Every year, parents across the country consider sending their teenage children to boarding school. Some parents may have had positive boarding school experiences themselves, others may be looking for an intensive and immersive academic, athletic, or artistic environment for their teenager, while others may have teens with challenging behavioral issues, and believe time in a boarding school setting may straighten their child out and get them on the right track.
If you’re a parent in the latter category – one with a teen displaying difficult behavior – a boarding school may be exactly the opposite of what your child needs. Recent research on the long-term emotional effects of boarding schools and reports regarding substandard conditions and unethical practices at residential schools selling themselves as “therapeutic” indicate that there are boarding schools out there that may, in fact, do more harm than good for some teenagers.
Acting Out: The Issues Behind Teen Rebellion
When teenagers act out, the source of their behavior is often emotional. A troubled teenager may develop substance abuse issues or addiction problems to mask the symptoms of underlying emotional disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or past trauma. Parents are the ideal source for helping their teens through these challenging years. The foundation of trust and communication built up over years is something no teacher, counselor, coach, or school administrator can possibly recreate.
A teenager who’s acting out needs the love, understanding, and support of their parents first, and second – if the teen is diagnosed with an emotional disorder – what they need is high-quality therapy from licensed, experienced mental health professionals. Severing connections to your teenager’s primary emotional support system for an extended period of time may cause additional emotional trauma, which may, in the long run, compound or exacerbate the issues that caused them to act out in the first place. As author and former boarding school teacher and dean Tim Hillman writes in his book Behind the Walls: A Parent’s Guide to Boarding Schools,
“No school should be a replacement for a child’s parents.”
Short-Term Residential Treatment for Troubled Teens
While some therapeutic boarding schools are legitimate, ethical, and truly therapeutic, they do not offer the same level of therapy or supervision a teenager struggling with addiction and mental health disorders receives in a residential treatment center that specializes in adolescent issues. At most, teenagers in therapeutic boarding schools attend one to two group sessions per week and receive one to two hours of therapy per week conducted by a visiting psychiatrist. Boarding schools of the classic New England prep-school variety offer no such therapy. Their resources are allocated toward academics, sports, or whatever special niche the school occupies, such as fine arts, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), or civic leadership.
In contrast, during a short-term stay of thirty to forty-five days in a residential treatment facility, a struggling adolescent engages in a full day of structured activities centered around one thing: addressing the underlying issues causing their problems. Teens typically receive three to four hours of individual therapy per day, and most programs include group sessions and complementary therapies such as mindfulness based stress reduction, exercise, and 12-step support groups when appropriate. Residential treatment centers also include structured down-time to allow teens the space to process the issues they address during individual and group therapy. Most importantly, all this happens in the context of ongoing collaboration and communication with parents, so teenagers feel supported, loved, and heard, rather than alone, abandoned, and misunderstood.
If you’re considering sending your child away to boarding school for a year or more because of behavioral issues, please take a step back and reconsider. What your teen really needs is you. And if a rocky adolescence rooted in mental health or emotional disorders has interrupted the channels of communication between you and your teen, consider this: a short stay in a genuine therapeutic setting can teach your child the coping strategies and skills needed to repair relationships and restore balance to your family – something it’s unlikely a boarding school of any type can accomplish.
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