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Parents – How to Handle Anxiety About Sending Your Teen Out-of-State for Treatment

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

When you learn your teen has a mental health or alcohol/substance use disorder, it can come as a shock. You feel all kinds of emotions. Sadness, worry, fear, and pain are not unusual things to feel in your situation. It’s not unusual to be all over the place, to be honest. You name it, and you’ll probably feel it. It can be a confusing time.

You may even be angry about the whole situation. You may blame yourself, or you may look for others to blame.

Then, when you settle down and talk to your teen’s therapist or the mental health professional who diagnosed them, you realize that how you got here is not what matters.

What matters is what happens next.

What matters is that you get them the best treatment possible. You know you need to get them on the road to healing and recovery as soon as possible.

Of course, once you get your teen in treatment, part of the recovery process may involve looking back to resolve the issues and other factors that contributed to their diagnosis.

But what you need now – particularly if your teen receives a referral for a program at a residential treatment center (RTC) for teens – is to find them the most appropriate treatment for their needs.

That’s where things can get trickier.


Because the best fit for your teen might not be in your area. It might not be in a city nearby, either.

It might be in another state, halfway across the country. And that can cause a whole new round of powerful, confusing, and painful emotions.

You may be thinking:

Send my kid out of state?


For weeks on end?

In some cases, the answer is yes – to all three of those questions.

The Anxiety is Real

When you realize you need to send your teen out of state for treatment, it can hit hard. You may be prepared to send your child away from home for several weeks. But to a place where you can’t simply drive over to visit them?

You may not have been ready for that.

It can be overwhelming. It can be painful. And you may wonder if it’s the right choice.

But let’s get on the same page about what we mean by the right choice. The right choice means finding the best treatment available is your primary objective. That begs the next question. What do we mean by the finding best treatment available?

Finding the best treatment available means:

The therapeutic methods the treatment center uses should be data-driven and based on solid scientific evidence. That’s the first important thing to check off your list.
The treatment philosophy at the treatment center you choose should resonate with you and sound like it would serve your teen well. That’s the second most important thing to check off your list.
The treatment center you choose should have a verifiable track record of positive results for the adolescent population. That’s the third most important thing to check off your list.

If you can’t find a treatment center that meets those criteria in your city or your state, then, in the best interests of your child, you need to look elsewhere.

And that’s when that second round of anxiety starts.

We can help you handle that anxiety.

The Right Location Can Make a Big Difference

Let’s say you find a treatment center in California, for instance. One in San Diego. Or Sacramento. Or in the Bay Area in Northern California.

The treatment center meets your needs. It checks all the boxes. Literally every one.

But every time you think of sending your child away, you freak out. It doesn’t matter the center is a perfect fit. It doesn’t matter they offer everything you think your child needs. It doesn’t matter that the center has programs designed for teens, or that they offer a wide range of innovative therapeutic techniques, such as:

  • Individual therapy:
  • Group therapy:
    • Group DBT
    • Group CBT
  • Family therapy
    • Your family and your teen
    • Multi-family groups (may occur without your teen present)
  • Mindfulness
    • Yoga
    • Meditation
    • Stress-reduction techniques
  • Experiential activities:
    • Sports
    • Exercise
    • Hiking
    • Equine therapy (horses)
  • Expressive therapies:
    • Art
    • Music
    • Writing
    • Dance
    • Drama

It may not even matter that the treatment center you find is one of the only ones that offer the treatment approach known as Comprehensive DBT, which is designed specifically for high acuity teens for whom intensive, immersive, specialized care is both necessary and appropriate.

If all those things fail to help you overcome your anxiety about sending your child to another state, we want you to consider something else.

Consider the flipside: a completely different location in a brand-new place might be exactly what your teen needs. A fresh start in a healthy new environment. Surrounded by a new group of people committed to treatment and recovery. A place removed from negative influences and factors in their current environment that may contribute to their mental health and/or addiction disorder.

Let’s get back to that theoretical location: California.

Innovative, Cutting-Edge Treatment for Teens in the Golden State

Not every state has what California has. Especially when you’re looking for the latest and best treatment for adolescents.

