Does “Boot Camp” for Troubled Teens Work?
For parents, the allure of programs for troubled teens that promise to whip your child into shape can be strong. It sure would be nice to send Timmy off for a few weeks to a boot camp for kids and have him return suddenly following all of the rules and treating adults with respect and gratitude. But is there really any science behind boot camp for teens?
At the end of the day, does it work?
I’m a researcher so, if you read this blog or listen to the podcast regularly, you know I’ll get to the science soon enough…But first, I need to tell you about Rory and Audrey.
A schoolteacher in the town of Coos Bay, Oregon, Audrey has dealt with plenty of difficult kids in her day. She teaches fourth grade. But as her son, Rory, got older and into middle school his behavior started to get problematic. She didn’t know how to handle it.
Being a single mom, supporting herself and her son on her own, Audrey is one heck of a tough woman. But with a son who was now suddenly as large as she was physically, and prone to mood swings, violence, learning disabilities, and that I-don’t-care attitude that seems so pervasive among teenagers, she was at a complete loss.
“I just didn’t know what to do,” she told me. “He was hanging out with this group of older kids and using really disrespectful language toward me and I started to smell pot from his room. We got into a huge fight and he stormed out.”
But then, Audrey stumbled upon what seemed like a saving grace:
Boot Camp for Teens
“One of my friends made a joke about boot camp for kids and I thought, hey does that really exist? So I Googled it and there was actually a 90-day boot camp program really close by starting in just a few weeks,” Audrey says. “So I signed Rory up.”
Programs for troubled teens aren’t cheap — Audrey had to take a serious look at her finances and make some concessions in order to afford it.
“Everything that was not completely essential, I cut,” she says. “Cable TV, dinners out, the gym membership. Those were all gone. I sold the car and started taking the bus and biking. I was eating plain pasta noodles, frozen chicken, and oatmeal.”
When the three months were up, Audrey borrowed a friend’s car to drive back to the ranch and pick Rory up. He was quiet on the ride home but seemed respectful. He apologized for his behavior and said he would try to do better.
She gave him a hug when they got back home, but there was something awkward about it. A distance between them maybe.
Nothing happened. Rory immediately fell back into the same patterns of behavior he’d been exhibiting before Audrey had sent him to the boot camp for teens. He started hanging out with the same group of older friends, acting disrespectfully, and using drugs.
“Except that now it’s worse,” she says, “because there’s this rift between us. He resents me for sending him to that place and so he’s just shut down.”
She worries she might have destroyed their relationship. That’s why she came to me for help. And Audrey isn’t alone. Dozens of other parents have approached me with similar issues as well. It seems from these parents’ stories that these programs for troubled teens may do more harm than good.
But why? What’s the science behind this?
Why Programs for Troubled Teens Don’t Work
At a boot camp for kids they usually have tough-looking instructors who specialize in getting kids to submit and follow the rules. This works very well, actually. Even the most troubled teens will start listening surprisingly fast when there’s a drill sergeant barking orders in their face…
The problem is that when they get home from this boot camp for kids, your teen will no longer have this drill instructor barking orders in their face. Numerous studies on programs for troubled teens in the criminal justice system have found that sending juveniles to a boot camp for teens doesn’t make them any less likely to continue to commit crimes in the future.
For three main reasons, according to psychologist Margaret Bayer, an expert on juvenile crime: (1) teenagers crave fairness and dislike anything that feels unjust, (2) teenagers reject imposed structure, and (3) teenagers respond to encouragement.
Think about it this way.
The brain gets good at whatever we practice. As neuroscientists all like to say, neurons that fire together wire together. So, whatever your teen spends time doing, their brain will get better at.
This means that when you send your kid to a boot camp for teens, they will get really good at: following orders that are yelled at them by drill sergeants. But this doesn’t mean that your teen will also start listening to you.
Human behavior is highly context specific and boot camp for kids simply doesn’t take this into account. The behaviors your teen learns at boot camp won’t “generalize” to your home environment with Mom giving the orders instead of the tough guys…sorry.
The hope that you can just ship your kid off for a few months to some program for troubled teens and he or she will return, magically, as a completely changed person, with hardly any real effort required on your part, is — sadly — a fantasy.
If you want your kid to listen to you then you need to change the way you are communicating with him. Nobody else can do that for you.
Have you ever called the police on your teenager because you couldn’t get him under control by yourself? Or have you gotten the school security guards involved? Or called in support from a large male friend to “talk some sense” into your teen?
These strategies are very common. Most parents who seek my help have already tried these kinds of tactics without success. Calling in outside help to handle your teen is a huge mistake because it sends the message to your teen that you can’t handle him yourself. This will actually embolden your teen to stand up to you even more forcefully.
Programs for troubled teens suffer from this exact same problem. When you sign your teen up for a boot camp for kids, he learns that you need help to get him under control. This is a huge mistake that will make it harder to ever get him back under your thumb.
Instead of signing your kid up for boot camp for teens, you need to learn how to respond to your teen’s power plays all by yourself. It’s the only way to create real change.
Thankfully, teaching parents how to respond to power plays in my specialty!
Going Beyond Boot Camp for Kids
Before you start researching programs for troubled teens on the web, here’s what I would recommend trying instead. This is what I did with Audrey and she told me it completely turned things around for her and Rory.
First, make a list of the behaviors that you are trying to change in your teenager (in Audrey’s case, it was a pretty long list). Next, start going through the list and organizing the behaviors by the environment in which they all occur. The idea here is to identify 1-3 key places where at least 80% of the problem behavior seems to be taking place.
In his incredible book The Power of Habit (the #12 most read book on Amazon), bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg explains a concept he calls keystone habits. These are one or two key behaviors that, when changed, lead to a domino effect of other things changing as well.
That’s what you need to find for your teen.
For Audrey, we narrowed it down to two environments. First, Rory was acting disrespectful toward her at home. Second, he was acting risky with his friends.
I explained to her that we needed to focus on changing the way Rory was behaving in these two environments, not to send him off to a boot camp for teens, which would be a completely different environment.
“All we need to do,” I said, “is create a new policy targeting each environment and enforce it properly. He needs to learn he can’t push you around. But that doesn’t mean you have to be more harsh with him. Actually, it means you need to be more vulnerable.”
The policies we came up with were surprisingly simple — much easier than sending Rory away to boot camp for kids.
First, he was going to start attending a study group after school and getting his math teacher’s signature to prove he’d been there. This was selected because after school was the main time he had alone unsupervised with his friends.
Second, Rory would have to earn privileges like cell phone service, wifi access, and cable TV. His mother worked hard to provide these things so if he was not going to treat her with gratitude and kindness then she wasn’t going to keep working hard to provide him with these things.
It was a fair deal.
The key was that she’d have to explain these new policies to Rory. And she couldn’t back down on enforcing these policies with consequences if he failed to obey them.
I coached her for a few weeks on how to discuss the new policies with Rory and how to enforce them. Then I sent her off to talk to him.
Two weeks later I got a call. “It was really hard,” she told me as soon as I picked up, “He talked back to me and I started to feel powerless again. But then I remember the scripts we worked on and I countered with extreme vulnerability. It was the scariest thing I have ever done. But it worked.”
She didn’t need to act like the drill instructors from that boot camp for teens. She just needed to respond more effectively to Rory’s power plays.
He challenged her three times and she responded the same way every time. Then, shockingly, he stopped.
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “It was a complete turnaround.”
This is what the programs for troubled teens won’t do. They can’t teach you how to respond to your teen and neutralize his power plays.
Save your money. Download some of our free scripts and see the difference for yourself.