Boot Camps for Troubled Teens
Who Put the Boot in ‘Boot Camp’?
When we hear the words ‘boot camp,’ most of us probably imagine an old drill-sergeant screaming in the pimpled-face of a cadet about doing his pushups like a real soldier. Right?
"Move it! Move it! Move it!"
--Sargeant Carter, in Gomer Pyle
It’s true that ‘boot camp’ has military roots, but these days it can refer to so much more. No longer are the days when such a camp refers only to military cadets or privates, or even adjudicated youth sent by juvenile courts to be broken for their crimes in lieu of jail time.
When you think about it, all teens are troubled in one way or another. Just being a teen is a developmentally troubling experience. But that does not mean that a military-type boot camp is for all teens. Boot camps come in all shapes and sizes these days and specialize in ways our armed forces and courts of law could never have imagined.
"Our vision is a nation of healthy children."
Now there are summer boot camps for teen tech geeks to see the latest in electronics, for obese teens who need to lose weight and start a healthy new life, for aspiring and avid teen athletes to learn the latest in health and fitness, for school cheerleaders to practice cutting-edge cheers and stunts, and even for student leaders to experience what it’s like to run an effective associated student body.
“Boot,” or “boots,” is slang for any person participating in the actual camp. Some traditions say the moniker was first used to describe the fact that the newly enlisted in the military had been issued new boots that still had to be “broken in.” It is also said that “boot” refers to the notion that in order to turn a juvenile delinquent’s life around, they had to literally have their butts kicked.
The truth is, according to retired Navy Radio Chief, C.E. Reynolds, 1962, ever since the Spanish-American War in 1898, only new sailors wore boots when they worked on deck, especially when the weather was particularly cold. They were called “rubber-boot sailors.” Veteran sailors, on the other hand, prided themselves on being so tough that they never needed boots or shoes when they worked topside.1
No matter the actual roots of the expression, what makes all these various camps a ‘boot’-style camp is an unrelenting focus on helping participants make some kind of major improvement, either behaviorally, physically, mentally or spiritually; a rigorous program of activities, whether intellectual or physical in nature; and all led by staffs that set standards for performance that are most certainly challenging, if not borderline impossible.
The Plusses of Participating in a ‘Boot’-Style Camp
First, participants in boot camp do not have to go it alone. They will not only have trained staff who will push them to succeed, those same staff will never give up on a participant. Basic program goals will already be set, but when the time is right, staff will also help participants set meaningful personal goals for themselves.
"It is natural for parents to seek out advice, counseling, therapy or alternative solutions like a boot camp."
Second, the typical benefits of boot camps are self-control, responsibility, and respect for authority. Characteristically, teens struggle most to learn and practice these three hallmarks of citizenship. Regardless of the particular camp theme, the focus of the overall camp will be to foster significant growth in individual integrity.
Third, boot camps stick to the basics. They keep things simple. Participants need to be able to depend on the unchanging structure of the program, the rigor of the activities, the intensity of the facilitators, and the consequences for choices they make along the way. There is a strict discipline inherent in the best such camps.
And fourth, besides learning that they are not alone in the struggle to become responsible, self-directed and productive young adults-to-be, it is crucial that participants know that when all is said and done, they will emerge from the boot-camp program ready to positively re-enter the world they temporarily left behind. Having and keeping this in mind is particularly important during those times when participants feel more broken down than built up.
The Negatives of Participating in a ‘Boot’-Style Camp
Teens whose misbehavior is more the result of underlying mental or emotional problems are not likely to fare well in a typical boot camp. First, the typically boot camp does not include a therapeutic component in the program. They are not generally staffed or designed to assist troubled teens with issues like depression, anxiety, self-harm, drug use, or low self-esteem, just to name a few.
"Parents of troubled teens will try almost anything to get their kid back on track."
--Kathryn Rudlin, LCSW
Second, boot camps are typically designed to accommodate large groups of participants, foregoing the matter of having to cater to individualized needs. The boot camp approach is also characteristically confrontational, which in the world of helping teens with bipolar disorder, reactive attachment disorder or even schizophrenia, is likely to only make things worse.
Third, boot camp-style programs typically present a steep learning curve that may not be surmountable to participants that lack the fortitude to positively respond to big challenges. Some participants simply may not be ready for such a daunting experience. Boot camp may be too severe an option.2
Is “Boot Camp’ for Everybody?
The typical boot camp is not for everybody. Never will be. Literally, one ‘boot’ does not fit all feet. Consider each teen’s needs in relation to the needs each boot camp purports to address. And don’t consider the options alone. Talk to doctors, therapists, school specialists, and boot camp staff…at length. Make sure the boot camp being seriously considered is the right option.
"One boot does not fit all."
There are also different boot camps for troubled teens, often varying in degree of severity and intensity. Make sure, assuming boot camp is the best way to go, that the boot camp in mind is the best-suited alternative for the teen who will be attending. Being broken down to be built back up may only make things worse.
