By Jodi Liston
On the face of it, the idea might sound extreme: considering an out of home placement as a response to behavioral issues that have spun out of control, leaving the family feeling as if they are constantly walking on eggshells.
But that view, while understandable, doesn’t reflect the stark reality faced by the parents of struggling teens and tweens. There are some situations that cannot simply be managed through traditional outpatient methods.
An Option of Last Resort
By the time most families begin thinking about a therapeutic boarding school, they’ve long since passed a crisis point. For many of them, a constant state of deep anxiety has become the new normal. They’ve exhausted most other options by this point: outpatient therapy, special-education tutors, even hospitals and medication. Typically, the family has already participated in an alternative intervention like a short-term residential assessment or a wilderness therapy program with the hope of providing a system that helps create a readiness to change on the part of their child.
Feelings of Guilt and Failure
One unfortunate side-effect of a situation like this is that these parents often feel like they have failed their child. As educational and therapeutic placement consultants, we know better: most of these families have endured much more than a “normal” family will ever be faced with, yet they persist, trying desperately to do what’s right for their child.
What’s actually happening is not a failure of parenting: it is that their child’s problems have progressed beyond what mere parenting can fix. There is no parenting manual that covers this sort of situation, where things have shifted outside the norm. When a child misbehaves, it’s a parent’s job to correct them. But when things go terribly wrong, and correcting the child has no effect (or even an adverse effect), continuing to apply standard parenting techniques can lead to a continued breakdown in the family system.
These kids still need their parents, but they also need something beyond what parents can give: expert intervention by professionals who specialize in dealing with these challenges and concerns. In this context, shame has no place. There’s no more shame in hiring a professional to help correct behavioral issues than there is in hiring an accountant to do your taxes, or an orthodontist to put braces on your child’s teeth. These are things most people would never consider doing on their own. We often urge our clients to think of their situation the same way.
The Stigma of Residential Treatment
Part of the guilt parents feel stems from anxiety about what others will think. Friends, neighbors, and even other family members may not understand the decision to send a child away from home in a time of crisis. Usually, the reason they don’t understand is that they have only been exposed to the fringe of the real situation. Most of us take pains not to advertise our problems to friends and neighbors, so such a seemingly drastic decision might catch them off guard.
So be it. As parents, our foremost duty is not to our friends and neighbors but the wellbeing of our children. Nobody knows or loves your child as you do, and nobody has had to endure the exact situation your family has.
A common criticism of the concept of therapeutic boarding school, in general, is that it provides an environment that is the inverse of the family unit. A child is removed from surroundings that adapt to their needs and is placed in a structured setting where it is the child who must adapt. For a child in crisis, however, this is usually a positive thing and can help create powerful, lasting change.
Overwhelmed by Options
Once the decision to find a therapeutic boarding school has been made, parents are confronted with an equally critical decision. Which school? There are hundreds of them in the United States and more than a few horror stories. How can they know that their child will be in an environment that is safe, both physically and emotionally, and that they will receive exactly the sort of help that is right for their situation? This is a question of staggering complexity, which is why educational and therapeutic placement consultants like Harris Kramer & Liston exist in the first place. To develop our expertise, we conduct on-site visits to schools on a regular basis to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each. We support our clients by giving them questions to ask and guidelines to look for on their visits.
Focus on the Big Picture
When our clients struggle to come to terms with the decision to place their child in a therapeutic boarding school, we remind them that this sort of out-of-home placement is temporary. The goal is to re-integrate the child into their home, where they can maintain the structure they’ve learned while they were away. While it is impossible to predict or ensure success, for many families this decision, which might seem so drastic to outsiders, ends up being what finally works.
In the end, it’s crucial to keep that in mind. This process is not about sending your child away: it’s about getting your child back.