Parents of a struggling teen sometimes feel lost, fearful, frustrated, and angry. They mayfeel torn between their love for their child and their outrage over their child’s misbehavior. Parents may hope that what has not worked in the past will finally show positive results. Slowly they may realize that different, new interventions are needed; something must change, and quickly.
Despite the pressure to act decisively and immediately, it is important to avoid several common mistakes in choosing a program or school.
Picking a Program Quickly and Impulsively
A program should be selected only after careful exploration. It is difficult for parents to have enough inside information about schools and programs, particularly when parents are considering residential programs and schools that are in distant locations. Although it can be expensive to retain an educational consultant who is very familiar with and monitors the program or school, in the long run it is wise to do so.
In addition to obtaining a consultant’s recommendations, parents also should have extensive conversations with personnel from the program or school they are considering. If possible, parents should visit the program or school to see what it is like. When the parents and educational consultant disagree, it is important to remember that the parents have the final responsibility to decide what is best for their child.
Selecting a Program Primarily on the Basis of Cost
Many programs and schools for struggling teens are expensive, especially when they offer residential services. Parents may be tempted to save money by enrolling their child in the least expensive program or school available. In the long run, that may be a costly mistake; more expensive programs may not be better programs but a good fit between the program or school and the teen must be the primary goal. Choosing a less expensive placement that is not a good fit for the teen can lead to a “meltdown”; parents may then have a midyear crisis during which they must change the child’s placement immediately, resulting in forfeiture of nonrefundable tuition and fees as well as having to move the child to perhaps an even more expensive placement. Finding the right program or school from the start can be the most cost-effective strategy in the long run. It also avoids disruption, upheaval, and heartache.
Selecting a Program That is Not Designed to Meet the Teenager’s Needs
Parents should get detailed information about the kinds of teenagers enrolled in the program or school the parents are considering. How closely do they resemble the teenager’s mental health, behavioral, and educational challenges and needs? Is the program or school designed to meet the teenager’s unique needs, or are the teenager’s needs likely to be overlooked because they are different from those of the other teenagers?
Selecting a Program Whose Methods Are Not Grounded in Sound Research
The most competent programs and schools base their approaches on what are known as “best practices.” Best practices include treatment approaches, services, and educational models based on the latest theory and research published in reputable books and peer-reviewed professional journals with high standards. Administrators should monitor professional literature and research and use them to inform their program design and services. Staff in some programs may publish self-promoting manifestos that are little more than lengthy statements of ideology, belief, and opinion and that are not grounded in a conceptual framework or research.
Sending a Child to a Residential Program for the Wrong Reasons
Enrolling a teen in an appropriate local school or program is always preferable, when feasible. An out-of-home program or school may be necessary in extraordinary circumstances and the best option available, but a teenager should be sent for the right reasons. Parents should send their teen because doing so is the best way to meet the child’s needs. Sending the teen away primarily out of anger or frustration is likely to have damaging consequences. A teenager who feels “sent away” or “kicked out” of the family is likely to feel rejected, angry, unmotivated to address his or her issues, and hostile and may attempt to sabotage the program or school experience by defying staff, breaking rules, or running away.
Avoiding Out-of-Home Placement When It Is the Right Option
Parents sometimes resist placing their teen in a residential program or school because they cannot bear to “lose” their child, they do not trust strangers to give their child the care she or he needs, or they fear the child will feel rejected and expelled. Many struggling teens suffer from low self-esteem stemming from rejection by peers, school suspensions, foster placements, or adoption. Understandably, many parents are concerned that sending their child “away” for help will intensify that sense of rejection and compound the youth’s problems.
Although those concerns may be well-founded for some teens, a residential program or boarding school may nonetheless be necessary. The program or school may remove the child from destructive peer relationships at home and provide the opportunity to interact with peers in a safe, supervised, and structured setting; provide the teen with an opportunity to take stock of his or her life; and give “breathing room” that helps parents and children heal their relationship and communicate more effectively. Ironically, geographical distance – with regular opportunities for contact by telephone, by e-mail, and during family weekends and vacations – often brings parents and their children closer together emotionally.
Selecting a Program because It Is Close to Home
It is hard to place one’s struggling teen in the hands of strangers some distance from home, even when that seems necessary. Keeping the child in a nearby program or school eases the pain of separation; however, the program or school that is close by may not be the one that can best meet the teenager’s needs. Parents sometimes make the mistake of trading the most appropriate program or school for geographic proximity. Parents may need to take a deep breath and enroll their child in a program or school that requires a long car, bus, or airplane trip.