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3 Mistakes Parents Make by NOT Considering Boarding School

And affordable alternatives to get your teen back on track

I used to dis boarding schools. I thought sending your kid away was just plain cruel—a failure of parenting or schooling. I thought therapy could fix everything. Boy, was I wrong.

When a kid has too many negative influences in her life, particularly during her teen years, therapy loses its effectiveness. Even the most resilient teens waste away under the influence of toxic peers, or they lose themselves in an environment that encourages dangerous or destructive behaviors. To reestablish sanity in your family and safety for your child, you may have to take more drastic steps.

In this excerpt from my book, WHEN KIDS CALL THE SHOTS (Amacom, 2015) I outline for parents when to consider boarding school. Most of the candidates for boarding school are teenagers, although it’s not limited to them. The top three reasons parents chose boarding school for their kids are substance abuse, delinquency, and school failure.

Substance Abuse

If your kid has tried marijuana or alcohol at parties, don’t freak out. These days, it’s difficult to find a teenager who hasn’t. But if your kid drinks alcohol regularly, has blackouts, smokes marijuana daily—either alone in his room, during the school day, or with a particular group of peers (e.g., “the stoners”)—there is cause for concern, particularly if your family has a history of substance abuse or if you find that your kid is using more serious drugs.

Substance abuse triggers severe moods swings, violent outbursts, and extreme defiance. If you see these side effects—and you feel like you’re losing your child—it’s time to take action. Preventing addiction isn’t easy, but reversing it after it has become a part of a kid’s identity can take a lifetime.

Delinquent Behavior

Shoplifting, trespassing, and other delinquent behaviors typically fall under adolescent limit testing. But if you have these problems, in addition to more serious misconducts such as selling drugs, gang involvement, or police arrests due to misdemeanors or felonies, hoping for the best won’t do. You need to get your kid away from an environment that encourages such behavior—and fast.

School Failure

Failing grades, school suspensions, truancy, or ongoing conflicts with teachers or peers signal that a new school may be necessary. Rather than just a quick change of schools, consider your child’s more pressing needs first. I’ve worked with parents whose kids were expelled from two or three day schools before they considered a boarding school. As your kid gets older, the options for boarding school become more limited. If you suspect that the day school your child attends is a poor fit and things are going from bad to worse, don’t waste time. Find a therapeutic boarding school that will help undo your kid’s destructive behaviors, in addition to meeting his academic needs.

The Benefits of a Therapeutic Boarding School

All boarding schools manage kids twenty-four hours a day, not just the six or seven hours that normal day schools provide. Therapeutic boarding schools, however, provide intensive therapy, counseling, and empowerment programs designed to strengthen teens’ core identities and undo destructive behaviors. Choose a school designed to address behavior problems; otherwise your kid may be expelled and you could find yourself right back where you started.

Here’s how boarding school can help.

1. Boarding School Removes Kids from Toxic Influences

Once in boarding school, your kid no longer has access to drugs or alcohol, or peers who are steering him down the wrong path. Boarding schools provide a complete break from a world that’s spun out of control. Once negative influences are removed, skilled counselors or therapists can begin to address the underlying issues that are triggering self-destructive behaviors.

2. Boarding School Introduces Healthy Structures

Boarding schools provide highly structured daily schedules, such as set times for classes, study periods, homework, bedtime, morning routines, meals, exercise, and counseling. Though kids initially resist such structures, their behavior and moods drastically improve when they are put in place. Such positive frameworks nourish healthy emotional and psychological development.

For example, I worked with an obese teenager who was addicted to video games. His sleeping schedule was erratic, he was failing school, he had few friends, and he bullied his parents. To make matters worse, he had no vision for his future.

After all interventions failed, his parents found an appropriate boarding school. During his first year at school, he lost thirty pounds, became a rugby player, and had his first girlfriend. He was finally on a normal eating, sleeping, and exercise schedule. During family weekends, his parents were thrilled by the changes in him. They had their child back! By the time he left the school, nearly all his bad habits had vanished. He was ready to move on to college and major in computer programing.

3. Boarding School Replaces Negative Influences with Positive Ones

I’m always awed by the positive impact role models can make in a troubled kid’s life. I’ve seen drug dealers become ballet dancers or athletes once they were given access to positive role models and mentors. Teenagers crave adults that they can look up to. Counselors and older peers at boarding school often fill this need and offer kids a chance to make better choices.

Alternatives to Boarding School

There’s no denying it: Boarding schools cost an arm and a leg. Some parents spend their child’s college savings on boarding schools with the knowledge that without it, there might be no college. Other parents attempt to get their health insurance to cover the costs. If you have no insurance or savings, many states have government-funded boarding schools that will require extensive applications to meet requirements. If boarding school isn’t an option, I’ve seen parents take the following alternatives with some success.

Change of Environment

Removing your kid from a negative environment can also be achieved by temporarily moving homes or sending her off to briefly live somewhere else with adult supervision—an aunt or uncle, a cousin, or friend will do. This may seem ridiculous (I can feel my colleagues rolling their eyes!), but when negative influences are out of control, this can be a quick fix until professional help is secured.

Social Action Programs

Never underestimate the power of altruism in turning a troubled kid around. I’ve seen teens come back from building homes in hurricane-devastated parts of the country, or return from Peace Corps–style programs deeply changed. Coming face to face with the intense sufferings of others and offering them help may change a kid’s outlook. Such programs also boost self-esteem, sense of purpose, and personal value.

Wilderness Programs

Programs such as Outward Bound usually have rolling admissions. In other words, your kid can start right away. A combination of healthy outdoor exercise, group and individual counseling, and wilderness programs provide kids with a much-needed time for self-reflection. Many counselors of wilderness programs are actually graduates of the programs, a testament to the good work that they do.

Rebooting Your Kid’s Childhood

What are the three mistakes parents make by not considering boarding school? Very simply: they wait until it’s too late and their kid has aged out of boarding school, they rationalize their kid’s destructive behaviors to justify not taking action, or they chalk up their kids dangerous choices as “just a phase of adolescence.”

I think of boarding school as a last resort, something you try when all else has failed. Yes, it’s an unpopular decision, but when you see your kid is heading toward self-destruction or a criminal record, the alternatives are far more painful.

Over the years, teenagers who went off to boarding schools have come back to visit me in their twenties and thirties. No matter how difficult a decision it was at the time, they nearly all express appreciation for the intervention. As one told me, “My life was so out of control, I think deep down I was relieved when my parents stepped in. I don’t know where I would be today if they hadn’t.”

To order WHEN KIDS CALL THE SHOTS: How to Seize Control from Your Darling Bully -and Enjoy Parenting Again visit