Disciplinary Boot Camps for Kids With Behavioral Problems

When a parent gets to the point of considering sending a child to boot camp, something has gone awry. Parents are not totally to blame for their child’s veering off track. Children become who they are from three factors, according to most researchers: genetics, parenting style and peer influence, says the American Psychological Association 1. When the situation at home has become dire and parents believe they have exhausted their resources, boot camps might look like viable solutions. But are they?

About Boot Camps

Boot camps began in the 1990s as alternatives to juvenile detention centers. They are typically run like military basic training camps. Boot camps are controversial. People who like them say the control the camps offer are what troubled teens need to set them straight. They say the atmosphere of the boot camps provides structure to allow positive growth in a safe environment and that the setup teaches kids to respect authority. People who dislike boot camps say kids need a positive and supportive atmosphere that can address individual issues, and boot camps do not provide that. Critics believe that boot camps instill fear and not much more.

Boot Camp Study

The National Institute of Justice reported in August 2001 on a study that compared boot camps with traditional youth correction facilities 2. Most of the juveniles -- in this case, black and white 16-year-old males -- had spent time in boot camps and correctional facilities. The majority of kids reported liking boot camps better. The major complaint was fear of boot camp staff and less freedom. But the kids felt better prepared for release into the community after being in boot camp than after spending time in a correctional facility. Boot camps kept the kids more active, provided more therapeutic programs and exposed them to less danger from other residents.

Some Are Dangerous

Not all boot camps are created equal and some can be dangerous. The “Pasadena Star-News” reported on a local boot camp where staff practiced cruel punishments such as “smoking” -- making kids drink water until they vomit -- berating kids until they cry, kicking kids and holding them on the ground using their knees 3. Joyce Burrell, director of the juvenile justice program for American Institutes for Research, said in the “Pasadena Star-News” that some programs are "no better than leaving children alone," and that they don't have a "long-lasting impact on children." And Dr. Harlan Bixby, an expert on the effects of fluids on the body, told the “Pasadena Star-News” that making kids drink water to the point of vomiting could be fatal.

Finding a Good One

Many boot camps have morphed into what are called “residential treatment centers.” Dr. Phil McGraw, psychologist of the “Dr. Phil” show, says that most residential treatment centers are good, but there are some bad ones. He offered advice to parents to help them choose the best one: Contact your state regulatory agency to review the facility’s history. Know the credentials of the staff. Know the therapeutic program the facility uses; it could be a wilderness camp or a behavioral modification center, for example. Ask to interview past residents. Monitor the facility; you should be able to drop in unannounced, although some facilities request a short period where there is no contact from you.

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