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The Pro and Cons of Boot Camp, Short Term Treatment Centers, Summer Camps, and Wilderness Programs

Summer Camps

Parenting teens can be a challenge in normal circumstances. Adolescents are transitioning from childhood to adulthood – wanting to explore and push new boundaries – without the fully developed capabilities, responsibility, or self-awareness needed to be safe. Teens are trying to become their own person and make their own decisions while still living under the rules and roof of their parents or guardians, which can lead to conflict.

Sometimes, this evolution toward adulthood goes off the rails. Teens may lash out, disobey, or become defiant – potentially putting themselves into dangerous or unhealthy situations. As parents or guardians try to keep their teen safe, the relationship between parents and the troubled teen can deteriorate. Parents may feel like their teen is out of control and be at a loss for how to get their adolescent back on track and save their relationship.

Often, when teens start acting out consistently and putting themselves into risky situations, they’re struggling internally and may be caught up in negative patterns or unhealthy social relationships. Substance abuse, mental disorders, or emotional disturbance may play a role in increased defiance or concerning behaviors. If a teen is becoming out of control to the point parents feel unable to help, it may be time to consider sending the teen away for professional intervention.

Many types of programs are available for troubled teens. Boot camps, summer camps, short term treatment centers, and wilderness programs are some of the options that promise to help bring teens back from the edge. Not all of these options are created equal, however. So, it’s essential to weigh out the pros and cons of each and make an informed decision to get your teen the right kind of help in a safe environment.

Boot Camps

Boot camps are a popular option (and parental threat) for teens exhibiting defiant behavior. These camps are styled after military boot camp programs to teach teens to respect authority through discipline, strict schedules, physical exercise, and punishments for disobeying. Teens go away to boot camp for a short or extended period where they live in simple barracks, isolated from the rest of the world.

Each day, participants follow a tight schedule that includes vigorous physical challenges to push youth and build self-confidence and self-discipline. The adolescents are expected to defer to the authority figures and obey commands. Most boot camps last about a month. But the length of stay depends on the individual program.

Boot camps are not associated with the military. Instead, boot camps are operated by private organizations, including some churches, or state programs whose participants are often sent there by a court decision. Some, but not all, boot camps deal with a specific focus, such as substance abuse.


  • Teens are removed from problematic triggers and patterns at home.
  • Youth gain self-confidence by completing physical challenges.
  • The goal is to teach teens to respect and obey authority figures.
  • Some boot camps offer counseling as part of their program.


  • More focus is on stamping out problematic behavior and unquestioning deference to authority than examining and treating the cause of problematic behaviors.
  • Teens experiencing emotional distress or mental disorders may have a worsening of their condition in a harsh environment and without counseling.
  • Boot camps aren’t regulated, and their punishment tactics have resulted in many cases of abuse and even death.
  • The boot camp environment doesn’t match a home environment. So teens are likely to regress and fall back into the same patterns, even if they did well at the boot camp.
  • These are short programs that focus on quick results, not necessarily long term changes.
  • Boot Camps are not covered by private health insurance policies as they are viewed as being clinically ineffective.

Summer Camps

Mental health summer camps are very similar to traditional summer camp, but with a focus on teaching at-risk youth social, behavioral, and emotional skills in a safe and positive environment. These programs generally run throughout the summer for at least two weeks for the best results.

Campers engage in various activities, including role-playing and group challenges focusing on working together and communicating. Mental health summer camps may also help teens learn meditation, mindfulness, healthy habits, and behavior modifications.

Some summer camps may also have time for group or individual therapy, depending on the intensity of the program. Staff often includes previous successful campers, psychology interns, special education teachers, and other professionals. They focus more on building positive habits for better home life.

Mental health summer camps work best for teens experiencing low to mild levels of distress or emotional problems to prevent them from spiraling further out of control or to just provide them with a healthy experience.


  • Being around other teens with similar struggles can help teens create a community of support, increase their sense of belonging, and build a network of others for continued communication.
  • Positive relationships with other teens and staff can improve mental health and self-confidence.
  • Summer camps offer a more positive, fun environment where youth can feel safe and nurtured.
  • Activities can include learning and practicing positive social skills and how to respond to different situations when teens return home.
  • Summer camps are often less expensive than more intensive programs.


