By Meghan Vivo
Adolescents who attend therapeutic boarding schools are by no means alone in their effort to learn a new way of interacting with their families and the world around them. Although their families may be miles away, the best boarding schools for teens with emotional, behavioral and learning issues actively work to involve parents in every aspect of treatment.
At Stone Mountain School, a private all-boys boarding school in North Carolina, a comprehensive family program ensures that the adolescents aren’t the only ones working to make positive changes in their lives. Their parents are learning right alongside them so that when the students return home, new skills and communication strategies are in place to make for a more peaceful and productive home environment.
“No matter how much success the boys have had at school, if their parents haven’t changed along with them, their old behavior patterns are likely to re-emerge,” advises Leigh Uhlenkott, MS, LPC, NCC, LMHC, the clinical director at the school.
To ensure the best outcomes, Stone Mountain School offers the following core components of its family program:
Stone Mountain School offers three parent seminars a year. These seminars, complete with role playing exercises and presentations by outside speakers who specialize in treating adolescents with behavioral and learning issues, are designed to educate parents about how to identify, overcome and avoid certain traps that families often fall into.
In addition, says Uhlenkott, “The seminars give parents a chance to tour the campus; meet their child’s teachers, therapists and fellow students; and walk in their son’s shoes for a few days.”
During their visit, parents make genograms – pictorial displays of their family relationships and personal history – so that they can better understand how their beliefs and values are formed by the influences they grew up with, and how those influences affect the way they parent their child.
At the end of each seminar, the parents come together as a group to share their experiences with other parents. “By meeting with other parents with a child at the school, parents feel less alone in their struggles and get support from people who are in the same situation,” says Uhlenkott.
In addition to in-person seminars, parents of students at Stone Mountain School can participate in monthly webinars. Topics include self-care for parents while their child is away at boarding school, parenting traps, adoption issues, substance abuse, relapse prevention, transition planning and home contracts. The therapists at Stone Mountain also offer guidance on how parents can nurture their relationships with their spouses and other children while their son is away at school.
“The webinars are a welcome addition to our family program for 2010,” notes Uhlenkott. “Parents don’t have to spend money on flights and hotels, and can still learn about our program and get educated about ADHD and the unique way that boys with ADHD learn.”
All of the work the boys do at therapeutic boarding school is designed to improve the students’ success in school and at home. In order to gauge each student’s progress, families are allowed five scheduled home visits and three hotel visits each year, during which the parents can enjoy a full weekend with their child.
These visits create opportunities for the boys and their parents to test their new skills, pinpoint areas that could use improvement, and witness the changes that are happening in their child and their family. They also help the boys practice transitioning between school and home life so that they are prepared for success when they leave Stone Mountain School.
Home visits and hotel visits can be costly, and many parents want to see their child as often as possible. For these reasons, Stone Mountain School is implementing weekly conferencing using Skype, a free service that allows users to make phone calls over the Internet and see each other using webcams.
“Not only does Skype allow parents and kids to see more of each other, it has therapeutic value,” explains Uhlenkott. “We can learn a lot about family dynamics by observing body language and behavior patterns, as well as the interactions between parents, between parent and child, and between parents and the therapist.”
Parents at Stone Mountain School are encouraged to participate in weekly family therapy sessions by phone. For 2010, the school is launching a pilot program in which the family therapist provides in-person “weekend intensives” to help families in crisis (for example, those experiencing divorce or a death in the family). In a one-on-one or small-group setting, parents receive immediate feedback and coaching about how to hold their child accountable, cope with a new diagnosis, set realistic expectations and communicate more effectively.
Every student at Stone Mountain School progresses through a series of stages as they develop more advanced social and organizational skills and assume more responsibility for their own behaviors. At the same time, parents have responsibilities and lessons at each stage, which they follow using the school’s “parent guide.”
“Parents want to be part of the process,” says Uhlenkott. “The parent guide, which includes assignments and suggested reading, helps parents understand how they can best support their son while he is away at boarding school.”
Private boarding schools are not a place for parents to bring their teens to get “fixed” without any parental involvement or feedback. When parents take an active role in their child’s boarding school experience, both parents and teens achieve the greatest personal development and progress as a family.