Are They the Right Choice for Your Troubled Teen?

National Institutes of Health Says Boot Camps Don't Work

Recently the National Institutes of Health hosted a conference in Maryland about juvenile violence and the best ways to treat it. Experts agreed that state and private boot camps with military-style discipline do not work and can even make problems worse (Ref 7).?

These boot camps began as “shock incarceration” places for first-time adult offenders. The idea was to make a person’s time served so unpleasant that he or she would be “scared straight” and “shocked” into behaving better and avoiding another sentence (Ref 4). In the late 1980s state-run boot camps for juveniles came into style as a way to keep them out of adult prisons and to keep their sentences short (Ref 5).

In the case of young people, the hope was that three months in boot camp would quickly and cheaply turn around the juvenile’s behavior. A day in boot camp was highly structured with an early morning wake-up that may include a five-mile run before breakfast. If a juvenile broke a rule, he or she would be required to do push-ups or perform hard physical labor.

These camps were also run by private organizations, as worried parents would send their children away to “military school” in the hope that the stern discipline and system of punishments would make their child more conforming to the rules of school and society.

However, preliminary studies done as early as 1990 were indicating that juvenile boot camps did not work ( Ref 4 ). In some cases, attendees committed more serious crimes after boot camp because they had learned techniques from their contact with more experienced offenders. In the case of private military schools, students functioned fine at the highly structured school, but returned to old behaviors once they got home.

As Harvard professor and psychiatrist Leon Eisenberg said at the NIH conference October 15, 2004, "Whatever these programs may do or not do for the child while he's in the institutional setting, [they] leave him completely adrift when the treatment is over. Some of these programs are, frankly, quite dreadful." (Ref 7).

To make matters worse, there has been a rash of boot camp scandals within the past few years. In one notorious case, an overweight 14-year-old lay unattended for hours in the sun after a three-mile run, and later died from heart failure. She had been put in camp after stealing $25 from a friend (Ref 2).

A 1996 study of three all-male boot camps in Colorado, Ohio and Alabama showed academic benefits to the system ( Ref 6 ). Boys attending camp received more individual academic attention and gained an average one grade to a year’s improvement in reading, spelling and math. The bad news was once they returned to their families and neighborhoods, most fell back into their old ways. Over 70% were arrested within a year of attending boot camp.

Professor Margaret Beyer writes that teens in particular do not respond to authority they cannot respect. Because their brains are not fully developed, teens view the world as black and white.

“They are fairness fanatics,” she writes. Teens hate group punishment and rebel against unfair punitive authority. Most studies of boot camps report that teens actively dislike their guards. Instead of respecting camp rules, they viewed rules as unfair and something to get around (Ref 1). Thus boot camps actually teach more hostility to rules and authority.

If bullying offenders with military style discipline and other scare tactics does not turn around a young person’s life, what methods do work?

Psychologists agree that for permanent behavior change, there must be an internal change in thinking. This three-step process is called “self-revelation.” In Step 1, a person realizes his or her current behavior is self-destructive. In Step 2, he or she seeks ways to become more positive. In Step 3, the person changes his behavior. Self-revelation is more likely to come about when a teen can honestly and openly discuss his situation within a supportive and mutually respectful adult relationship.

“Positive behavior support” also works, which means instead of punishing bad behavior, a system rewards good behavior ( Ref 4 ). Keep in mind that the boot camp model is all about punishing bad behavior.

Finally, the teen’s family must be involved in the process. The NIH study concluded programs with the best results included family counseling ( Ref 7 ). The teenager and his family needed to openly resolve their disappointments and anger with each other, and then go on to appreciate what was good and lovable about one another.

In conclusion, a good program includes excellent academics in which a teen can succeed, positive discipline methods within a structure of caring not punishing adults, and family counseling to maintain the positive changes that occurred during the program.

"Military-style boot camps have been haunted by abusive staff members, even as they were being touted as cheap, effective prison space-savers and politically tasty." David J. Krajicek, MSNBC, December 23, 1999

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