During my recent visit to Oakley School in Utah, Clinical Director Clive Hallam and I discussed issues encountered by parents and students who have been enrolled in a therapeutic boarding school for about 4-7 months. This is a time when major crises are over and it appears calm. Clive mentioned that at this point the family is positioned to do some great therapy work, however because they are so used to crisis or conflict, it appears to the family that their work may be done. He emphasized that it is a time when it can be very beneficial to help empower parents and their students to continue to make progress.
I remarked that it is important for parents to avoid these kinds of thinking errors:
1. The student will start seeming reasonable, tolerable, yes, even lovable, so of course it will seem like it’s time to bring him or her back home. You’ve missed each other so much, and of course now you’ve learned to get along, so it will be great to have the family together again.
2. All the issues experienced by the parents were a result of the stress of the student’s behavior. We don’t really have much more to work on than that. Besides, the other stuff is too personal to discuss; after all WE’RE the parents!
3. My student thinks that I should be able to trust him/her now. Any concerns I may have about items or activities s/he’s requesting shows that we’re not acknowledging the work s/he’s already done.
4. My student expresses being tired of therapy, saying it’s no longer needed. It’s all about academics now. Or, my student has worked so long, having gone through wilderness, all this therapy and dealing with the fallout from academic failure. Now it’s time to kick back, relax, and stop the pressure, please!!
5. If the school is saying my child needs a longer placement, it’s just because they’re greedy for tuition. Look how well my child is now doing! Certainly if not ready to return home, s/he could at least go live with a relative at this point.
Some variation on one or more of these ideas may entice the parents to bring their student home too early from an appropriate therapeutic placement. Certainly the financial burden the parents have born has been a hardship. Yet it is false economy to stop the necessary therapeutic and academic work before it has been completed. Leaving against therapeutic recommendation results in the parents and student not being able to obtain the needed healing in which they’ve already invested a lot of emotional pain and finances to create.
Or, parents may wish to avoid the difficulty of trust and relationship building. Maybe they don’t think it’s possible, they’re still resentful, it feels too hard, or perhaps too private. It is important to realize that building trust with positive, strength-based consistent relationship is part of establishing a foundation for future meaningful communication over the years, and over the miles. Establishing the foundation of the family relationships with building blocks of open, honest, compassionate communication and consistency will help one’s adolescent children to individuate and become independent adults. It will then be possible to maintain healthy, loving family relationships even when no longer living under the same roof.
Regardless of whether or not the parents had anything to do with the problems that led to the student’s enrollment in the first place, they certainly have everything to do with learning to support the students’ healing. Participating in the therapeutic and interactive communication work being done with families while the student is enrolled in therapeutic boarding school gives families the language to discuss their experiences. It teaches them how to discuss the important messages that need to be expressed, rather than avoided, and can help them establish effective ways of being together in the future.