California has a long history of leading the nation in treatment for substance use, mental health, and behavioral disorders. There’s another thing to consider, as well. If you can’t find appropriate treatment in your city or state, then it’s likely your health insurance will likely cover out-of-state residential treatment in California.

Which is a good thing – but another subject altogether beyond the scope of this article. However, knowing that may allay your nerves about the financial element of treatment – which is also a good thing to keep in mind.

Many cities and states around the country have treatment centers for teens in hospital-like settings that were initially designed for an adult population. These cold, clinical environments don’t always help kids. Teens in a hospital-like setting may feel more like they’re being punished than participating in a treatment and recovery program designed to support in every possible way as they navigate a very difficult time in their lives.

If that’s what you think of when you hear the phrase residential treatment, then there’s something you should know:

There are residential treatment centers in California that are the opposite of the impersonal white tile-floor and stainless-steel feel common to most residential treatment centers.

They look and feel like homes. They look and feel that way because that’s exactly what they are. They’re treatment centers in residential neighborhoods like Arden Oaks in Sacramento or Mount Helix in San Diego. That’s their first advantage. The neighborhoods are peaceful, safe, quiet, and put teens right at ease right away. Their second advantage is that they’re in homes originally designed for families, which have been repurposed to meet the needs of teens for whom immersive, intensive treatment and support is the best and most appropriate option.

There’s a third advantage, too.

Stunning Natural Beauty and Easy Access

We’ll say the inherent majesty and natural beauty of California is the third advantage. We’ll call easy access to major airports a bonus. And we’ll call direct access to some of the best hospitals in the world a bonus as well, in case of a medical emergency – if that was something you worried about.

But let’s review where we are – or where you are. Let’s say:

  1. Your teen received a diagnosis for a mental health or addiction disorder.
  2. They received a referral for residential treatment.
  3. You have not located an appropriate residential treatment center in your city or your state.
  4. You located an ideal treatment center in California.
  5. That center:
    1. Matches the type of treatment referral your teen received.
    2. Has all the clinical components common to the most highly regarded treatment centers for teens.
    3. Has all the complementary supports – think yoga, exercise, art, drama – that you think will resonate with your teen.
    4. Is located in a comfortable home in a safe and quiet residential neighborhood, conducive to healing and recovery.

There’s one more thing to think about when you think about California. We gave it away a moment ago: the beauty of the natural environment.

Granted, your teen is not going on vacation. They’re going to treatment, not on an adventure kayaking trip. Treatment is work. Treatment takes commitment. But when your teen is in residential treatment – at a center that checks all the boxes, mind you – and can visit the California coast for a day of experiential programming involving surfing and hiking, that can ease some of the difficulties and challenges inherent in residential treatment.

Waking up to a sunrise over the coastal hills and watching a sunset over the Pacific Ocean won’t hurt, either.

Safe, Evidence-Based Treatment Comes First

Let’s be clear about our message: if your teen needs treatment and the best treatment you can find for them is out of state, that’s a difficult fact to face. There’s no getting around it. And there’s no getting around the fact that no matter where your teen receives treatment, they’ll face challenges. They’ll feel emotions they probably never have. They’ll have hard days, they’ll have breakthrough days, and they’ll need the best guidance possible to stay focused and positive. Because of that, you need to ensure you send them to a treatment center that has a licensed and qualified staff who are experienced in working with teens and experts at designing treatment and recovery programs for the adolescent population. Their expertise and compassionate care are more important than the facility or the surroundings.

Which brings us full circle to the issue we raise in the title of this article: how do you handle your anxiety about sending your teen out of state?

Our answer: you give yourself a reality check. You go through your list of requirements. Evidence-based treatment, appropriate, innovative, teen-centric programming, qualified staff, and a healing environment.

You check all those boxes.

When you check all of them, you know you made the right choice.

And to follow up on our hypothetical, which proposes that you found a match for your family needs in California, you check off new boxes for the things that specific locations have to offer, like fast and easy access to state parks, mountain ranges, and the Pacific.

When you add it all up, you might find you’re making not only the right choice, but the best possible choice. That’s what you always want to do for your children: set them up for success, then let them do the work and achieve everything they can.

In this case, what they can achieve is healing and recovery – which might change their lives for the better.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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