Therapeutic Options for Your Struggling Teen: A Simple Explanation

Let’s assume that you have a middle school or high school son or daughter who is struggling emotionally and behaviorally and thus far, despite trying different therapies and school supports, the situation is not getting better. Your family is most likely in a state of intermittent turmoil. If your acting out or acting in (depressed, cutting themselves) child ALSO has a learning disability, the situation is compounded; any contemplation of an out of home treatment program has to take that piece into account.

In the arena of private and residential programs for struggling teens, there are three primary treatment option types. Bear in mind it is often a combination of a couple of these that becomes part of a continuum of care and treatment plan.

As I’ve written about before, the reason why I’m re-entering into this area of struggling teens and therapeutic programs is because of the high incidence of children and adolescents in treatment programs who have learning disabilities. According to various measures, including Hazelton and the NICHD, upwards of 60% of kids in residential treatment do in fact have learning disabilities.

The other reason I’m writing about all this is because I’ve worked intensively and for a long time, in both the LD world, and the Therapeutic Program world.

I’ve also tried my best to parent my own step-son, now chronologically speaking, a young adult, who has both learning disabilities and significant mental health challenges.

Depression, substance abuse, anxiety and a lack of adult independence skills are too often bad sidekicks to Learning Disabilities. Even though this site contains many examples of people who have learned to thrive despite their school struggles, that is not always the norm.

Back to the three main categories of therapeutic program types.

1. Therapeutic Wilderness Programs
Such wilderness programs are designed to provide clinical services in an outdoor setting. Think NOLS or Outward Bound but specially designed to have high psychological impact on struggling teens. Lasting anywhere from 3-12 weeks in duration, these experiences in remote and generally primitive settings often expose the deeper issues and severity that underly the presenting problems and behaviors. In that way, a good therapeutic wilderness program can be an excellent piece to overall assessment of present and future needs. Many students who go to such a place continue therapy and schooling in either a therapeutic boarding school or a residential treatment center. The best ones are safe sophisticated and administered with great care for children. Parent involvement ranges but is an important component.

2. Therapeutic Boarding Schools
Therapeutic boarding schools are exactly what the name implies. They are boarding schools designed to provide an education along with significant attention to pro-social development and emotional growth. I’ve heard such school described as having a 50% focus on academics and a 50% focus on therapy. I’m sure there’s a range in there and is not that precise. Having worked in a couple and over the years toured close to 80 nationwide, the type and amount of attention on academics ranges. Kids are often enrolled for at least a year and sometimes more. Parent involvement and education are usually strong parts of success.

3. Residential Treatment Centers
Residential Treatment Centers are, as compared to therapeutic boarding schools, designed for a child/teen, whose clinical needs are more complex and perhaps severe and intransigent. While most therapeutic boarding schools have trained clinical staff that have at least a Master’s level education and sometimes Ph.D’s, residential treatment centers carry a higher rate of such clinicians and would also have a strong medical component, both in staff and in orientation. As with the therapeutic boarding schools, parent involvement and education should be important components.

When you’re a parent struggling to figure out how to help your child with behavioral and emotional issues, the stress it brings out and the family issues it sometimes exposes, make the process of figuring out what to do, daunting to say the least.

As I mentioned previously I will be writing about a selection of a few from each category that are representative of a high class of programs that work well with struggling teens who also have learning disabilities.

Major Disclaimer:
1. Seek out the counsel of an experienced educational placement specialist. Do not attempt to find programs based only on what you find on the internet or what you read here. Doing your due diligence and investigation is important, however this is the time to get counsel from outside as well.

About Sanford

Learning Disabilities specialist and Educational Consultant
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11 Responses to Therapeutic Options for Your Struggling Teen: A Simple Explanation

  1. educator says:

    Since I tutor young children, I rarely experience what you describe in the teens.

    But I find there are several conditions that can mimic or cause learning disabilities, and they often go undiagnosed.

  2. Sanford says:

    Well, unfortunately, it does exist. There are a lot of kids who will develop behavioral and emotional problems because of their learning disabilities and the way they can be mishandled.

    Tutoring children when they’re young is a great help; it can provide skills and self-belief. Done poorly, it can reinforce the idea that a child is “broken.”

  3. Boarding Schools says:

    Sometimes it just takes a change of scenery to help teens overcome problems and boarding schools can provide that change.

  4. Sanford says:

    Dear Boarding Schools,
    Thanks for writing in but, wow.

    Here I am writing about self-harm, depression and substantial damage to the self-esteem of kids with learning disabilities, with an eye towards weeding through the mass of therapeutic schools and programs, in order to help parents…

    …And you’re reducing this to the benefits of “a change of scenery”?

    Isn’t there more to this equation?

  5. Educator says:

    There is yet another program type that many families consider optimal, depending upon the needs of the student. That is a therapeutic day school. Many families want their child to receive a good education with 1. support for learning differences, 2. significant attention to emotional growth and 3. support of social development while the student remains AT HOME. Not all families are comfortable sending their child away to school and for them therapeutic day schools are a good option.

  6. Sanford says:

    Thanks, you make a valid point. You are correct, there are some really good day schools that will put emphasis on both components. Keeping a child in the home is always a first consideration. Sometimes needs go beyond that being applicable. And, unfortunately there are not many of these types of options.

    I appreciate the reminder; this is an option to consider. Oftentimes in the families that I see or who call me, they’re tried this type of program and it’s just not enough.

    Thanks again for writing in.

    If you don’t mind my asking, is there a particular reason this subject catches your attention?

  7. Boarding School says:

    There are some great Boarding Schools for parents struggling trying to figure out how to help their child with behavioral and emotional issues. And the stress it brings to the family can cause a lot of heartache.

  8. Sanford says:

    Boarding School,
    There are some great ones and not so great ones. And as with all schools, one school that will be great for one kid, might be awful for another, depending on issues, family needs and dynamics and experience.

    You’re right, these situations cause lots of heartache until the right schools are found.

  9. PAL says:

    Where can I find a list of therapeutic day schools in the northeast and accurate information about them?

  10. Great coverage of the school types. One thing I have noticed is that many parents quickly think that their teens behavior can be solved by the old methods of “boot camps” and “military schools” when a Therapeutic Boarding School is the best option.

    Here is another resource that can help clarify.

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