Boot Camps for Troubled Teens

Teen boot camps often have drill sargents that yell at troubled teens.
MTMCOINS/E+/Getty Images
Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

It's not uncommon for a parent to begin questioning options for a misbehaving teenager. Whether a teen is running away or refusing to attend school, many parents begin to think a military-style boot camp might be the only option they have left to straighten their teen out.

Many parents turn to teen boot camps as a way to try and save their teen from incarceration, substance abuse problems, gangs, or even death. When you're desperate, boot camps can sound like a tempting option.

But before sending your teenager to a boot camp, educate yourself about the resources and services available. There may be better alternatives that will give your teen more effective help.

Different Kinds of Boot Camps

When boot camps first became popular in the 1990s, they mostly focused on military-style treatment. Teens were yelled at, treated harshly and punished with push-ups or physical discipline. Most parenting experts don’t recommend harsh, military-style boot camps as a behavior management strategy.

The worst boot camps have led to extreme consequences. The poorly trained staff combined with corporal punishment have, unfortunately, led to the deaths of several teens.

Fortunately, many alternative treatment programs have cropped up over the years. Better programs focus more on education and life skills, rather than harsh punishment. Some of these programs even take place in the wilderness versus jail-like settings.

Effectiveness of Military-Style Boot Camps

Most research studies on teen boot camps that use a military-style approach show that they aren’t all that effective. These programs focus on punishment rather than discipline. Scare tactics are used to try and get kids to behave without teaching them how to behave in the outside world.

Kids in military-style boot camps learn to do what they’re told when someone is yelling in their face and threatening to make them do push-ups but when they don’t have this in the outside world, they aren’t motivated to behave. That means many of them to resort back to their previous behavior as soon as they go back home.

Military-style boot camps often don’t teach new skills. Kids who end up in a lot of trouble clearly lack the ability to make healthy decisions for themselves.

They need to learn how to set goals, resist peer pressure, and solve problems. They also need to learn social skills and often, they need hobbies and interests that will keep them out of trouble.

Program Admissions Criteria

If you are in need of a residential program due to your teen’s behavior or substance abuse problems, there are a variety to choose from. Research your options before you make any decisions. Some of them have strict criteria for admissions.

For example, you may need to be able to prove that you’ve tried outpatient services first. Other programs may require that your teen be involved with the juvenile justice department.

When programs have strict admission criteria it is usually a good sign, as it means they are tailoring their program to a specific population and are not making claims they can help anyone and everyone.

Researching a Residential Program

When looking for a residential or boot camp program for a troubled teen, here's what you should look for:

  • Parental involvement: A residential program that involves parents can be very beneficial. When parents understand what their child is learning, parents can reinforce these skills long after the program has ended. Programs that consult with and teach parents, while also addressing problems with the relationship, are much more likely to be effective.
  • Positive discipline: The discipline that a program uses is essential. Positive discipline includes things like logical consequences or reward systems.
  • Qualifications: It’s important to learn about the program staff and their training. If they are hiring anyone off the street or are understaffed, it can be a serious problem. For example, some programs have the activities coordinator also working as the cook and the disciplinarian.
  • Skills teaching: Since your teen won’t be living in boot camp forever, he needs to learn skills that will help him in the outside world. A good program teaches problem-solving skills, coping skills, and helps them improve their social skills.
  • Therapeutic environment: A good residential program will offer a therapeutic environment. This means that individual, group, or family therapy will be offered. Therapy can help troubled teens address trauma and learn how to deal with feelings in healthy ways.
6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. US Department of Justice. Wilderness Camps.

  2. Jones JA. A Multi-State Analysis of Correctional Boot Camp Outcomes: Identifying Vocational Rehabilitation as a Complement to Shock Incarceration. Inquiries Journal. 2012;4(9);1-3.

  3. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Residential Treatment Programs.

  4. Haine-Schlagel R, Walsh NE. A review of parent participation engagement in child and family mental health treatment. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev. 2015;18(2):133-50. doi:10.1007/s10567-015-0182-x

  5. Bryson SA, Gauvin E, Jamieson A, et al. What are effective strategies for implementing trauma-informed care in youth inpatient psychiatric and residential treatment settings? A realist systematic reviewInt J Ment Health Syst. 2017;11:36. doi:10.1186/s13033-017-0137-3

  6. Center for Child Trauma Assessment, Services and Interventions. Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. What is trauma-focused therapy?

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.