfully or consistently. Some programs are better able than others to work with such circumstances, and can adjust their expectations and approach. But in the vast majority of cases, successful intervention in a teen’s difficulties is a family matter. Change is needed not only in a teen’s increased understanding of and accountability for her own functioning, but also in how the parents see the child, and in how the parents relate to the child, both individually and as a couple or “team.”

Long struggle with a child’s emotional, social or academic difficulties may leave parents with a view of the child that unrealistically emphasizes deficits or weaknesses. Even as the teen in treatment develops more mature and productive ways of being, parents may find it hard to acknowledge or even see the new qualities, and they may need the eye of an outsider to clarify what is happening with their child and to choose how they will respond to it. Too, each parent has developed his or her own way of dealing with the teen’s problematic functioning—rescuing, for example, or withdrawing or nagging. These habits don’t magically disappear just because the child changes. In addition, even the most loving parents may be inclined to blame each other for the family difficulties, and they often benefit from support to resolve the resentment or guilt that they may feel.

There is also a practical economic reason for parents actively to follow the program recommendations regarding parent therapy or coaching. This treatment is very expensive, and part of what you pay for is the expertise of professionals who understand family systems and what is needed to initiate and sustain healthy change within those systems. To neglect their recommendations and support (often in the form of family workshops, webinars and coordination with home therapists) may mean not getting your “money’s worth.”

What do I tell people (her brother, my mother, the neighbors, the school)?

In general, brevity and honesty are good guidelines. With siblings of a teen or young adult who will be away from home, it can be helpful for parents to frame the decision in terms of family functioning, e.g., “We’ve been concerned for quite a while about the way things are going in our family. After a lot of research and soul-searching, we’ve decided that getting some intensive help for Suzy while we do our own work is the most sensible way to move forward. We don’t expect the process to be quick or easy, but we’re confident that it’s going to help us get back on course.” Younger children may be concerned about a sibling’s safety, their parents’ emotional well-being, whether there might be “something wrong” with them, whether they, too, might be leaving. It’s best not to assume that you know what concerns a child has; just ask, in an age-appropriate way, then offer reassurance. Many programs offer online access to photographs and information about what a student’s group is doing, which can be very helpful to siblings as well as parents.

When dealing with people outside the family (apart from the close friends with whom you feel comfortable discussing your decision) and perhaps even well-meaning people in it, my preference is to respect the teen’s confidentiality while being honest about what is happening. A school can be told that you had concerns about the student’s academic progress or emotional/social development, and you opted to follow professional advice to seek a setting that will support and encourage your child’s and your family’s growth. Parents often tell me that their initial embarrassment or anxiety about discussing their decision dissipates when they learn that friends, too, have faced a similar situation or have a friend/relative who has.

Will my child be mad at me? Will s/he forgive me?

Since you’re removing a child from what has become a comfort zone --no matter how circumscribed or unhealthy or dangerous a zone--it wouldn’t be surprising if she resists the shift and expresses her resistance as anger toward you. In my experience, the anger is short-lived, as most teens know in their hearts (and often in their minds) that their lives are not going well and that they are unhappy. Saying this clearly can be very difficult for a teen who, understandably, is confused, embarrassed, resentful of his own neediness, anxious about the unknown, and perhaps without an adequate emotional vocabulary. It’s much easier to displace their emotional turmoil onto a safe parent by hurling accusations and threats of never speaking to you again. I’ve never known a student to maintain this stance for long; more common, as students develop awareness and appreciation for their improvement, is a sincere “thank you” or “I wish I hadn’t needed it, but I did.”

Will s/he be unhappy in the program?

Possibly, at first. Virtually every child I’ve worked with is already quite unhappy, as seen in debilitating anxiety or depression, or behaviors such as drug use, self-injury, school refusal or underperformance, unhealthy eating, emotional withdrawal, chronic mistreatment of family members. For many, enrollment in a wilderness program or longer-term treatment signals that parents are seriously expecting that the child will begin to acknowledge his own role in his difficulties and begin the process of changing what manifestly is not working.

In addition, transitions tend to be challenging, for all of us. Think of the last time you changed jobs, became a parent, moved to a new home or different city—it likely was not a stress-free experience. Many students in residential programs have little tolerance for distress, and this is likely to be more evident during transitions. If the student is in an appropriate program, she will have support and encouragement from staff and peers as she settles in.