Where to Find Help?

Suggestions to help determine which residential camp or program is the right fit for a troubled teen.

By Sean Dolan

When parents and caregivers are at their wits end, they are pretty much willing to try anything to help their children. Whether we are talking about a parent of a daughter with a substance abuse problem or a son with an emotional disorder, once a situation has become untenable, they just want to see their child get back on track and for life to take on some semblance of normalcy.

Enter the counsellor

Enter the high school counsellor. Often the first resource these distraught parents turn to is the school guidance counsellor because the behaviours that are causing concern at home are reflected at school as well. At this point, the counsellor is asked to provide guidance to a parent who is looking for an answer to the problem of extreme anxiety, depression, anger or substance abuse – all troubling behaviours that can cause a parent to feel utterly alone and desperate for a solution.

Certainly, preliminary steps would need to be taken: conferences with teachers, referrals to the school learning team, appointments with mental health and medical professionals. However sometimes these efforts come up short. Sometimes, if parents and caregivers want action, and the timing works, a residential camp or program for at-risk or troubled youth might be the ticket.

The search

Guidance counsellors who are in a position to help a distraught family find a residential camp or program for their son or daughter are bound to face some challenges. The fact of the matter is that there aren’t many camps and programs out there, making the prospect a good fit a daunting task. A web search of “camps for troubled teens” will lead many parents, caregivers and counsellors to an organization called Our Kids. This company was founded in 1997 as a directory for private/independent schools and soon added camps to their repertoire. They have since become the definitive database for Canadians in search of learning opportunities for kids outside the realm of the regular school system. While the database is impressive, it is easy to get lost in the sea of choices that are available. Enter the search words “troubled teens” into the Our Kids search line and a cluster of choices will appear, with only two or three directly catering to teens with behavioural problems (and the person searching really has to navigate through the list to find them).

Selecting a camp or program

Once the parent and counsellor narrow their search to a few reliable choices, it is time to determine the camp or program that best fits the needs of the young person. This is where the parent and the counsellor can work together to evaluate the needs of the troubled youth and the camps and programs available.

According to Our Kids, a residential camp or program should be carefully researched and examined using the following criteria:

Values and Philosophy – any reputable camp or program should have a clear mission statement and be able to explain the values that guide their curriculum, their treatment options and their philosophy of education.

Leadership and Governance – camps and programs should have a leadership structure and some kind of oversight that keeps the staff accountable to the young person and their parents and caregivers. Great care should be given to examining the credentials of the program’s director and the staff.

Activities and Programming – make sure the activities and programming are appropriate for the young person in question. For example, an outdoor, adventure camp might fit one person better than it might fit another. Most camps and programs use a holistic approach that combines activities that highlight a person’s physical and mental well-being.

Environment and Facilities – visit and ask serious questions about the environment and facilities used by the organization. Don’t let a fancy website make a camp or program be the determining factor – visit the facility.

Safety and Accreditation – this is a big one. Conducting a web search of news surrounding a camp or program is essential. Sometimes a little research will reveal that the camp or program has had some problems – like financial and/or legal troubles. Also, accreditation is an important avenue to pursue. If a camp or program is saying they are offering counselling and therapy, what kind of credentials do those conducting the sessions have? Is there an oversight body whose guidelines the camp or program follows? If the camp or program is offering high school credits, are they being inspected by the province’s ministry of education?

A few camps and programs to consider

Navigating through the world of camps and programs for troubled teens requires research, thoughtfulness and money to pay the enterprise offering the services. Keep in mind that these options can be very costly. However, some camps can advise applicants regarding government assistance. Here are a few outfits that have managed to stand out.

  • Outward Bound Canada operates across the country with a host of outdoor adventure options. Their focus is on “leadership, connections and compassion through inspiring and challenging journeys of self-discovery in the natural world.” Outward Bound programming targets young adventure seekers and nature lovers. Vulnerable youth are invited to sign on for any trip they wish to attend. These camps encourage all participants to find out who they are and what life is about while communing with nature. An important point: Outward Bound employs a “challenge by choice” model when it comes to their camps; no one is forced to do anything they are not comfortable doing.  This camp would be ideal for the troubled youth who is dealing with typical teen struggles (maybe anxiousness or mild drug or alcohol use) that are starting to get away from them. An Outward Bound trip will encourage a process of self-discovery that will help the young person manage their difficulties in a more holistic and natural way. In other words, for this camp, it is the experience of nature, and not necessarily the staff, that provides the therapy.  
  • The Pine River Institute was established to help youth overcome addiction problems. The Pine River program emphasizes three pillars: learning, practicing and maturing. The average stay in the Pine River program is 12 to 14 months – a huge time commitment, suggesting a significant addiction problem. The troubled teen spends the first six to eight weeks of the program participating in a rigourous outdoor education program in Algonquin Park before transferring to Pine River’s main campus in Shelburne, Ontario. Their time at the main campus is composed of school work and therapy. At the end of the process, youth are discharged to their parent’s care with a comprehensive aftercare program administered by the Pine River staff.

Venture Academy describes itself as Canada’s leading program for troubled teens. It offers a wide-ranging list of services for their clients including clinical assessments, intervention, therapy and treatment for at-risk youth. They pretty much cater to any young person with a challenging behaviour or situation. Venture Academy’s 30 day Assessment and Intervention program is designed to stabilize the mental and physical health of troubled teens. They offer behaviour, drug and alcohol abuse and online gaming addiction treatment programs. While Venture Academy highlight assessment, therapy and community, they also focus on life skills, physical fitness, healthy living and academics. Their programs vary in length from 30 days to over a year. They also offer specific summer programs.

These camps and programs are by no means the only ones available for troubled teens. However, they do offer a good starting point for parents and caregivers looking for a residential option outside the family home. In the end, families need to see the search for a camp or program for a troubled team as one requiring time, research, communication and money.

For a detailed list of camps for troubled teens, go to Our Kids at https://www.ourkids.net/camp/troubled-teens-camps.