Communication at Therapeutic Programs

Sometimes parents have a hard time accepting the communication policies of various therapeutic programs.  I can definitely relate to this as I have struggled with having my kids at summer camp and not being able to just pick up the phone and call them.  While I don't consider myself a helicopter parent, I will admit I did frequently checked the parenting website set up by the summer camp with much anxiety and scanned each night for photos of my kids.

In each photo my wife and I looked to see if our kids were happy, smiling, and who their friends appeared to be.  I wonder who actually had the most separation anxiety, myself or my kids.  Thinking back to the summer camp experience I had (and this was the same summer Camp I attended as a child) I really don't remember being homesick at all.  In fact, I really enjoyed being away from home and being on my own for a while.

I think it's important for parents to remember their own experiences of being away from home for the first time when considering a residential program.  If you're like me, it was actually a fun experience and more than likely the only person that felt anxious about it was my mom.  Now, as the roles are reversed I see how difficult that must have been for her.

As the old saying goes, “no pain no gain.”  For our kids to truly grow and learn, we need to let go and they need to fail and recover on their own every now and then.

There are some generally accepted roles for communication in therapeutic programs.  These rules commonly differ by program type.  A lot of thought has gone into these communication rules and there are clinical underpinnings and justifications as to why communication is the way it is.

Let's start with some general program categories and I will explain what you can expect in terms of communication.  Granted, I will be speaking in generalities here so the program I choose for you and your family may be quite different than what I list below.

Wilderness Therapy Programs

Wilderness therapy programs tend to be the most restrictive in communication policies.  Communication is generally done through letter writing.  Often, the letter written is to achieve some therapeutic goal, such as to invoke the thought process for the child as to why they are at a therapy program, or to tell their life story.

The best part about letter writing is that it takes the emotional reactivity out of communication.  Knee jerk responses are therefore eliminated.  Some wilderness programs have family therapy calls through phone or skype.  Some wilderness programs have the child do a live video journaling that the parents view.  Some wilderness programs do a group sky call, with all the group participants and all the parents involved.  I know of no wilderness therapy program were a child can just pick up the phone anytime, or where a parent can just call their child at any time.  This would actually go against the premise of wilderness therapy, which is meant to be a total reset in the family and peer relationships.

Residential Treatment Centers (RTC’s)

Residential treatment centers or RTC's generally have a weekly family therapy call incorporated into the treatment process.  Usually there is a level or phase system in which the child earns additional privileges.  Phone calls are often part of these privileges, so as a child works through the program they are able to make calls more frequently and longer in duration.  Industry standard is generally one family therapy call and approximately two social calls of about 15 minutes in length.  This is fairly standard, although it differs from program to program and also depends on the level system the child has earned.

Therapeutic Boarding Schools

Therapeutic boarding schools are less restrictive than RTC's or wilderness therapy programs.  Therefore, it is not uncommon for students in these programs to be able to call the parent on a fairly regular basis.  It really depends upon the therapeutic boarding school as they are fairly vast differences in these types of programs, but I would say it is uncommon for students to be able to own a cellphone and just carry it around in a therapeutic boarding school milieu.

Emotional Growth Boarding Schools

Emotional growth boarding schools are quite different than any of the other categories I have mentioned.  It is not uncommon for students in these programs to have 24/7 access to a telephone and to be able to call parents whenever they feel like it.  Again, it just depends on the school.

Transitional Programs

Transitional programs have a unique way of handling communication.  As the goal of this program format is to transition the student back home, or college - participants are generally allowed to carry a cell phone.  Students typically start with a cell phone only, and possibly a map application.  This also depends upon the issues present with the student.  For example, a student with a gaming addiction or sex addiction might have limited access to applications which achieve these ends.  Slowly applications are added to the cell phone as the student has proven they are responsible and can handle the technology.

Therapeutic Summer Camps

There are several therapeutic summer camps out there like Summerland Camps that offer a lower level intervention which can be appropriate for adolescents and teens that are not actively suicidal or drug seeking.  this can be a good option for non-disruptive behaviors like social isolation.

In almost all of these programs, if you are worried about your child you can simply call your child's therapist, program director, or on call staff in check on them.  Also, many programs use online technology to allow you to see photographs and progress reports of your child.  Some programs use the BestNotes application for this, while other programs use ParentCheckIn.com.  There are other parent and student interfaces out there as well.

If you have any questions please call me directly at 813-454-1050.