TEN COMMON MISTAKES PARENTS MAKE: When Choosing Residential Placements

[Lon Woodbury has been helping parents find residential placements for their struggling teens for sixteen years. He is a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and a Certified Educational Planner (CEP).]

First published in November 2001 in Strugglingteens.com

In the past twenty years there has been a major change in residential programs for self-destructive and struggling teens. In the past virtually every residential intervention available was funded and controlled by governmental agencies, including decisions as to who would be enrolled. What has changed is that we now have a rapidly growing network of private residential schools and programs focused on allowing parents more choices. Usually this involves parents paying the tuition, or at least making arrangements for payment through their insurance policy or other resources. 

This is having the effect of empowering parents, giving them many more effective resources to which to turn when their struggling child is making self-destructive decisions. These new options enable parents to intervene before a tragedy develops. With that new ability and responsibility, comes the opportunity for parents to make their own mistakes. 

Listed below are ten of the most common mistakes I have seen parents make during my sixteen years working with parents of struggling teens. I present this with the hope that parents who are beginning to search for residential schools and programs will rethink their initial assumptions to avoid self-defeating choices.

  1. “We want a place close to home.” Just as the needs of struggling teens vary widely, so do the strengths and weaknesses of residential schools and programs. Restricting one’s search to a limited geographical area increases the chances of excluding the most appropriate places that have the best chances for being successful with your child. In effect, this is settling for second best, which increases the chances of a placement not working.
  2. “We want something affordable.” The most expensive residential school or program is the one that doesn’t work. A quality school or program that has the structure to keep on top of manipulative and contrary teens and still be effective in changing attitudes is going to be expensive, whether the parent or the taxpayers pay the bill. Most low cost schools or programs are inexpensive because they are undercapitalized, cut corners financially, have a poorly thought out program, hire too few people and or hire minimum wage staff. It is very risky to entrust your child to one of these places. An exception to this is the quality school or program, usually Christian oriented, that has a large endowment or a successful fund raising program, or is able to attract good staff because they consider themselves on a mission. But these occasional quality schools and programs tend to screen out the more resistant child, and usually are not prepared for a highly manipulative and resistant and/or angry teen. Most parents that enroll a child in a quality Emotional Growth or Therapeutic school or program do so by making the personal sacrifice of dipping into the assets they have accumulated over the years or do as I did, take out a substantial loan or second mortgage.
  3. “We want our teen fixed.” The teen might have a problem, but the teen is not necessarily THE problem. Blaming the child is an unfair oversimplification. Sometimes the teen just needs to learn the basic lessons and attitudes necessary for growing up, which is the focus of an Emotional Growth school. Or, perhaps the teen has some kind of pathology that is more appropriately the focus of a treatment center. In either case, family relationships are an integral part of both the problem and the solution. Selecting a school or a program that is only concerned with what the child is doing while ignoring the family, is not addressing the whole problem and is less likely to provide a satisfying solution.
  4. “That school helped our friend’s child.” A friend’s suggestion is only good for obtaining ideas about successful places to check out. Odds are that the needs of your child are considerably different than the needs of your friend’s child, even if the behavior is similar. There is no one best place for struggling teens; some are simply more appropriate for your child than others. In any case, parents should not make an enrollment decision without thoroughly checking out at least three separate quality schools or programs to make sure they are not just selecting the first place that sounds feasible.
  5. “A six month placement should do it.” Turning a child’s thinking around, or providing treatment for a child, takes as long as it takes. Experienced professionals can make a reasonable estimate of the time frame needed after getting to know your child. But, for the parent to put any kind of arbitrary time limit in advance of placement encourages the child to simply wait for the ending date without making any change. It also sets up the parent to withdraw their child when an arbitrary date is reached rather than when the needed changes have occurred. Such action reflects that the parent is thinking of their child as if he/she is a possession with a maintenance plan, rather than an individual with evolving needs. Intervening with a struggling teen is nothing like fixing a carburetor.
