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Be Cautious of Boot Camps and Wilderness Programs for Your Addicted Teen

Monday, January 28th, 2013

Earlier this month a few of us attended a Lunch ‘n’ Learn event at CASAColumbia with Maia Szalavitz, a neuroscience journalist who covers health, science and public policy. She discussed the theme of her book, Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006), an exposé of the “tough love” business.

The talk prompted us to revisit and share what we at The Partnership at know about boot camps and wilderness programs for troubled and/or addicted teens.

First, it is important to note that boot camps and wilderness programs are not included among the levels of care defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Although you may have heard success stories or read about the benefits of boot camps, we strongly suggest you look very carefully into any boot camp or wilderness program before sending your teen for substance abuse treatment.

According to a government report, these programs are not subjected to federal oversight, and there have been thousands of reports of neglect and abuse at privately owned and operated boot camps and wilderness programs for troubled youth.

Ms. Szalavitz explained that a person with the disease of addiction is already in a lot of pain. To get better, that person doesn’t need more pain and abuse, but rather a kind and supportive approach to treatment. One that’s comprehensive, respectfully addressing the individual’s physical, emotional and social issues. One that makes the person feel better.

We suggest that if you are seriously considering a boot camp or wilderness program, you check with the Better Business Bureau for any complaints against the program. You should also call the program and ask a lot of questions, including:

1) What specific substance abuse and mental health licensing and accreditation does the program have? (If the providers are not licensed, do NOT send your child to the program.)
2) Has a child in the care of the program ever died, and if so, why?
3) What specific training (particularly survival skills training for outdoor programs) do the counselors have?
4) Have there have been any complaints of abuse or neglect at the camp?
5) Can you put me in touch with a few families that have a child who have completed the program so that I can hear about their experience?
6) Who is responsible for medical care? (It should be a licensed medical doctor.)

Remember, addiction is a serious health issue and requires appropriate treatment by licensed professionals so that addicted persons can learn how to manage drug and alcohol problems, how to handle relapse and how to live a life free of drugs and alcohol.

For more questions to ask programs when looking for treatment for your child, here are some helpful resources:

To find the best assistance option for your child with an alcohol or drug problem, see our Treatment e-book.

To connect with other parents about your child’s drug and alcohol problem, join our online support community at

To speak to a trained specialist, call our toll-free helpline at 1-855-DRUGFREE (1-855-378-4373).

Have you sent or considered sending your child to a boot camp or wilderness program? Comment below to share your thoughts or experiences.

Posted by  |  Filed under Addiction, Books about addiction, Dealing with an Addicted Child, Finding Treatment, parenting, Scare tactics, tough love, Treatment, Uncategorized

11 Comments on “Be Cautious of Boot Camps and Wilderness Programs for Your Addicted Teen”

Sober Living says:
January 29th, 2013 at 10:47 am

I would like to know if a licensed program is a guarantee to recovery. No!

I believe every other institute or centers have a faith in their program and the technique through which they believe will help a person in recovery. I don’t think there is any problem in trying any other technique for recovery because every person is different and hence can get recovered through different process.

But yes, one has to be cautious while taking any decision. I believe a person going through recovery has to go through a lot of hit and trial method. Nobody knows what is the exact route life is taking him to.

Chudley Edward Werch, PhD says:
January 29th, 2013 at 5:19 pm

What is lacking for at-risk teens are motivational interventions and coaching programs. In particular, motivational programs that provide youth with personalized communication that cue desired future positive images associated with engaging in healthy behaviors like physical activity and healthy eating, and linking these positive images and behaviors to avoiding risk habits like substance abuse and violence. In addition, providing at-risk youth with opportunities to set muliple behavior goals to achieve positive self-identity and behavior change is critical for promoting their health and wellbeing.

Amy says:
January 29th, 2013 at 7:34 pm

I think it’s important to note that ‘boot camps’ and ‘wilderness programs’ are not interchangable terms. Many wilderness programs hire only clinicians and are not punitive.

Ron Grover says:
February 1st, 2013 at 2:34 pm

There was a time when I thought our son was so bad that something like a boot camp was our only hope. As a parent I know what grasping at straws is all about, and that feeling of hopelessness that has you desperate.

Off the wall ideas, desperation and gut reactions are really good motivators for action but they seldom provide good answers.

In my research to find a boot camp in which to ship my son off too like a package I found too many things that just didn’t make sense. Success rates that were just too good to be true. Usually an isolation that even military service boot camps do not subscribe too. Unexplained patient deaths also troubled me. But most of all independent reviews from parents and patients posted online with what can only be described as their horrors.

I’m not saying no one has ever been helped in addiction boot camps. I’m sure, at least from the owners websites they list testimonials are there are success stories.

