Boot Camp for Kids: There is a Better Way

Boot Camp for Kids | Aspiro Wilderness Adventure Therapy Program for troubled teens and young adults

Every parent wants to see their child succeed. They want their child to be happy, healthy, and to become a thriving adult. When your child struggles to meet expectations or lacks the motivation to succeed, it can be heartbreaking. You believe in them and wish that they could see themselves the way that you do. In this article, we will discuss several options to help your child get back on track. We will inform you of the risks of boot camps, and highlight more effective treatment options that have been proven to help teens and their families.

What is a Boot Camp Program For Kids?

Classic boot camps are often depicted as having strict rules, drill instructors, and extreme physical challenges. Often someone’s image of a juvenile boot camp is that of Marine’s Corps basic training. One thing that is very clear in this depiction is that it doesn’t look like a summer camp. The idea for private boot camps originated from military boot camps that were designed to prepare soldiers for war. A military boot camp’s intent is to harden civilians into soldiers to engage in combat. Military-style boot camps push recruits to fall in line, take orders, and train them to endure the trauma that accompanies war.

Boot camps for kids share some of these components. They are designed to “toughen up” their residents. They do this through a strict set of rules and punishments. These can include rising before dawn, extreme physical activity, and mental manipulation. People who work at these camps take no excuses and attempt to push kids to their limits to “break” their habits.

Why Do Parents Send Their Kid To Boot Camp?

Teenagers today face an enormous amount of pressure in today’s society and sometimes struggle to handle it. It often seems like they live in a different world and have to face different challenges than generations before them. They have no memory of what the world was like without smartphones. Social media dominates social interactions. The pressure to succeed and to fit in has never been higher.

Some kids might succumb to social pressures and try to cope by drinking alcohol or falling into substance abuse. They may display oppositional behaviors like pushing back against authority figures or may struggle with academic underachievement.

Teenagers also have a hard time expressing their feelings to their parents or other adults in their life. Instead of communicating, they often display a secondary emotion – anger. This leaves parents believing that they need harsh rules and structure like a boot camp experience to correct these behaviors.

Unfortunately, strict discipline isn’t always a good thing for kids who are struggling. There may be underlying mental health issues like anxiety and depression. According to the CDC, for children aged 3-17 years with behavior problems, more than 1 in 3 also have anxiety and about 1 in 5 also have depression.  Helping your kid with underlying mental health conditions may require mental health treatment to help correct their behavior.

Who Goes To A Kids Boot Camp?

You might be wondering if your child would qualify for an intervention like teen boot camp, military school, or other similar programs. Maybe you are seeing some behaviors and are on the fence about if things have gotten “bad enough.” Typically boot camps have low selection criteria and are parent-driven. This means that most participants are there against their will.

Issues That Teens Struggle With:

  • Behavioral Problems
  • Substance abuse
  • Trouble with the law
  • Defiance
  • Issues at school
  • Anger outbursts
  • Disrespecting authority
  • Dangerous or bad behavior

It is not an easy choice to “send your child away.” Many parents do so because they feel that they are unable to keep their child safe and that extreme measures must be taken. Your child’s actions and behaviors may have you feeling that you have to do something about them before they spiral more out of control. You may be asking yourself how I can help my struggling teen? While signing your child up for a boot camp experience is one option to address behavioral issues, other options have been proven to be more effective.

Adventure therapy is an alternative to boot camp for kids that is researched backed | Aspiro Adventure Therapy

How Can I Help My Troubled Teen?

When parents start to feel that extreme measures need to be taken to keep their child safe, they often think a boot camp setting would be right for them. They may believe that their child needs “tough love.” Sometimes that is the case, where a teen can benefit from having more structure and accountability, but there also might be something else going on that is resulting in their behaviors. There could be an underlying mental illness that increased structure and discipline would not address. It could even make things worse.

If your teenager shows signs of any of the issues, it is important to consider the root cause of the problem before taking the next step. The best thing for your teen may not be a boot camp setting. There are other options like wilderness adventure therapy that could be more effective.

Issues That Your Kid Might Be Struggling With:

  • Poor Self-Esteem
  • Mental Health Concerns
  • Bullying
  • Overwhelming Pressure to Succeed
  • Learning Challenges
  • Self-Harm
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
  • Drug Abuse

What Are Boot Camps Designed To Do?

Boot camps are designed to instill discipline through structure. Many parents believe that their kid will improve with a firmer hand. They think that they have been “too soft” as a disciplinarian and that this has led to problem behaviors.