  • Mental health summer camps don’t necessarily have staff with extensive clinical experience in mental health, clinical assessments, and counseling-based treatments.
  • Summer camp environments may not help teens who are engaging in more serious at-risk behaviors or have issues requiring intensive intervention.
  • Teens may take advantage of the fun environment or just play along while they are there, only to return to the same patterns when they return home.
  • Activities are often more general and may not address a teen’s specific needs. The activities also may seem pointless or fail to engage an adolescent.

Short Term Treatment Programs

Short term treatment programs provide teens who are experiencing acute emotional, behavioral, or mental distress with intensive help. These programs offer a place for teens to go and reset their lives with the help of professionals trained to intervene.

Treatment programs are often specifically tailored to the troubled teen’s specific problems, including addictions, substance abuse, mental or emotional disorders, eating disorders, suicide or self-injury risk, and even co-occurring disorders.

Teens in short term treatment programs are monitored and offered support at all times to ensure their safety and appropriate care. Medical and mental health care professionals work with young clients in tailored programs to address adolescents’ issues through group and individual therapy.

Through these programs, triggers and the root causes behind problematic behaviors are explored and addressed for long term impact. Since the programs are short term, they work to support teens in transitioning back to their home environment. The continued support helps prevent loss of progress teens have made in the program.


  • Short term treatment programs offer therapeutic interventions for teens dealing with specific issues. These programs are tailored to a teen’s particular problems, conditions, and needs, such as drug or alcohol rehab, eating disorders, self-injury, or mental and emotional disorders.
  • Trained specialists are available 24/7 to support students experiencing mental, physical, or emotional distress.
  • These centers use evidence-based programs with a high rate of success.
  • Teens in critical need receive acute care with a plan for how to continue long term care once the teen is ready to return home.
  • Treatment centers focus on using intensive group and individual counseling to support teens in a safe environment.
  • Teens benefit from the structured environment, consistency, and interruption of old habits and patterns.
  • The costs of Short-term treatment programs can oftentimes be covered by private health insurance plans.


  • At first, a teen may resist going to the program because the teen is in denial, sees it as a punishment, or doesn’t want help.
  • Treatment centers can be expensive because of the intensive services offered. However, most treatment centers do accept health insurance.
  • These programs are short term and best used in conjunction with a long term treatment plan and significant changes at home to help support recovery.

Wilderness Programs

Wilderness programs incorporate aspects of short term treatment programs but do so in a wilderness setting outdoors in nature. These programs are often used in conjunction with a short term treatment program for enhanced results once past the acute danger.

Wilderness programs take place outdoors in various environments where participants can get away from the home environment and into nature.

Teens work together on outdoor challenges, go on hikes, rock climb, do ropes courses, and other activities. These activities build self-confidence and provide teens a sense of control over their lives and choices.

The experiential learning aspect is generally accompanied by group or individual therapy, where the lessons learned are emphasized and connected to their home life.


  • Nature is inherently healing. Studies have shown that exposure to the outdoors leads to an increase in mental health and wellness.
  • Teens engage in healthy physical exercise and activities that also positively impact their mental and emotional health.
  • A focus on engaging, positive group challenges creates a bond between participants that can last outside of the program. This focus improves social skills, helps with communication and teamwork, and can increase teens’ self-worth.
  • Wilderness programs are very successful in changing teens’ behavior and preventing regression into negative patterns.
  • There are a variety of wilderness programs with different lengths and intensities depending on a teen’s comfort level.


  • Wilderness programs are often expensive and usually are not covered by insurance.
  • Teens may be resistant to going out into nature without technology.
  • Inactive teens may feel overwhelmed, pressured, or isolated if they’re uncomfortable with or can’t complete physical activities as well as their peers.
  • Participants must be willing to engage to achieve results.

When searching for the best option to help your troubled teen and for your family as a whole, it’s essential to consider the outcome you hope to achieve. Boot camps may provide quick results for defiant behaviors. But they’re also likely to cause more harm than good to your teen emotionally, and possibly physically.

Boot camps can also damage your relationship and fail to provide positive long-term results. Summer camps with a mental health focus are a more enjoyable option. Still, they may lack the targeted focus and professional support needed to help your child make lasting change.

Overall, short term treatment programs and wilderness programs offer the most benefits for at-risk youth. These programs emphasize long term changes and strive to heal the cause of problematic behaviors through a therapeutic and supportive environment.

Many options are available with both short term treatment and wilderness programs. So parents can feel comfortable sending their troubled teen for help with the confidence they’ve chosen a path to help their teen become a thriving, healthy, and happy individual.

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