Beth Houghland* left her home in a panic. The 3 a.m. text message from her 16-year-old daughter, Catherine*, was an obvious cry for help — one of many from the teen who struggled in school, was experimenting with drugs and alcohol and had recently run away from home for the third time.
“When she ran away, we would manage her cell phone account and shut off all ability for her to text anyone but us. She had to rely on us for help,” Beth says. “Well, she was texting us, saying ‘I’m lost … I don’t know where I am. You need to turn on my phone so I can call so and so to come pick me up. I’m going to get raped.’ It was a lot of threatening things. But through the text, I started to realize where she was. She was at her boyfriend’s house.”
Beth pleaded with Catherine to come back home with her that night. A few days later, her daughter would leave the home in the middle of the night again — this time to be taken to an emergency intervention wilderness program for troubled teens.
“At this point, I had to give up and admit that it was beyond what I could do to help her, and that was hard,” Beth says. “But I had to believe that someone could help her. I could never give up on her.”
Experiences like Beth’s are increasingly common. Experts say and statistics echo that teens have more opportunities to make bad decisions than they did in years past. Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health shows that in the past month, 40 percent of high school seniors reported drinking some alcohol, almost 15 percent of adolescents abused marijuana and 13 percent of adolescents reported smoking cigarettes. Additionally, many young people engage in sexual risk behaviors that can result in unintended health outcomes, a recent report by the Center for Disease Control says.
The advent of social media also has changed teen risk factors. Today, hanging out with the wrong crowd can include both classmates and strangers thousands of miles away on popular social media sites, experts warn. A recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health concluded that exposure to precarious online content has a direct impact on adolescents’ risk behaviors and significantly interacts with risk behaviors of their friends.
“Exposure to risky content posted by friends can cultivate unfavorable norms that are then rapidly spread through the online networks and contribute to the adoption of risky beliefs and behaviors,” the study by researchers at the University of Southern California concludes.
Treatment Options: Finding a Good Fit for Your Teen
At the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, where officers see the ultimate consequence of risky behavior among teens each day, the agency’s R.E.A.D.Y. (Richland County Educating and Deterring Youth) Program is offering a dose of reality for teens headed down the wrong path. Each month, a group of 11 teens are brought into the Richland County Courthouse’s holding cells for an overnight intervention session and first-hand look at prisons.
“R.E.A.D.Y was created to try to reduce delinquent behavior among at-risk youth and give them a quick reality check on how life would be if they continued down the wrong path,” says Investigator Kelvin Griffin, who assists with the program. “By talking with the teens, having counselors speak with them throughout the night, following up with them once the program is completed and convincing them that they need to change; we are able to change and actually save the lives of some of these young people. And one saved life makes it worth it,” he says.
For many teens a quick jolt of reality is not enough, and more intensive therapy is needed.
Louise Slater and May Peach have helped families find treatment options for nearly a decade as owners of The Price Group, a specialized educational consulting and diagnostic services firm that is based in Columbia. The Price Group uses a variety of means to find appropriate placement for teens including: a personal background review, a student interview and psycho-educational testing for aptitude academic achievement levels.
“Families come to us, and we spend a day with them, interviewing the parents and young adult or adolescent,” May says. “Our job is to do all the research and the leg-work and literally set foot on the campus of these programs to make sure we feel good about them and the work they do.”
Programs that The Price Group recommends range from short-term therapeutic interventions to full-time, year-round schools. Louise says that more intensive, emergency wilderness programs offer, therapeutic alternatives to boot camps for troubled teens, providing the structure support and intensive professional supervision that many at-risk teens lack and desire.
“The most destructive parenting style that we see the most in wilderness programs is permissive parenting,” says Louise. “We find that adolescents want boundaries; they want parents who tell them ‘no.’ They really want parents to ask them, ‘Where are you going and who are you going to be with.’ These programs make the teens accountable for their actions.”
Some families find success in year-round or seasonal therapeutic boarding schools. Facilities like the Carlbook School in Halifax, Va. offer both long-term, around-the-clock treatment and academic preparation for adolescents.
