Behavior Camps for Troubled Teens: A Worried Parent’s Guide

Raising a rebellious teenager comes with so many emotions; you’re frustrated, disappointed, and exhausted… but above all, you’re worried.

Is their defiance just a phase that requires tough love to whip them into shape? Military school for rebellious teens might ‘scare them straight,’ but what if their reckless behavior is a symptom of more serious problems?

Boot Camps for Rebellious Teens

Over the course of the last ten years, I was twice advised to place my children in some sort of ‘out of home’ placement program. For example, prior to my oldest receiving his autism diagnosis, we were told to consider a boot camp for behavioral issues.

Years later, a therapist recommended residential placement for my youngest son, as we struggled to find a treatment protocol that would help him. The fear and shame that overwhelmed me in these situations left me paralyzed and struggling to figure out how best to help my sons.

Maybe a therapist, doctor, or well-meaning friend has advised you to consider a boot camp, behavior camp, or residential placement for your struggling teen. It’s overwhelming as you try to make sense of what is happening with your child.

Let’s explore various options for treatment, as well as factors to consider when deciding if you should send your troubled teenager for help.

Where to send a defiant teenager? Residential treatment options

1. Behavior Camps and Boot camps for rebellious teens

The first boot camp for juvenile delinquents opened in 1985, and these militaristic programs grew in popularity during the 1990s. Extreme toughness, physical consequences, and strict schedules are designed to shock kids out of their naughty behavior. This controlling environment also provides around-the-clock monitoring, often in a jail-like setting, to prevent high-risk teens from running way.

Most of these programs remove all freedom of choice and assert total control. During a 30 to 90-day program, the goal is to break them down and build them back up with a forced respect for authority. Teens are typically isolated from all friends and family, which can help them eliminate ‘bad influences’ and build stronger relationships with boot camp staff. 

But can a boot camp for rebellious teens really provide lasting change?

In short, no – boot camps don’t work. A meta-analysis of 144 studies found no significant improvement, and it doesn’t reduce the risk of future incarceration. Teen boot camps use punitive strategies that don’t transfer back to the real world.

These programs are not designed to teach self-mastery, coping skills, or healthy decision making. Plus, military boot camps are not equipped with qualified counselors to treat unresolved trauma, mental health conditions, or behavioral disorders, including oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). According to the CDC, 1 in 3 adolescents with behavior problems also suffers from anxiety. Behavior modification camps are not a safe way to address the root problem.

After attending boot camp, 80% of teens relapse and repeat rebellious behaviors, according to a study that tracked recidivism rates.

2. Residential treatment centers

In comparison, a multi-state study found that 80% of troubled teens improved their behavior during residential treatment! If you’re unsure where to send a defiant teenager, research suggests looking into emotional-behavioral therapy first.

According to the U.S. National Institute of Justice, therapeutic boarding schools are best suited as intervention for troubled kids. This type of treatment model had consistently produced good results, and these schools employ better and proven methods such as cognitive behavior therapy in junction with known clinical treatment methods.


This type of treatment program can be especially helpful if your child is also struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol. These are typically short term placements ranging from 14 days to 3 months.

3. Wilderness therapy

Wilderness programs for struggling teens combine emotional-behavioral therapy with outdoor challenges and adventure. The goal is to increase your child’s confidence while providing much needed help and treatment.

Nature has a powerful effect on mental health. Studies have shown that time spent in nature increases feelings of calm and joy, something a struggling child desperately needs.

4. Therapeutic boarding school

Therapeutic boarding schools take the same approach to treatment as a residential center, including the focus on emotional and behavioral health. Additionally, they serve as a long term placement and provide an educational environment for the child to work towards high school graduation while receiving care.

Typically the most expensive option, these schools provide round the clock care in a school based environment.

Boot Camps for Rebellious Teens

Alternatives to residential treatment for troubled teens

Based on my own experience, and in hearing from countless other families faced with this difficult decision, it is my belief that out of home placements are recommended far too often and too quickly by many therapists.

For instance, with my own children, after speaking to the therapists, I felt like my only option was to consider some sort of residential care. In doing my own research however, I was able to find less drastic treatment options that were just as, if not more, effective.

Day programs

Therapeutic day programs and out patient treatment can successfully replace residential treatment centers and boarding schools. They range from 2-3 day a week, part-time programs to full-time, 40 hour a week options.

These can be quite effective in helping your teen succeed. It gives them access to regular consistent treatment, but also maintains a sense of familiarity and connection to home. They are also much less expensive for families with financial limitations.

Intensive therapy

Many families choose to avoid residential placement and instead embark on a variety of intensive therapy options from various providers. For example, a struggling teen might have the following therapies during the course of a week:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Addiction support group
  • Occupational therapy for sensory overload
  • Weekend wilderness program for teens

Alternative education

Because we are dealing with teenagers, school is always a consideration in determining care. For many struggling teens, school is part of the problem. Difficult friend groups, access to drugs, bullying, and learning issues can all contribute to a teen’s behaviors and rebellion.

Sometimes, the very best treatment plan begins with an assessment of alternative education options, including private schools, homeschooling, and online public school programs.

Boot Camps for Rebellious Teens

Factors to consider before placing your teen in treatment

Ultimately, it is up to you to make the very best decision you can for your entire family. Independent of the various options for treatment, there are additional factors to consider.

Your child’s age

A thirteen-year-old is significantly different developmentally than a seventeen-year-old. Any out of home placement can be difficult, but the younger your child, the more challenging it can be to find a good program.

Drug Use

If drug and alcohol abuse are a part of your teen’s struggle, you need treatment and care than will address addiction, in addition to behavioral issues.

Family Dynamics

Younger siblings in the home and/or aggression and abuse from your teen, may make an out of home placement the best possible choice. It is important to consider your entire family in whatever steps you take.

Boot Camps for Rebellious Teens

Making the decision to send your child away from treatment is never easy. I want to encourage you that whatever you decide, please, have grace for yourself and your child.

The pressure you are under is immense and I want you to know, what you decide is not permanent. You can, and will, assess and reassess your teen’s treatment plan throughout the course of the next few years.

The only more difficult than being a parent in this situation, is being a confused, struggling child. As difficult and rebellious as they can be, I urge you to see your teen as more than the chaos they are creating in your life and their own.

Finally, forgive yourself and your child. You are both doing the best you can in overwhelmingly difficult circumstances.

Additional Behavioral Camp Resources For Worried Parents:

Resources For Helping Explosive Children

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