Benefits You Might Be Looking For:

  • A Strong Work Ethic
  • Purpose
  • Sense of Belonging
  • Structure
  • Discipline
  • Respect 
Adventure therapy is an alternative to boot camp for kids that is researched backed | Aspiro Adventure Therapy

While parents have the right intentions, sending a troubled teenager to a boot camp can cause more harm than good. Instead, an alternative treatment that addresses the causes of behavior can often be more appropriate.

Boot camps are often a poor choice for addressing behavioral issues because they can create trauma rather than treating the root cause. Generally, behavioral problems are rooted in a struggle with mental illness. Sending your child away to a boot camp program where they are subjected to strict discipline does not address them. Instead, the act of sending your child away is likely to cause mental and emotional trauma. The whole process seems like a punishment when they are already struggling. Alternatively, a non-punitive program is likely to be a better option for your child.

The Problems Associated With Boot Camps For Troubled Teens

Boot camps for teens are known for creating extreme environments for their participants. Although these types of programs have been around since the 1880s, they have not proven to be effective for helping teenagers. Boot camps do not address the underlying issues that lead to problem behaviors. To address these issues, advanced clinical assessments and interventions are necessary. These types of interventions are generally not available in boot camps. Instead, they are available in a wilderness therapy program or adventure therapy program.

Ultimately parents want what is best for their child. Boot camps are designed to “toughen them up” or scare them straight. This can sound appealing, but many parents of boot camp teens find themselves facing the same and often worse issues when their child returns home from a boot camp setting. Toughening someone up isn’t effective at addressing clinically complex mental health issues.

Philosophy Behind Boot Camps

To encourage long term lasting change for struggling kids, a program needs to address intrinsic motivation. One of the main issues with boot camps for kids is that they motivate change by external means. Instead of teaching your child to want to change their behavior for themself, boot camps encourage kids to change to avoid consequences. Your child might find success within the program, but studies have shown that after the intensive structure is taken away, many teens go back to their old behaviors.

Further, boot camps do not address the family system. Many problem behaviors come from issues in the family system that include elements outside your child’s control. While boot camps motivate teens through means of behavioral modification and for eliminating their locus of control, they fail to address the deeper causes of their problem behaviors and fail to give them and their families the coping skills they need.

There is an alternative for boot camp for kids, adventure therapy | Aspiro Adventure Therapy

Locus of Control & How it Relates To Teen Development

How people interpret success vs. failure has a lot to do with an individual’s belief system. Centrally, this focuses on the factors to which that person attributes to success or failure, also known as Locus of Control. This is important to understand when considering treatment options that lead to lasting change for your child.

The Locus of Control concept is divided into internal and external categories. When a person has an internal locus of control, they attribute their success to their abilities, which means that they believe in overcoming challenges and are open to the learning process. On the other hand, external locus of control attributes success to factors outside of the individual’s control. This can lead to anxiety because of the feeling that they lack power over their lives. People with an external locus of control often feel that they are not at fault and point their fingers at others to blame.

Boot camps promote an external Locus of Control. Participants are expected to “follow orders” and discouraged from making independent decisions. Without choices, teens won’t learn to take responsibility for their actions. Instead, building up self-efficacy, where your child believes that they can overcome obstacles and succeed in challenging circumstances, is critical for lasting change.

Boot Camps Use of Behavior Modification Techniques

Behavioral modification uses positive and negative reinforcement in a variety of ways to encourage a person to change their mindset on their behaviors. Boot camps use behavior modification as a catalyst for change; however, experts are now finding that these programs do not work for four reasons.

  1. The main reason is that they often do not provide a therapeutic component to their programs, and teens struggling with underlying mental health issues are left untreated.
  2. Bootcamps also lack robust pre-admission screening. Some programs are going to work better for different people. Without robust screening procedures, participants will likely end up in programs that don’t meet their needs.
  3. Boot camps are often not long enough to lead to lasting change. Habits take time to form, and these short boot camps are not allowing time for this to happen. A shorter program can be an excellent tool for assessment, but expecting a several week program to “fix” your child is unrealistic. Instead, looking into programs that specialize in intervention, evaluation, and treatment is a better approach.
  4. Boot camps use aggressive tactics that are meant to break a person down. This may help train people to go into the military but is not effective for a teen who was forced to be in a situation that often creates trauma. Breaking the will of your child is not healthy. Instead, it would be best if you worked with your child and mental health professionals towards a positive outcome. Treatment does not need to be a power struggle; it can be a positive and healing experience for your family.

Why Are Boot Camps Ineffective?

Military-style boot camps claim to offer a transformational experience for your child in just a few short weeks or months. One reason this is ineffective is that boot camps are “one size fits all” types of programs. Regardless of what your child is struggling with, a bootcamp will generally approach them the same way as participants from all sorts of backgrounds and issues. A more effective approach is individualized treatment plans tailored to your child’s and your family’s needs.

