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Is Boot Camp the Only Option for Your Child? Read This First

By Janet Lehman, MSW

Have things become so difficult with your teen that you’re considering sending him to a boot camp? You’re not alone; many people first find Empowering Parents and The Total Transformation Program when they are searching the web or information on behavioral boot camps for teens. It’s not unusual to reach the point where you consider sending your child away, especially when he starts to exhibit difficult behaviors that are hard to deal with, but I’d like to propose some alternatives that can work better for you and your child.

When you feel like sending your child away
Parents don’t just wake up in the morning and say, “I give up. My child needs to go to boot camp!” On the contrary, we have hopes for our children’s future but sometimes as parents we get pulled very deeply into negative patterns, and we don’t know how to get out of the situation. Maybe your teen is caught up with friends who are a bad influence, and you feel his choices are out of your control. When you think you’ve tried everything and feel total desperation, you begin to believe that maybe someone else can do a better job. This idea provides relief for some parents who are dealing with constant negative attitudes and defiant behaviors. Parents then begin the search for programs to send their children to in hopes that time away from home will bring change. Let me be clear: some children need to be hospitalized for mental health issues, while others may seriously need to be in detention facilities for criminal behaviors, or need short-term family-focused residential programs.

Even if kids are “sent away,” they come home and need continued structure, rules and increased and consistent expectations. Sustaining any gains requires ongoing work.

Several years ago, when I worked in residential treatment, parents would show up at the administration building, child in tow, holding a suitcase and asking how they could leave their child in our care because what they were doing was clearly not working. As desperate as they felt, this wasn’t the way to get help. Instead, one of the social workers would sit down and try to give support and guidance with referrals to programs that could help the family work at home to make the necessary improvements.

Related: Make your home a happy place—not a stressful one.

It wasn’t easy to have children placed out of the home then, and it’s become even more difficult these days. Long-term residential placement is only available after everything else has been tried and failed. Laws and regulations in most states support families staying together rather than splitting apart. When children really need to leave home, there are systems in place requiring the school’s involvement and formal evaluations that rule out all other less intensive alternatives before out-of-home placement is even considered.

Using boot camp techniques and structure at home
The reason that residential care has been primarily replaced by home-based services is because the best and most sustained improvements are made in the home with the whole family’s involvement. In addition, long-term residential care is expensive, and funding for these types of programs is limited. Boot camp is a type of “residential care,” with a focus on behavior. Similarly, most boot camps aren’t set up to involve the family in making changes, and for many families, they are prohibitively expensive. Even if kids are “sent away,” they come home and need continued structure, rules and increased and consistent expectations. Sustaining any gains requires ongoing work.

Boot camps are based on some very helpful concepts that are of value in dealing with a seriously defiant child. You can replicate these concepts in your home. Here’s a look at how to do that:

  1. Create Structure with Clear Expectations and Consequences: Even though you may feel overwhelmed and think that your child rejects structure, you can begin to set up a new structure for your child, with clearer expectations—which is what a boot camp will do. Start with something you might be successful with. Instead of tackling every aspect of your teen’s defiant behavior all at once, try one thing–like getting up on time for school. Set clear expectations around that structure. For example: “If you want me to drive you to school you, will need to up and ready to go by 7:30. If you aren’t, the car is not available, and you will have to take the bus. If that happens more than twice this week, you’ll lose the car for the weekend.” Once your child is able to follow this rule, add another expectation, and then keep building with a structure for each expectation and consequence. As you can see from this example, you have to structure the expectation so completely that there is no other feasible alternative but the behavior you’re looking for.
  2. Remain consistent. If they are nothing else, boot camps are consistent. The expectation is set, and the consequence is issued if the teen doesn’t comply. And it will be issued until there is compliance. Consistency is the aspect of parenting a defiant child that is often more frustrating for parents. When you pick the one thing to create structure around for your child, resolve to stay with it, no matter how much he pushes back. If you haven’t been consistent in the past, don’t beat yourself up about it. Simply start over now.
  3. Related: Keep calm and consistent with these expert methods.

  4. Encouragement and insistence that your child can do what you expect of her. Boot camps expect kids to succeed. Do the same for your child, even when things look bleak. Your child’s hopelessness leads to helplessness and defeat, but your encouragement and insistence on success can turn that around. Take the time to recognize the small successes, point them out to your teen, and build on each one.
  5. Never give up. There will be setbacks. Your child will continue to test you, and may fail miserably when you first start increasing expectations. Hang in there. Kids want their parents to do the right thing, no matter how conflicted your relationship has been.

Support is available
We all have difficult times in our lives, with ups and downs, challenging children, conflicts with partners, alcoholism, drug abuse, or just everyday stress. It helps to stay open to seeking and using support from your community. Most parents struggle with consistency and knowing how to build expectations in a sequential manner. You may want to start with the school, where there’s a whole support system that includes the teacher, guidance, and other school staff. Share your concerns with them and discuss what seems to be working and not working. Involve them in supporting the structure and expectations you have set up. Remember that the school is not your enemy – but rather a support to you and your child. If your child is getting into criminal activity, work with the legal system. Find a support person who doesn’t judge you and is a good match with what you need. And, once you’ve found that support, let them help.

Related: How to find solutions for Oppositional Defiant Disorder.

When we have problems with our kids, we tend to isolate ourselves and our families–from our friends, or neighbors or community. This exacerbates the feeling that you’re the only “bad” parent, that all other families are perfect, and you’re the only one struggling. It’s important to open up to others, let them offer support, and good advice. Let them help you to feel more hopeful.

How the Total Transformation can help you
My husband, James Lehman, and I saw these issues in the work we did with children and families every day, and recognized that parents needed more tools in order to parent their children responsibly. Thus The Total Transformation was developed. There’s a reason that people all over the world use the program, and that parents are able to go from deep frustration to lasting positive changes in their families. It shows parents how to set up a structure with expectations, responsibilities and consequences. For many, it has been an alternative to sending their child away.

In addition to the work you do at home, there is 1-on-1 Coaching available to you from our parenting experts. They can become your own support systems. The Empowering Parents website can become another community of support for you and your family. I’m not saying that the work is easy, but I am convinced that with support and direction, you will be able to make the positive changes you’re looking for. And isn’t it worth trying this before you send your child away?

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About Janet Lehman, MSW

Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. In addition, Janet gained a personal understanding of child learning and behavior challenges from her son, who struggled with learning disabilities in school. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.

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