  6. “We are looking for a military school or a boot camp.”Both the military and struggling teens have changed over the last generation. The military, and military schools are more selective than they used to be; now they do not take young people with anything more than minor behavior problems. Boot camps do work with more serious behaviors, but are based on a philosophy of changing behavior through punishment. For punishment to be effective, a child must have a grasp of cause and effect, and how consequences work. For the most part the current generation of children who are in Emotional Growth schools and programs have not grasped the concept of cause and effect and don’t understand how consequences work. Punishment backfires with these children since they don’t realize their behavior had anything to do with the punishment, and are likely to assume the adult doesn’t like them. They are more likely to learn positive attitudes from firm, consistent and appropriate consequences than they are to learn from punishment by a boot camp drill sergeant.
  7. “We can trust what professionals tell us.” Every professional is human and has his/her own frame of reference. There is an old saying to the effect that “If you only have a hammer, soon everything will look like a nail.” A child psychiatrist will tend to assume therapy and medication is necessary, an Emotional Growth or Therapeutic school Admissions Director will tend to assume the child needs to be enrolled, and a therapist will tend to think their own brand of therapy is what is required. This is not to impugn the motives of these professionals, just a cautionary reminder that they are human; objectivity is an ideal that is very difficult for humans to achieve. Any professional recommendation should be evaluated in context of the recognition that a professional’s personal philosophy and obligations ought to be mediated by the real expert’s knowledge, that is: the child’s parents.
  8. “We don’t need to tell the school/professional everything our child has done.” Parents sometimes don’t tell professionals some of the worse things their child has done. This is usually an attempt to increase the chances of their child being accepted by a particular school or program. This sometimes gets the child enrolled, but it also increases the chances that enrollment will become a disaster when the school or program is faced with some behavior or pathology for which they are not prepared.
  9. “We will save some money by finding a school or program by ourselves without the help of an educational consultant.” This can be a false economy. A placement that falls apart can be very expensive to parents, both financially and emotionally. Anything that reduces the odds of a placement failure can save a lot of money and trauma. Parents are free to represent their own interests without calling on a trained and experienced professional in a variety of settings, for example, representing themselves in Court, facing an IRS tax audit, or enrolling their child in an Emotional Growth school or program. However in each situation, the knowledge, reputation and experience of an appropriate professional can be invaluable. When parents are contemplating enrolling their child in a residential program, a qualified and experienced independent educational consultant can help them clarify their needs, and share a wide knowledge of many different programs with the parent. As a result of the educational consultant’s long working relationship with schools and programs, he or she is in a good position to advocate to them on behalf of the child and parents. An Educational Consultant can: help the parent avoid common mistakes covered in this article, warn parents if a quality school is having temporary problems that might negatively affect the chances of a successful enrollment at that time, and be a sympathetic and knowledgeable third party sounding board for the parents’ thoughts and concerns. If after the placement, a child’s behaviors create a crisis, the consultant is in a position to encourage the school to not give up too easily on his/her client, and can advise the parents how to appropriately respond to a child’s manipulations. The consultant can also be on immediate call if the placement goes bad and another placement is needed. If any of these situations develop, the timely advice of a knowledgeable and experienced Educational Consultant can help parents avoid wasting both time and money. There is a wide variation in the fees charged by competent and experienced educational consultants ranging from those who charge an hourly fee to those that work only on an annual contract basis. It pays to shop around; don’t assume that all Educational Consultants charge the same fee as the first one you call, nor should you assume that all Educational Consultants are equally appropriate for your individual situation.
  10. “We don’t need to get the other parent involved.” A child needs the best possible relationship with both parents. When one parent attempts to cut the other parent out of the placement loop, not only does this deny the child’ needs, but also gives the ignored parent the motive to sabotage the placement, and gives the child ammunition to manipulate both parents. What frequently happens when both parents don’t agree on a placement is that a battle is set up between the parents, with the child and the school caught in the middle. When this battle develops, it is very difficult and often impossible for the school to help the child. With very few exceptions, a placement can be successful only when both parents agree and support the placement; or at least each parent needs to commit to not undermine the placement.