As a responsible parent perform your due diligence. There is no silver bullet that magically cures addiction.

Kim says:
February 12th, 2013 at 1:57 pm

I strongly believe that removing the child from their current environment, including the people in their lives that often contribute to their underlying feelings and problems is an essential step in breaking the cycle. We hired an extremely competent Independent Educational Consultant who spends months on the road visiting and evaluating programs, tracking their licenses, and establishing relationships with the therapists. She provided a connection with a wilderness program with good credentials. She was with us on every weekly call with the therapist and helped us find an appropriate after care program. By using her, we saved countless thousands of dollars traveling to visit programs and learned to ask the right questions. My son made huge progress, would still like to smoke weed periodically, but now sees a future for himself, has goals, and has applied to college. Life isn’t perfect but my soon to graduate HS senior has a future, I am certain we saved his life by making the tough decision to enroll him in a wilderness program.

My son’s wilderness therapist says that he will no longer treat adolescents in his private practice – this age group is entirely too manipulative and resistant to getting help. You cannot manipulate Mother Nature, and it is here that you truly realize the consequences of your actions on yourself and your group. Hard to believe, by my son has often said that he misses the wilderness – once you got the hang of it, life was so much simpler.

Deb Kirby says:
February 14th, 2013 at 6:00 pm

As noted already, that you make no distinction between boot camps and wilderness programs is very problematic, to say the least. They are two entirely different models.

Whether wilderness programs, many of which provide excellent treatment, are able to address substance abuse and addiction is another matter, and worth looking into.

Cathy Taughinbaugh says:
February 25th, 2013 at 4:14 pm

My daughter went to a wilderness program. It was not, in my opinion a Boot Camp, but it did consist of outdoor camping for five weeks. She was 19 at the time and could make the decision about whether she wanted to go. We found the program through an educational consultant.

We had weekly calls from the program when she was there and was updated regularly on how she was doing. Two llamas traveled with her group and so there seemed to be some benefit of animal therapy. She did a 24 solo survival night on one of her final nights, and woke up to a cow standing in her campsite. which we all got a chuckle out of.

She came out of that program feeling strong emotionally as well as physically. (I tried to pick up her pack and couldn’t lift it.) When we came to pick her up, she seemed happy and her confidence had started to return. She has since said that she enjoyed the experience. They treated her well, but let you know when you were out of line.

I believe there is value in being put into an outdoor or just new environment that gives you time to reflect on your life choices and to begin the healing process. The program my daughter went to seemed to be positive and supportive, not neglectful or abusive.

When you are talking about something as serious as substance abuse, and sending your child off to an unknown program, I cannot stress enough the value of bringing in a professional. Even though there is much information online, I would never recommend anyone choosing a treatment program without some professional input, especially for a teen who is under 18. The questions that you list from the Better Business Bureau are excellent. Parents need to do their own homework before considering any program for their child.

Patti Herndon says:
March 16th, 2013 at 9:32 pm

Bravo for utilizing Maia Szalavitz’s work/perspectives!

Here’s more from Ms. Szalavitz:

Excerpt: “One of the main reasons I wanted to write about empathy in my forthcoming book with Bruce Perry, MD, Phd, Born for Love, was my experience of the lack of empathy we show towards people with addiction.
“…And it’s a gamble parents don’t have to take if the addicted person is not harming anyone other than herself. There are empathetic and supportive ways to get addicts into treatment: one that has been shown to be twice as effective as the confrontational “intervention” is called Community Reinforcement and Family Therapy (CRAFT).

A book by the designers of that therapy shows parents how to help while reducing the risk of harm. I’ll have a lot more to say about the destructive notion of “tough love” and how it has torn many families apart, but the main point I want to make today is that whenever empathetic and supportive approaches to the treatment of addiction have been compared to tough love, empathy always wins-and by a large margin.”

Yep…Sounds right on target, to me ;-)

Jerry Otero says:
March 20th, 2013 at 8:52 pm

Dear Patti,

Please look for my Q&A with Ms. Szalavitz, a 4-part weekly series, coming soon.

Nadine says:
June 24th, 2013 at 10:01 pm

I was in the Challenger Foundation as a student back in 1989. Many of the programs today grew out of this program. The link above is to my blog through the experience.

I want to share my story with parents who are thinking about sending their teens into these types of programs.

alex says:
January 18th, 2014 at 10:53 pm

Before EVER sending your child to a “Wilderness Program” or camp for troubled teens you MUST read this article. Unfortunately, many of these programs use outright torture as their main way of “helping” these kids. Multiple soldiers that were held as prisoners of war in iraq equated the abuse to being “as rough and horrific, sometimes more so, than what they endured, both mentally and physically”

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