Studies have shown that treatments that provide therapy for the family unit are more effective and have better outcomes for everyone involved. When families start to work together, they can begin to form a stronger bond and learn how to best support each other.

Meeting The Unique Needs of Teenagers

Teenagers have unique needs, especially when it comes to their mental health and wellbeing. Kids today are faced with many unique challenges and often have different struggles than adults.

Currently, 1 in 5 young people suffer from a mental illness. Additionally, half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age, but most cases are undetected and untreated. This is why early intervention and screening is important for teens. Teens also face a higher stress and more competitive environment than ever before. It is therefore not surprising that high school students today have more anxiety symptoms and are twice as likely to see a mental health professional as teens in the 1980s. When adolescent mental health conditions like these are not addressed, they can extend into adulthood and limit a child’s ability to lead a successful life. This further reinforces the importance of mental health treatment for struggling kids.

Mental health treatment for teens needs to be designed to meet the unique needs of this population. Whether it is academic considerations or a mental health professional that is experienced working with youth, teens will get the most benefit out of treatment if that treatment is tailored to their age group.

"Aspiro was life-changing for our son. While he was in the wilderness therapy program, his self-esteem and confidence increased significantly, he developed more perseverance and "grit", all while doing very intense therapeutic work with the staff..."
Aspiro Alumni Parent

How Can I Best Support My Teen?

Your teen could be struggling with a variety of issues. One of the most important steps is to get an accurate assessment from a mental health professional to help understand what those struggles are precisely.

Overall, kids should develop 5 core competencies that can lead them down a healthy path.


Identity Development

Teenagers strive to find a clear concept of who they are, their values, and where they fit into the social world. Many young people find that they struggle to define these areas and may fall behind in terms of identity development. Formulating these aspects of their identity has been shown to lead to greater success and happiness for teens.

Self Efficacy

Self- Efficacy is the belief that someone has about their abilities. Foundational research on self-efficacy indicates that efficacy beliefs are one of the best predictors of future performance. By choosing a program that aids in the development of self-efficacy like a wilderness program, you can improve your child’s chances of success.

Life Skills

One of the main goals of many boot camp alternatives is developing healthy coping strategies and social skill-building. When teens are given a chance to learn and practice these strategies and skills, it can help them make changes in attitude and behavior and develop strong social skills.

Growth Mindset

Growth Mindset is a belief that one’s talents and abilities can improve. People with a growth mindset believe that with effort and hard work, they can succeed.

Grit

Grit is defined as the “combination of perseverance and passion toward long-term goals.” In short, grit is: finishing what you start, being consistent, and putting in the hard work to succeed. Teens who have grit are more likely to find success. Check out the video below to learn more about grit. 

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Alternatives to Boot Camp For Kids

It is a difficult decision when to have to send your kid somewhere to get help. When you are facing this difficult decision, it is essential to consider all the options. Other types of therapeutic programs include:

Residential Treatment Center

These are mental health treatment facilities where patients live while engaging in various therapies. Residential programs are, by definition, inpatient programs. Critically, these programs take place outside of a hospital setting in a designated facility. Treatments include traditional talk therapy, group therapy, and living in a structured and often highly supervised environment.

Boarding School

This option removes your child from their environment and introduces them to a new one with a new social network and structure. While a new environment can be beneficial, a boarding school will not address underlying issues and can lead to behavior relapses, especially on home visits.

Therapeutic Boarding School

These are live-in facilities that offer education and mental health treatment for residents. Therapeutic boarding schools are for teens that struggle with behavioral problems and emotional challenges. They can also address cognitive learning challenges and have a more holistic approach than the traditional school environment. Often, therapeutic boarding schools require prospective students to have completed an assessment program like wilderness therapy to determine whether they are a good fit for the school.

Wilderness Therapy

A Wilderness therapy program is a mental health treatment strategy that combines therapy with challenging experiences in an outdoor wilderness environment. Many programs like Aspiro Adventure are research-backed and accredited. These programs go beyond talk therapy and have individualized treatment plans for adolescents with maladaptive behaviors like substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. A wilderness therapy program like Aspiro Adventure can include an adventure therapy model. These programs leverage high adventure activities like mountain biking, rock climbing, skiing, and canyoneering to assess and treat various mental and behavioral health conditions.

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What to Look For in Programs For Troubled Youth

There are several boxes that you should look to check when considering an at-risk youth program. Programs that are the most effective use what is known as a relational approach. They do not use punitive measures to motivate teens but instead guide them in finding the internal motivation to change behaviors. It would be best if you also looked for programs that offer individualized treatment plans that can be tailored to your child’s unique needs. These will be more effective at helping your child get back on track.