And finally, for a portion of the teen population, it might be better to participate in a boot-camp experience alone, forgoing the possible public humiliation of the group experience. If this is your teen, consider options for doing boot camp at home.3
Are Boot Camps Effective?
In all honesty, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of boot camp, especially for troubled teens. There are few to no ‘across-the-board’ definitive studies to lay claim one way or the other. Further, child development experts and adolescent psychologists by-and-large do not subscribe to such a harsh or rigorous approach to changing or improving teen behavior, mental functioning, body fitness or spiritual awareness. In the end, it is going to depend most on the fit between participant needs and program emphasis. Choose wisely.
How to Choose the Right Boot Camp
Besides picking the right theme (behavior, mind, body and/or soul), there are certain steps you must take when choosing the right boot camp:4
- Take your time researching, asking questions, considering alternatives.
- Compare the specific needs of the teen that will be participating with the needs the various alternatives say they address.
- Consider the duration and location of the camp, as well as how long it has been in operation.
- Weigh the financial costs against the sought-after personal gains.
- Research the staff credentials, and the program’s track record.
- Visit the boot camp in person and get to know the “lay of the land.”
- Take into consideration the values of the camp with respect to the values of the family.
- Answer the question about whether an individualized or group setting is most appropriate.
- Decide if a camp is needed that includes a therapeutic component or not.
- Seriously investigate the degree of severity and intensity involved…it may be too much…for now.
Where to Begin Looking for that 'Just Right' Boot Camp
One of the most helpful resources for finding the 'just right' boot camp for teens is Troubled Teen Boot Camps (teenbootcamps.org). Using their "Best Programs for Your Teen" tab, the site guides you through a thoughtful consideration of the ins and outs of the monumental search and choice-making most parents face.
"Are you the parent of a troubled teen?"
--Troubled Teen Boot Camps
After identifying key at-risk factors for being a 'troubled' teen, the site then offers an overview of what makes a boot camp a boot camp, followed by a test to see if boot camp is right for the teen under consideration.
Depending on the results of the site's test for at-riskness, the site encourages parents do not hesitate in getting help for their teen. Teen Boot Camp is a one-stop online resource designed to help parents get the help their troubled teens need now.
In their sincere interest to get teens the best help possible, Teen Boot Camp also mentions alternative options to boot camps, like therapeutic boarding schools, wilderness programs, and residential treatment programs.
Under teen boot camps, the site offers a clearinghouse of considerations about the various boot camps across the nation, one for every state in the U.S.
Another helpful resource for finding the 'just right' boot camp is Boot Camps for Teens (bootcampsforteens.com). It expands the search for boot camps way beyond the typical military-based style, referencing adventure, art, Billy Banks, book, bridal, church, computer, fat, football, girls, soccer, basketball, summer, tennis, volleyball, weight-loss and wilderness camps.
Heading the list are adventure-based boot camps that purport to help troubled teens not only improve their behavior, but also their health. Art-based boot camps are designed to help troubled teens to express their artistic side. Computer-based boot camps cater to those who not only enjoy technology but also helps them further their skills in computers and computer science. Weight-loss boot camps are set up to help teens shed unwanted pounds. And church-style boot camps that allow for young people to associate with others of their own religious beliefs and values.
The clearinghouse-style site also includes references to boarding, all-boy and all-girl, Christian, military, and ranch schools, as viable alternatives to boot camp.
Not Your Grandfather’s Boot Camp
My grandfather’s boot camp prepared recruits for war. My father’s boot camp prepared adjudicated youth for life in a civil society. The methods used in both, though, were, largely, the same. Boot camp kicked butt. It shocked participants into a different reality. It jolted them into an alternative perspective. Some teens need exactly that, and will, still with quite a fight, rise to the challenge. Others would be crushed, their feisty spirits smeared, with little hope of recovery. What is key is carefully matching the degree of challenge in the program with the degree of readiness for such a challenge in the participant. It’s a good thing that today’s boot camp is not your grandfather’s boot camp. It’s a good thing there are so many to choose from.
The number one difference is that many modern boot camps now offer an integrated-care approach, focusing on alleviating stress, and promoting physical health and wellbeing. A personalized therapeutic approach can make all the difference in the world with many struggling teens.
Although they are far and few between, there are boot camps out there for teens that are free (either state or federally funded). Among those mentioned most prominently are WinGate and The Challenge Academy. Check them out.
How about a family-focused boot camp? More often than not, the root of the problem of a troubled teen does not start with the teen. It is a family-wide problem, and the whole family needs to focus on improvement. The basic concern of these type of programs is that if you help one part of the problem (an at-risk teen), and you put him or her back into the same family environment, the struggles will re-appear.
Remember, it's not just a decision, it's your teen. So, choose well. Choose wisely.
Reno Evening Gazette, May 16, 1962.
"The Pros and Cons of Sending Your Child to Boot Camp," Kathryn Rudlin, Oct. 10, 2017.
"Boot Camp Workout at Home," n2shape.com.
"Choosing the Right Boot Camp for Your Troubled Teen," Troubled Teen Boot Camps.