Teen Boot Camps: A Brief History

Boot camps for troubled teens appeared on the scene in the United States in the early 1980s. Based on state sponsored programs for incarcerated adults in Georgia and Oklahoma, they were initially designed and introduced as a strategy for rehabilitating non-violent offenders in the juvenile criminal justice system. The first youth boot camp, founded in Orleans Parish, Louisiana, had three primary goals in common with its adult counterparts:

  1. Reduce Prison Overcrowding
  2. Reduce Recidivism (repeat offending)
  3. Reduce Cost
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Over the following decade, the movement gained momentum and received widespread support from both the public and politicians. Federal and state programs funneled significant tax dollars into these programs. By 1996, 48 boot camps were operating in 27 states. The boot camp philosophy mirrored the cultural climate of tough love that pervaded the late 80s and early 90s. Politicians wanted to be tough on crime, parents wanted to be tough on teenagers doing drugs, and for the most part, the public went along with the trend. Teen boot camps varied from program to program and state to state, but their approach to rehabilitation all shared the following components:

  • Strict rules and a military-like atmosphere
  • Mandatory participation in military drills and training
  • Aggressive, drill-instructor method of discipline

Since most of these programs relied on public money – i.e. tax dollars – for their operation, the U.S. Department of Justice, along with various other private groups, commissioned studies and research initiatives to examine their effectiveness.

What they found was simple: boot camp programs don’t work.

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Teen Boot Camps: The Opposite of Treatment

It’s not hard to imagine why teen boot camps are ineffective. First, boot camps fail to address the root problems underlying most adolescent acting out: emotional issues such as anger and frustration, often triggered by adverse childhood experiences or driven by untreated mood disorders. Second, the disciplinary style, adopted from basic training common to the Army and Marine Corps, hinges on the idea that young people need to be broken down by punishment and verbal confrontation before they can be built back up by learning discipline – mostly in the form of military style calisthenics. Third, few instructors in these programs had experience working with adolescents in a therapeutic setting. They lacked the training and qualifications necessary to help teens where help was most needed. Finally, these camps offered little to no programming for re-entry or continued support after their boot camp experience.

The Department of Justice study mentioned above, published in 1996, found something crucial for parents of troubled teens to understand: the camps that were effective in helping teens included rehabilitative components such as substance abuse therapy, traditional psychotherapy, and aftercare/transition assistance.

In short, the camps that worked did not work because of the boot camp approach. They worked because they included treatment and support – the kind of treatment and support we offer at Evolve.

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Evolve: Treatment Works, Punishment Doesn’t

It’s common knowledge in education, parenting, and child development circles that a dictatorial, authoritarian approach works because of fear, shame, and intimidation – all the wrong reasons. Kids fear pain, punishment, and public ridicule, so they do as they’re told. The same is true in boot camps: while teens with real issues such as substance use disorders, anger, depression, or past trauma might bite the bullet and buckle down to avoid getting screamed at by an angry drill instructor, this does absolutely nothing to solve the underlying problem. It’s a temporary behavioral fix that fails to address what teens in trouble truly need: to spend time in a setting designed to deal with the why behind their behaviors and the how to change them for the better.

At Evolve, that’s what we do. We get to the root of the problem. We don’t yell: we talk. We don’t punish: we seek to understand. We don’t demand pushups: we teach coping strategies. Our professionally trained, full licensed therapists and addiction counselors approach each teenager with empathy and compassion. We help teens understand why they’re struggling, why they’re acting out, or why they’ve turned to alcohol or drugs. Then we teach them how to process uncomfortable emotions, how to handle stress, and how to manage counter-productive impulses in ways that help, rather than harm.

At Evolve, we know treatment works. If you’re a parent thinking about a military style boot camp for your troubled teenager, please think again, do some reading about the subject – then call us here at Evolve Treatment.

We’re ready to help.

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We believe in the family dynamic, so all of our Evolve Treatment Centers feature beautiful and comfortable home-like settings. Each location is safe and the environments are supportive, conveying a sense of warmth and security, trust and kindness.

We provide a healthy, rigorous atmosphere in which sensitive issues can be explored. Our picturesque and peaceful settings reinforce our mission to lead clients on a path of healing, growth, and lifelong recovery.

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