In all residential placement considerations, the needs of the child should be the top priority, with the desire on behalf of the parents to develop a better relationship with their child an almost equal priority. Other considerations, though sometimes very important, should be treated as secondary. Whether the parents’ focusing is on convenience, finances, the child’s destructive behavior, or relying on only one person’s advice, the commonality of the mistakes in this list is that the needs of the child are secondary rather than primary. Placing anything other than the child’s needs at the top of the list of priorities increases the chances of a placement disaster or an ineffective experience for your child.

This followup essay updating the original essay was published August 2, 2007


by: Lon Woodbury

It is said that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. If so, the essay named above has been very flattered. Since its original publication in December 2000, www.strugglingteens.com, there have been three instances we know of where individuals published it word for word claiming their own copyright on it. One even claimed copyright from the 1990s, before that person ever even got into the educational referral business.

Then there was the rash of imitators. There were essays on nine common mistakes, or eleven common mistakes, and even twelve common mistakes. Many of them however, apparently lacking much creativity, used some of the same unique examples and much of the same wording. However, the changes were great enough to avoid copyright infringement charges.

In the meantime, for almost seven years, this essay on our site consistently receives hundreds of visitors a month, and we receive frequent thanks from parents struggling how to make sense of the wide variety of options when considering placement of their child in a residential situation for making very poor and often dangerous decisions. Obviously it has been accepted as one of the most important tools Woodbury Reports, Inc. has developed to help parents make sense out of this industry.

Although when taking another look at this essay I see several changes and/or additions that could be made, I’ll resist the temptation, and danger, of trying to improve what has proven successful. For space considerations I’ll just summarize the ten points here, and refer the reader to the full original essay for more detail www.strugglingteens.com/parents/tencommonmistakest.html

  1. “We want a place close to home.” All parents want the best for their child, and it is far more important to find a place that best fits his/her needs than to emphasize the mere convenience of being close to home.
  2. “We want something affordable.” Except when a program has a large endowment or fund raising capabilities, low cost comes from cutting corners. Deciding on a place based on costs runs the risk of entrusting your child to a place with untrained minimum wage staff.
  3. “We want our teen fixed.” This view tends to come from looking at the child as an inanimate possession, and discards possible causal influences such as family dynamics, past trauma, or pathology. The child might have the problem, but the solution is likely to come from the whole family.
  4. “That school helped our friend’s child.” This view seems to think of children with problems as all the same, and are as interchangeable as a mass production item. Each child is unique, their problems are unique, and the solution/intervention is going to be unique.
  5. “A six month placement should do it.” Children grow at their own rate, and necessary insights will happen in the child’s own time. Setting up arbitrary time limits run the risk of setting up unrealistic expectations on the part of both the child and the parents which can sabotage the placement.
  6. “We are looking for a military school or a boot camp.” While a punishment oriented model might work for a child who is age appropriate emotionally, it will frequently backfire for a child with emotional/behavioral problems, and for these children can even be dangerous. This request all too often comes from parents who are angry at their child and want to punish them into submission, an unhealthy impulse.
  7. “We can trust what professionals tell us.” First, many people parading as professional in this business have no professional credentials whatsoever and should be avoided. Second, even legitimate professionals have a personal frame of reference or bias, and the parent should accept their advice only when it makes sense to the real authority on any child, his/her parents.
  8. “We don’t need to tell the school/professional everything our child has done.” When a school or professional is blindsided by less than full disclosure by the parents, the child can be hurt by an inappropriate placement. It can result in something like trying to cure cancer through cold medicine.
  9. “We will save some money by finding a school or program by ourselves without the help of an educational consultant.” This is similar to answering charges from a criminal court without the benefit of an attorney who knows the rules, the law and the players. Just because there are some people who parade as educational consultants while accepting finders fees, or seem to be in it just for the money, doesn’t mean that a legitimate educational consultant with credentials like membership in a professional organization or a good reputation among quality schools can’t save you much grief and money.
  10. “We don’t need to get the other parent involved.” A child needs to develop whatever relationship he/she can with both parents. That is one of the strongest motivations a child with problems has to heal. Trying to cut one parent out of the placement intervention in most cases just deprives the child and reduces the chances of success.

If you place a child’s needs as a priority, balancing it with the parents’ needs, common sense will show that all these mistakes are obvious.


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