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Ask a Therapist: How Do I Tell My Teen They’re Going to A Residential Treatment Center?

Embark Behavioral Health
October 20, 2021

We’ve tried outpatient programs and other treatment options for my child, but it seems like they need a different level of care. It’s time to send them to a residential treatment center. I know this is the right decision, but I’m nervous about its effects on my relationship with my child. Will my child feel like I’m abandoning them if I send them to a residential treatment facility? How do we stay connected? 

Deciding to send your child to an inpatient residential treatment program may be one of the hardest decisions you’ll make in your lifetime. You know you have to keep your child safe and address their specific needs, but you’re afraid it will create a rift in your relationship.  

There’s no doubt that this is a complicated conversation. It will probably be several conversations, and chances are your teen isn’t going to respond favorably. So how do you handle it? Embark’s Josh Nordean, MS, LPC at Embark at The Forge, provided his input on approaching the topic of a residential treatment center with your teen. 

The Decision for Residential Teen Treatment is About Their Safety 

When you talk to your teen, explain that your responsibility as a parent is to keep them safe. Sometimes, that means exploring new treatment plans and residential care. Your teen needs help being safe, and you need help keeping them safe. So, it’s time to move forward with a new treatment plan. 

Establish Good Boundaries Immediately 

Sending your teen to a residential treatment center is an emotional decision. If your child struggles with their mental health, behavioral issues, and/or substance use, it can be challenging. Set up solid boundaries to lessen emotions related to your decisions about treatment needs.  

If you know that things could get to the point where residential treatment is a possibility, sit down with your teen and lay out the boundaries.  

  1. When your teen’s safety is at risk. Let your teen know that if you’re no longer able to keep them safe anymore, they’ll need residential treatment and a specialized treatment team. At-risk behaviors can include cutting, risk-taking, impulsive behaviors, continued substance use, self-harm, risk of suicide, and not responding to individual therapy or other mental health care.  
  1. When it’s time to move forward with a residential treatment program. Sit down with your teen, share your concerns about their safety, and say, “We said we’d need residential treatment if things got to this point. We’re here, and it’s time to move forward.” 

Nordean’s advice is “you must start with establishing clear boundaries and limits around unsafe behavior and attempt intervention at the lower levels, i.e. outpatient, intensive outpatient, or partial hospitalizations. When those limits are met, the decision won’t be based on emotion, but on the boundaries and limits that your family set ahead of time.” 

When having the conversation, don’t accuse your teen or place blame. Instead of using language such as “look what you’ve done,” emphasize your desire to keep your child safe and say, “we are now in a place that requires us to get help and that looks like residential treatment.” 

Focus on Trust to Prevent Your Teen from Feeling Abandoned 

Your teen may not like that you’re sending them to treatment. They might feel betrayed. “If you’ve had tough conversations before making the decision and clearly communicated the boundaries and potential consequences, your follow-through will ultimately help increase trust later,” says Nordean.  

“Teens adjust to the structure and consistency of residential treatment. The predictable routine creates a sense of safety that will allow them to dig down to the route of their struggles. In time, they will understand that you acted to keep them safe.” 

Staying Connected with Your Teen During their Treatment 

Your relationship with your teen is crucial in the healing process. Residential treatment doesn’t mean you or your family members should be cut out of the picture.  

On family therapy, Nordean shares that “family therapy is an essential part of the treatment process. The student may be the one struggling with safety, but the family system plays a part in the continuation of that behavior.” 

Other Ways to Stay Connected  

Participate in experiential therapy together. Teens respond well to experiential therapy – such as art therapy, animal therapy, or wilderness therapy. This type of therapy helps them process emotions and build positive experiences.  

Doing activities together during their residential treatment program like going fishing, taking a hike, or participating in art therapy builds your relationship with your teen. Any time you can visit, especially on weekends, is a good thing.  

Set an example by incorporating your own healing. If your teen has depression, anxiety, deals with substance abuse, or experiences low self-esteem, that can result in a lot of pain for you. It is essential to take the time to do your own therapy work for a few reasons: 

  1. You can process this pain before bringing it into the family therapy sessions, making family sessions more effective. 
  1. You have someone who can validate your own experiences and offer you encouragement and tools for your own healing. 
  1. You show your child that people go to therapy when they need help with their mental health, just as they’d see a doctor for their physical health. Getting help is a good thing. You remove the stigma from the healing process. 

Need Help? We Are Here to Serve. 

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. And we are driven to find the help your family needs. Please reach out to us if you are looking for behavioral health support. 

And if you’d like one of our clinical experts to write about a certain topic, please send us an email at [email protected]

This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. If your child is having a mental health emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text 741741 from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor. 

Resource: Josh Nordean, MS LPC of Embark at the Forge 

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of clinics and programs offering premier mental health treatment for adolescents and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of adolescent and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark is unlike any other behavioral health organization in the United States. Embark offers a full continuum and spectrum of services, a unique 25-years of specialization, a deep legacy of serving youth, and a set of internationally validated outcomes that drive treatment in real-time. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including wilderness therapy, long-term residential treatment centers, short-term residential treatment centers, day treatment, partial hospitalization (PHP) programs, intensive outpatient programs (IOP), outpatient, and virtual counseling.