This question comes up often and is more difficult to answer than you think and yet profoundly simple at the same time. Some parents feel guilty when they have feelings of relief when they send their son or daughter off to a wilderness program or a therapeutic school. Feeling a sense of failure as a parent, while at the same time feeling a sense of relief, knowing your son or daughter is safe and not out of control somewhere partying or sneaking off, is pretty normal!
When May and I were driving recently to visit a group of parents who were on a parent’s retreat at a therapeutic school, we started trying to think about the above question. We believe that when a parent sends an adolescent or young adult “away” (my son called it getting shipped off!) it is out of a sense that things are so out of control that the only way to make sure a son or daughter is safe is to have them leave the home. It is a last resort truly.
So… once a family has chosen to send a child away, are they magically transformed or “fixed” while away? The real answer is somewhere between a yes and a no. Yes, their son or daughter will learn to be more self aware and in many ways, more mature emotionally than their same aged peers. Yes, their son or daughter will examine negative thought patterns and maladaptive behaviors and will begin to replace these negative patterns with more positive, life affirming patterns. Students typically learn healthy eating patterns, healthy exercise patterns, ways to manage stress, anxiety and depression, such as meditation, yoga, or other mindfulness techniques. Students will re-engage in school and find a new level of success there, learning to enjoy learning again or sometimes for the first time. Students will learn new hobbies, such as horseback riding, or creative writing, or art as therapy. They will form deep, satisfying relationships with peers and adult mentors. They may grow spiritually and decide on a sober lifestyle. They may choose to associate with a healthier peer group. They often learn a new language or way to describe feelings and emotions.
But, will the student come back “fixed”? No, not really. Your son or daughter will learn skills to interrupt negative patterns and will have some “muscle memory” about how things looked, felt, and sounded when they were in a safe, secure environment and practiced new patterns of thoughts and behaviors. BUT…. their basic personality patterns will remain very much in tact! For instance, my son began to enjoy reading novels and began to show an interest in school again. However, as a young adult, he is still quick to lose patience, especially when trying to book a trip reservation. So if you have a child that has suffered from ADHD or a learning difference, they may come home with better organization skills (my son wanted to know if we could “deep clean” his room) but still may be forgetful at times.
So back to the question, how do you measure success? Well, it is unrealistic to think that students will never engage in the old behavior patterns that got them in trouble in the first place. The difference is that when they engage in an old pattern, do they recognize that they are doing so? Do parents? Do they find that if they have a lapse in judgment, they can rebound and decide to stop the negative pattern? Have parents helped to create a safety net and a boundary? Do they have a “home team” of resources to support both them and their child?
Also, for therapeutic programs to be successful, the parents need to change their parenting styles or paradigms as well! One important parenting skill is learning how to hold a boundary while still staying in the relationship. As a student transitions home or off to college after a successful stay in a therapeutic program, it is important to create a wrap around support system for BOTH the student and the family. Have the parents learned a new way of relating to their son or daughter? Do they have their own support system? Is there a realistic expectation as to how things will look and feel when their son or daughter returns home? Is there a plan as to how to handle it if a son or daughter uses drugs or drinks again?
When May and I tried to think about how to define success, one of the biggest things we could point to is a difference in the overall confidence level of a student. It is as if the student has somehow grown more comfortable or “grounded” in his/her own skin! No longer are students looking for constant validation from a negative peer group. No longer do they need the constant stimulation of a video game or a computer game. A return to an enjoyment in the small treasures of life, such as a good musical performance, or a fun outdoor outing, or a good book is another measure of success.
So, our answer is that for each student and for each family, success is defined a little differently, depending on the student’s issues and the family’s issues. But a shift in consciousness has been made by all and a return to a more healthy way of interacting. A shift in maturity has occurred as well. If a student has engaged in these newer behaviors long enough for them to become a habit pattern, then these changes will serve the student for the rest of their lives. The road forward may include lapses and bumps and regressions, but the biggest change is a resilience and an awareness of self that cannot be erased or ignored.
There is an old saying about change. I am not sure where I heard the saying or if I can quote it correctly but it goes something like this: if a glass is full, you cannot add new liquid until you pour out some of the liquid to make room for the new. In the same way, you cannot take out of the mix the negatives of the past, all you can do is add the good things in to mix in with the negative. The basic chemistry of the person, through the new additives of intense individual and group therapy, better healthier habits, and consistency of consequences, has changed the individual for the better– and the change is recognizable! The old personality is there, but there is with it a newer strength, a way of relating to the world in a different way, and a sense of confidence that wasn’t there before. We hope our answer makes some sense to you!