Another essential question to ask is if the program is accredited? Several organizations, like The National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs and The Association of Experiential Education, provide comprehensive standards for common practices in the industry. Programs that meet these standards are known for following safe and ethical practices so that you can be confident in making a safe choice for your child. Lastly, programs that incorporate adventure into their programming, like Aspiro Adventure Therapy, have proven to be effective in helping teenagers overcome many challenges they face.

Benefits of Adventure Therapy:

  • A decrease in symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Increased self-efficacy
  • Improved executive functioning
  • Improved interpersonal skills
  • Identity development
  • Improved grit
  • Trauma resilience
  • Learning to self-advocate
  • Accurate clinical assessments

What is the Youngest Age For a Kids Boot Camp?

Bootcamps are a variety of costs depending on the length of the program. Boot Camps typically cost between $5,000 and $10,000 for the 30-day stay. However, as mentioned throughout this article, boot camps do not create lasting change and are not necessarily a sound investment in your child’s future. It is worth investing in a high-value program like wilderness adventure therapy that is researched, backed, and accredited.

While costs associated with wilderness adventure therapy are likely higher than those of a bootcamp, these programs provide a greater value because they create lasting change by addressing the root causes of problem behaviors rather than coercing change through punitive measures.

Boot Camp for Kids | Aspiro Adventure Therapy

Why Choose Wilderness Adventure Therapy?

Wilderness Adventure Therapy is a unique and dynamic way to break through boundaries and create lasting change. Programs that implement a wilderness adventure therapy model like Aspiro Adventure Therapy can create challenges for students so they can start to forge an identity, build resiliency, and improve self-efficacy. When this is combined with traditional therapeutic methods like individual and group therapy, it is a powerful combination.

Wilderness adventure therapy programs like Aspiro Adventure Therapy provide comprehensive, clinically sophisticated treatment in concert with adventure activities. This allows clinicians to get past symptoms and address the root causes of problem behaviors for adolescents and young adults. Wilderness adventure therapy has been shown to improve self-efficacy through a process by which youth are exposed to seemingly impossible challenges in novel environments. Through guidance, hard work, and grit, they can find success. This approach is more effective than boot camps, which use behavioral modification models that only address behaviors and do not have a holistic approach.

Further, adventure programs can address the issues in an individualized way. They are not one size fits all approach and include the whole family in the process.

Finally, with the combination of services provided at programs like Aspiro Adventure Therapy, teenagers experience lasting change.

About the Author

  • Shannon Weaver, LCSW
    Shannon Weaver, LCSW
    Director of Marketing and Outreach

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Shannon Weaver, LCSW
Director of Marketing and Outreach

Shannon is both an LCSW and a certified teacher who brings over 20 years of experience to Aspiro through her work with families and students as a Primary Therapist, Clinical Director, and Admissions/Marketing Director at highly regarded residential and therapeutic programs. Her clinical experience includes county mental health, hospital crisis work, residential treatment, therapeutic boarding, and private practice. Shannon has traveled the world and lived overseas in Israel, Russia, and China while teaching and providing mental health counseling. Her diverse experience gives her great compassion and understanding as well as an ability to relate to and understand others. Shannon is passionate about helping students and families heal, discover their strengths, build positive relationships, and create meaningful change. She has a very caring approach that is informed by her years as a clinician and she has enjoyed moving from a clinical role to working in marketing and outreach. Her infectious positive energy, genuine enthusiasm, and commitment to helping people has made her a wonderful fit for this role. In her spare time you will find Shannon traveling, reading, or enjoying Utah’s beautiful landscapes with her husband and children.

Shannon Weaver, LCSW
Director of Marketing and Outreach

Shannon is both an LCSW and a certified teacher who brings over 20 years of experience to Aspiro through her work with families and students as a Primary Therapist, Clinical Director, and Admissions/Marketing Director at highly regarded residential and therapeutic programs. Her clinical experience includes county mental health, hospital crisis work, residential treatment, therapeutic boarding, and private practice. Shannon has traveled the world and lived overseas in Israel, Russia, and China while teaching and providing mental health counseling. Her diverse experience gives her great compassion and understanding as well as an ability to relate to and understand others. Shannon is passionate about helping students and families heal, discover their strengths, build positive relationships, and create meaningful change. She has a very caring approach that is informed by her years as a clinician and she has enjoyed moving from a clinical role to working in marketing and outreach. Her infectious positive energy, genuine enthusiasm, and commitment to helping people has made her a wonderful fit for this role. In her spare time you will find Shannon traveling, reading, or enjoying Utah’s beautiful landscapes with her husband and children.