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 save kids.
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."
#2: "Set 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 thoughts."
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.