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Adolescence / Blog

 Frederic Reamer Ph.D.

Frederic Reamer Ph.D.'s Bio

Dr. Reamer is a professor in the Graduate Social Work Program at Rhode Island College.

Finding help for struggling teens: First steps


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As all of us know, the adolescent years can be challenging. Although adolescence can be an emotionally stormy phase for virtually all teenagers, sometimes a youth’s struggles are especially intense and require very skilled intervention. Struggling teens include those who are having an extraordinarily difficult time with mental health issues, substance abuse, high-risk sexual activity, and other self-harming behaviors. Common warning signs include: extreme isolation and withdrawal; school failure and truancy; defiance toward authority; running away from home; choosing high-risk friends; impulsive behavior; getting in trouble with the police; depression; abusing alcohol or drugs; eating disorders; and self-injury (such as cutting, burning, and branding).

Ideally, struggling teens can be helped in their home communities. Local therapists, social workers, crisis intervention programs, partial hospitalization programs, drug and truancy court programs, group homes, alternative (nontraditional) high schools, and mentoring programs can be very helpful and effective. Valuable information about national and local mentoring programs for teens is available from MENTOR. 

Unfortunately, some teens do not benefit from these local programs and continue to pose major health and behavioral risks. In these extreme circumstances, parents and professionals may need to consider specialty schools and programs that are located some distance from the home community, often hundreds of miles away. The most common options include: wilderness therapy programs; residential treatment centers; therapeutic boarding schools; and emotional growth boarding schools.

There are many impressive, professionally run programs and schools for struggling teens. However, there are also programs and schools that have significant records of abusive and unethical practices. Parents who are desperate to find help quickly sometimes enroll their children in programs and schools that cause much more harm than good. Finding the right program or school takes considerable time, effort, and patience, all of which may be in short supply when a teen is spinning out of control and parents feel as if they’ve reached the end of their rope.

Well-meaning parents sometimes make mistakes in their efforts to find help for their struggling teens.  Some of the most common mistakes include: picking a program or school quickly and impulsively, without thorough assessment; selecting a program or school that is not designed to meet the teen’s unique needs; selecting a program or school whose methods are abusive or not grounded in sound research; sending a teen to a residential program or school for the wrong reasons (for example, to get the teen out of the house rather than to help them); avoiding out-of-home placement when it is the right option; and selecting a residential program or school primarily because it is close to home.

By all means, parents should not use popular Internet search engines as their primary information source. Internet Web sites about schools and programs can provide useful information, but they can also be very misleading and seductive. Some sites are sponsored by unscrupulous recruitment agencies and programs that are more concerned about enrollments and revenue than professional standards.  A good source for information about many programs and schools is the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs.  NATSAP upholds high standards and screens member programs and schools.  However, not all reputable programs and schools are NATSAP members.  Parents should consider other sources as well.
 
Parents who are not familiar with the full range of available options should find competent, knowledgeable professionals who specialize in matching struggling teens with programs and schools. Skillful social workers and counselors may be familiar with local resources. However, to find appropriate residential programs and schools (such as wilderness therapy programs, residential treatment centers, and therapeutic boarding schools), parents would be wise to retain a skillful and knowledgeable educational consultant. These professionals are often the best and most effective resource; competent educational consultants spend a great deal of time learning about and visiting programs and schools around the nation, assessing teens’ special needs, recommending appropriate schools and programs, and monitoring placements. A skilled educational consultant is invaluable in these stressful situations.  One reputable source for finding a qualified educational consultant is the Independent Educational Consultants Association.