“Our mission is preparing bright at-risk youth for college,” says school co-founder Grant Price, once an at-risk teen himself. “If we can give them their life back in the process and help them make smarter decisions and avoid the revolving door of therapeutic programs, then that’s pretty much what we’re there to do.”
The school’s success is based on a combination of things, Grant says, including close supervision, academic rigor and confidence-building counseling to help teens. “These teens need around-the-clock care and supervision — and sometimes families can’t provide that. One of the advantages of therapeutic facilities is that we don’t get tired. One shift leaves and the next shift comes in. All of our staff is engaged and available for these teens,” he says.
The facility also has a transition process to help teens who graduate from the program matriculate into colleges and careers. “That’s what separates us, I think. We prepare students academically and socially for life after a therapeutic boarding school,” Grant says.
People from all socio-economic backgrounds utilize services for at-risk teens. While public programs are limited, more and more middle-class families are utilizing the few resources and funds they have to get treatment for their at-risk teenagers, Louise adds.
“I would say that parents need to exhaust local resources and find help for their child — and do it before it becomes an emergency situation,” she says.
Success Stories: ‘There is light at the end of the tunnel’
Bob Michaels* remembers the day when his youngest child’s risky behavior finally reached a tipping point. Diagnosed with Asperger disorder, Peter*, his son, had experienced bouts of negative behaviors “outside of the realm of what you would experience with a normal teen,” Bob says.
“We had to call the police to our house. He punched holes in the wall, he was threatening his mother and he would take credit cards and buy things online that he wasn’t supposed to buy. He said that he was suicidal, so we had to admit him to a hospital for these serious life-or-death situations,” Bob says.
The precipice was not one but a combination of incidents.
“There were many incidences where his impulses led him to do risky things. But I remember he took his mother’s credit card one day, and at 5:30 a.m. one morning rode his bike to a Wal-Mart, made a $400 purchase, then rode back,” Bob says. “It ended up being a volatile situation that was probably the precipitating event. We just realized that trying to find the right resources and the right help for him was just something we couldn’t do on our own.”
The family identified a program in Utah, where Peter could work on his emotions and other Asperger’s-related issues while going to school. After leaving the Utah program, Peter was placed in a therapeutic boarding school that the family found through The Price Group.
“Since he’s been there, he’s just done so much better. He will likely always have challenges because of his Asperger’s, but he is doing much better,” Bob says.
For Beth Hougland, daughter Catherine had always been a challenging child. At 6 years old, she was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and staying on track in school had proven to be a struggle.
“But you know she was a good kid and never got into trouble — a typical kid,” Beth says. “The turn came at 16 years old. We had issues with her defiance, lying, we noticed changed behavior, and she would run away from home because she didn’t like our rules. She was also getting in with the wrong crowd of kids, and drugs and alcohol became an issue.”
In a moment of desperation, Beth convinced her husband to get their daughter professional help.
“It almost felt like a death,” says Beth, who placed her daughter in a wilderness program then a long-term therapeutic boarding school. “It was a Wednesday morning just before the holidays, when they came and got her from our home. I didn’t know this person who was taking her away. I didn’t know these people at the wilderness program, but I had to try and I had to believe that I was doing the right thing.”
Finding treatment for troubled teens begins with first identifying warning signs, experts say. Some red flags include: an abandonment of friends for new questionable peers, sudden drop in grades and school performance, extreme mood swings, lying about whereabouts, brazen defiance and abrupt changes in the teen’s finances.
“I think the best thing that parents can do is be proactive and really listen to what your child is saying. If you need to get help, get over whatever apprehensions you may have and get help. There’s a saying that ‘it takes a village to raise a kid,’ and that’s true,” Louise says.
Today, Beth is glad that she got her daughter the help she needed when she did.
“Getting help for my daughter was a lot of work,” she says. “It was hard emotionally. It was hard physically but it’s probably the thing in my life that’s been worth it the most.”
*Names of the parents and children have been changed for their privacy.