What’s a Parent to Do? Educating your Troubled Teen

So when adolescents develop behavioral problems, mood disorders or social issues that interrupt their education, parents are doubly distressed. For troubled teens, almost by definition, have trouble in school.

Dealing with a troubled teen is an enormous challenge for both parents and teachers. Public schools, hard pressed to meet the academic needs of normal students, are often not equipped to meet the emotional demands of the problem student. Many parents consider boarding school or military academy just to get their child back into a classroom, but even in those closed and structured environments many troubled teens will continue to struggle.

What’s a parent to do? Many start by seeking advice from other parents who have dealt or are dealing with a troubled teen. Hearing about a program first-hand from someone who’s been in your shoes can save you valuable time, money and frustration when it comes to helping your own child.

Other parents outreach to independent educational consultants who handle special needs clients. These professionals, many of whom are former educators and guidance counselors, can identify and help you select a suitable school or program for your teen. Depending on the teen’s specific problems, recommendations might include emotional growth schools, therapeutic boarding schools, home-based residential programs, therapeutic wilderness programs, or residential treatment centers.

If the choices seem bewildering, it’s because there are many valid approaches today for treating troubled teens. Currently several hundred programs exist, serving 10,000 to 20,000 students annually. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David L. Marcus looked at one such program in his recent book, What It Takes to Pull Me Through: Why Teenagers Get in Trouble and How Four of Them Got Out. His study of the complex world of troubled teenagers was conducted at the Academy at Swift River, an emotional growth school in western Massachusetts. The success of his book is indicative of the growing interest in and demand for programs to serve a growing segment of America’s twenty-nine million adolescents.

Nor has the phenomenon been lost on the media. ABC’s reality series Brat Camp shows the choices faced by nine families dealing with out-of-control teenagers with problems like ADHD, drug addiction, promiscuity and fighting. Each chooses to send their teen to SageWalk, a wilderness school in rural Oregon, hoping that after the 50-day program is over they’ll get back the children they once knew.

With attention like this, industry critics have emerged as well. Some charge program operators of profiteering by promising miracles to desperate parents, but many more cite the overall lack of federal regulations and the patchwork of state regulations that govern the behavioral health care industry. Right now, therapeutic and emotional growth schools are regulated like ordinary boarding schools. Except for residential treatment centers, there are no regulations requiring specific educational or professional credentials for program operators. There is also no uniform set of national, government-endorsed standards by which parents can judge a program’s effectiveness.

Fortunately, high and rigorously enforced standards are in place for these schools and programs—standards imposed by the industry itself.


In 1999, concerned about the industry’s lack of uniform ethical and practice guidelines to protect at-risk teens and families in crises, The Family Foundation School joined six other programs and a small group of individuals to form the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP). Today, with more than 170 members, NATSAP serves as an advocate and resource for innovative organizations that devote themselves to the effective care and education of struggling young people and their families. Envisioning “a nation of healthy children,” NATSAP has become the voice that inspires, nurtures and validates its member schools and programs.

Parents and others concerned about the efficacy and integrity of therapeutic programs in an otherwise unregulated industry can turn to NATSAP for guidance. The association serves as an unofficial watchdog, calling attention to substandard and predatory programs that can injure participants emotionally, psychologically, physically and financially. While the vast majority of therapeutic schools and programs provide treatment rooted in sound clinical practice and concern for the growth and well-being of the young people they serve, there are operations that lack respect and sensitivity to individual needs, that rely solely on internal feedback and consequently fail to learn, improve or grow.

NATSAP has established benchmarks first and foremost for treatment and behavioral practices that reduce risk, promote safety, and demand continuous program improvements. The organization provides members with the latest research on treating troubled teens and tested methods for helping families in crises. It has also established admissions guidelines that protect parents from false advertising and misleading claims of services. Most important, it has established and enforces ethics and practice standards for its members, and adds to these standards regularly.

We want to make it clear that NATSAP is not an accrediting or licensing body, but an independent, voluntary organization. It does not provide placement services. However, it is an indispensable resource and a good first stop for parents pursuing a placement for their child in any program. By choosing a NATSAP member, you can be sure you’re dealing with an organization that is serious about how you are served, who values ethical integrity, who recognizes how vulnerable a family is when making the difficult decision to place a child outside the home, and whose primary goal is the education, growth and well-being of your troubled teen.

The Right Match

Each adolescent at risk has specific needs that must be determined in detail before he or she can be successfully placed in a therapeutic school or program. As a parent, you can make sure the ultimate match is the correct one by arranging for whatever academic and psychological tests may be necessary, and by using multiple informational sources before making your final decision. The industry offers a wide and growing array of program types, lengths of stay, and services to meet the needs of a variety of troubled young people—which is a good reason to review your choices with the help of an educational consultant. As we mentioned above, these independent professionals know the industry inside out and will work with you and your child to find the best possible placement. (To locate a consultant near you, visit Independent Educational Consultants Association website). Whether you decide to work with a consultant, with referrals from other parents, or to strike out on your own, you owe it to yourself and your child to find out as much as possible about this segment of the educational field, and the journey on which you’re about to embark.

The good news is that all the information you could possibly want—and then some—is as close as your computer. Since an Internet search of “trouble teens” will yield millions of hits, you should probably begin by checking out the websites of schools or programs you’ve heard of, or have been referred to (they all have websites). Or start with NATSAP, or another online directory of schools and programs for troubled teens. One we recommend is Developed by the highly respected industry newsletter Woodbury Reports, this website provides a wealth of news, information, and research findings pertaining to teens at risk. Here you can find valuable insights into the industry and of particular help is the coverage of new schools and programs, and of what works in this industry and what doesn’t.

Other organization websites worth visiting are the American Psychological Association,National Association of Social Workers, National Board for Certified Counselors, and American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.

It’s been said that the primary job of youth is to get an education. When troubled teens fall down on the job, it is up to us as parents, counselors and educators to make sure they’re given a hand up and a way back to the classroom. For this we need a strong network of therapeutic schools and programs.