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Are Teen Boot Camps Effective?

The effectiveness of teen boot camps is a subject of considerable debate. When you are a parent of a troubled teenager, it is easy to resort to a radical solution to reverse a downward slide into more rebellious and possibly illegal behavior. The hope is that by sending that difficult teenager to a boot camp environment, that harsh and very disciplined setting will replace angry and confrontational teenage behavior with a mindset that is more orderly, disciplined and respectful of others.

A teen boot camp is aptly named because it puts the troubled attendees under a strict military style program of discipline. A demanding drill instructor puts tremendous stress on troubled teens with the goal of reorienting that rebellious mindset and replacing your teenager’s bad attitudes with habits of discipline, compliance and focus on healthy goals. This all sounds good on paper and the concept is very appealing to frustrated parents who are at their wits end with their troubled teenagers. But there are experts in the field of adolescent psychology that point out the benefits and some of the problems with the boot camp approach.

The Benefits of Teen Boot Camps

These negatives about teen boot camps don’t diminish the good ideas that are being employed in attempting to help troubled kids. They do give us good reason to think through whether a harsh boot camp experience is right for every teenager.

The concepts that are being employed in using a boot camp setting to correct problematic behavior are good concepts. Instead of rejecting the entire boot camp concept out of hand, it’s good to understand the ideas that boot camps attempt to use to help troubled teenagers. In that way, it may be possible to find another approach to helping your son or daughter while avoiding the problems listed above. The good concepts that a boot camp employs that are worth keeping include…

  • A new and challenging setting. When a teenager goes to boot camp, they are taken out of their familiar setting of home and friends. That change of setting disrupts the routine and creates an opportunity for your teenager to change in behavior as well. Because boot camps are very challenging to attendees to get through, there is a natural bonding with other attendees, which reorients the teenager socially. To get through the demands of boot camp, teenagers develop a new self-reliance that leads to a renewed self-respect that can be a new start on life for a troubled youth.
  • External discipline. The teenage years are ones where personal discipline should be learned in preparation for adulthood. Troubled teens often do not have that discipline so they act out to cover their failure at school or in other settings. Boot camp imposes that discipline from the outside so a teenager has a chance to learn internal discipline as well. That may be just the thing to give the troubled youth what he or she needs to become successful in civilian life.
  • Reorientation of priorities. To get through the challenge of a teen boot camp, attendees must change their priorities dramatically, even if only for a few weeks. When they do that and then achieve success because they made that effort, that can have positive effect on a teenager after the boot camp is over. Success is addictive and if a teenager can work together with the other attendees to survive and achieve under the stress of boot camp, they may come home confident that they can succeed at school and in other life’s challenges as well.
  • A new respect for authority. Problems with authority figures is very often one of the symptoms of a troubled teenager and it is often what makes it necessary for the youth to attend a teen boot camp. At first, troubled teenagers will resent the authority of the boot camp they attend. But as they move through the program, they may come to realize that while their drill instructors authority cannot be defied, that same leadership is there to help them succeed. When they realize that authority figures have their best interests at heart, that can change how they view the authority of their parents and teachers as well.

The Problems with Teen Boot Camps

  • Boot camps overcome ugly behavior with ugly behavior. Drill instructors must be harsh, loud and abusive to establish their authority. But the message that is sent to the attendees is that the meanest person in the group wins. That is not a message you want a troubled teen to bring home with them when they return to normal society.
  • Troubled teenagers are skilled at playing the game. If a problem teenager knows that the boot camp is short in duration, he or she may know how to play along and satisfy the requirements of the camp without really reforming or changing his or her attitudes or behavior. Parents of problem adolescents are familiar with how their kids learn to tell counselors just what they want to hear without making any real progress. That skill is often taken into a teen boot camp and used to get through the program only to return home unchanged.
  • A teen boot camp experience is not the same as everyday life. The boot camp environment is focused, isolated and ordered by the authority figures at the camp. The skills teenagers learn to be a success in a teen boot camp setting don’t always translate well to how teenagers must adapt to daily demands of school and home life.
  • Many troubled teens have become experts at defying authority. Teenagers who show no restraint in being defiant and refusing to “buckle under” to authority take pride in that skill. Usually, there is no concern for personal welfare when a teenager decides he or she is going to be defiant to all authority. This kind of teenager may chose to defy the authority of boot camp leadership and refuse to be broken. If that happens and the youth must drop out, the problem behavior will have been reinforced rather than fixed.
  • It is easy for a teenager to resent parents for putting them in a teen boot camp. The experiences troubled teens have at a teen boot camp are often difficult, unpleasant or even miserable. Often teenagers feel that they have been “sent away” and they spend the time during boot camp resenting parents and seeing the experience as unfair and cruel punishment. This reaction to being given the chance to change at a teen boot camp results in deeper alienation against parents which is then transferred to alienation against all adult authority when the young person returns from his or her boot camp experience.

Thinking it Through

Clearly, there is much that can be accomplished by putting a troubled youth into a circumstance like a teen boot camp. But parents must proceed with caution because the potential for failure is there and the ramifications of failure are serious. There are other resources that can be taken advantage of to give your teenager the benefits we just discussed without exposing them to the problematic setting of a harsh teen boot camp.

Many religious organizations operate camps that achieve the benefits that teen boot camps strive for but do so employing counseling and compassion combined with active programs and new challenges for the kids. By taking the time to research the many variations on the teen boot camp concept, parents may find an approach that is a better fit for their teenager.

Before considering a teen boot camp, parents should use the resources of the counselors already working with their teenager and of child psychologists to examine the youth to determine the likelihood of success of a boot camp experience. Teen boot camps are expensive and they are an extreme reaction to the problem of troubled teenagers.

Parents should avoid doing anything out of fear. Instead, think through the perfect course of action to give your teenager that new lease on life that you want. If careful thought and consultation is used to select the best program for your troubled teenager, you can avoid the problems that can come from a teen boot camp and realize all of the benefits.

Here are additional resources you might be interested in:

Choosing a teen boot camp for teenage girls

Kids Boot Camp to Build Child’s Self-Confidence

Are boot camp for teens the best way to discipline teenagers?

Do you believe your child needs help, does he or she need "a lesson" or "to get some discipline"?
Boot Camps for Troubled Teens Are Not the Answer.
We DO NOT endorse teen boot camps because they were proven ineffective and dangerous. Learn More!

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