I just finished 3 days of visiting therapeutic treatment centers in Utah
with one of the country’s leading educational consultants,
Dr. Andy Erkis. We visited 2 Wilderness programs and 2 Residential Treatment Centers.
I learned alot from each visit and each program is unique in its own way.
I went into the field for two days and met kids who were “sent away”
(their words) by their parents for 8-12 weeks of intensive wilderness
therapy. I also interviewed 4 teenagers over the course of an hour at
another residential treatment center. Overall, I received feedback from
20 troubled, yet very promsing, kids.
All of them wound up being “sent away” for a handful of reasons
— behavioral issues, substance abuse, depression, anxiety and other emotional
health issues. They were from some of the most affluent communities in
America. I met kids who had just arrived “in the field” and
others who had been in the field for 12 weeks.
I had the pleasure of visiting the country’s leader in Wilderness Therapy —
Second Nature. It is in its 14th year of taking struggling teens and working them through
some tough isues in their lives. The therapists and field managers are
a special kind of person. I spent quite a bit of time with the founders
and heard their philosophies. This is very new stuff to Ohioans and we
do not have anything like this in Ohio. It is definitely worth seeing.
These kids that they are working with will be industry leaders, lawyers,
doctors, therapists, and other healthy, successful adults. Thankfully,
the parents intervened and places like Second Nature know what they are doing.
When parents feel that they have lost the ability to control their teen,
they will hire an educational consultant (‘ed consultant”). There
are less than 50 ed consultants in America. There are less than 15 who
know the programs and counselors across America fluently. Dr. Erkis, 43,
is in the top 5 in the country in helping families save their kids from
suicide, drug addictions, and other self-destructive behavior as measured
by “placements” (placing a teen in long term therapy). He’s
an amazing psychologist who is on the cutting edge of what it takes to
I asked the kids questions and they gave me unvarnished, non-clinical,
introspective feedback. I asked them one very important question, “What
advice would you give parents?” Without exception, all 20 kids from
3 different facilities said the same two things.
#1: “LISTEN to your kids when they are talking. Don’t look at your phone, your
computer, the TV, or hurry us up. Listen. Be engaged. When you cut kids
off or look at your cell phone while they are talking tells them they
aren’t as important as whatever random thing is on your phone or computer.”
CLEAR BOUNDARIES and set
FIRM CONSEQUENCES for not following the rules. We learned as kids that we could whine enough
that mom would cave in. As we got older, that whining turned into defiance.
By the time we were teens, we became oppositional to mom and dad. Had
my parents set clear rules and stuck to the consequences, I may not be
here. I lost respect for my parents which led to disrespecting other people
of authority. I learned that all I had to do was manipulate or lie to
get what I wanted. I was miserable and smoke marijuana to feel normal.
I used other drugs because I didn’t like who I was. I had suicide
This stuff was rocket fuel. I asked the therapists, “if you could wave a magic wand and change 3 things inside the homes of
suburban America, what would you do?” They pretty much agreed on the following:
UNPLUG THE KIDS —
severely limit downtime on the computer, cell phone, TV and XBOX. No TV’s
or computers in rooms. Absolutely no Facebook. I don’t know how many
times I heard “Facebook is evil” from adolescent psychologists
and therapists. The kids agreed.
DO THINGS AS A FAMILY WITHOUT MODERN INTERRUPTIONS — have dedicated nights or days where you go off the grid. The kids will
hate it in the beginning but by the end of the first trip they will love
it. Make this is a staple of your montly life. Hike, backpack, rent a
cabin, and tent camp. Eliminate the noise and stressors of your life and
that of your kids. Parenting needs to be intentional. Not hopeful.
SET WRITTEN RULES & CONSEQUENCES–kids crave discipline. We all do. We may not like having to go for that
5 mile run but we feel great after we do it. We may not want to do that
project at work but we love feeling the sense of accomplishment. Failure
to meet expectations in our adult lives comes with adult consequences.
Kids need the same structure. Age appropriate rules (“boundaries”)
and consequences must be written out and followed to the letter. The moment
mom or dad starts to give in, you are cheating your kids. For example,
let your son or daughter know what time they need to be “backpack
on” to leave for school. Then, leave it up to them to get ready in
time. If they are late, they are late. Going to the principals office
stinks. Don’t be afraid to disappoint them if they fail to stay within
the set boundaries.
RECREATIONAL ACTIVITIES –Just like we need to get away from it all, so do kids. The acute anxiety
of growing up in the age of Facebook, texting and cyberbulling is completely
new to every parent. Get the kids out of the bubble and find safe harbors
where anxiety doesn’t reign supreme. When the kid complains, “there
is nothing to do” then you know you are in the right place. They
need to be bored, problem solve, and get creative. There is no better
place than the outdoors in the woods, on a trail, or on a lake. No cell
phones, no ipods, no computers. A 10 year old boy in the woods will never be bored.
Overall, the simplest things in life to do are sometimes the hardest. There
is no play book to go to for parents. However, there are fundamental building
blocks that contemporary parents are afraid to utilize because they (a)
want their kids to like them or (b) they are afraid the kid isn’t
resilient enough to handle failure.
After what I saw this week, our kids are a helluva lot more resilient than
we give them credit. Let them try. Let them fail. Let them problem solve.
Let them succeed. Praise them. You owe to yourself. You owe it to them.