How to Choose the Best Treatment Program for a Teen

An increasing array of options offer specialized care

Mother talking to a moody teenager

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Even when you know that it's the right thing to do, the decision to seek professional help for your teen can be a difficult one. While there is an ever-expanding array of treatment programs available for adolescents, it is often difficult to know which one is right for your child.

Your first instinct may be to choose the "simplest" option—the one doesn't turn life upside down so dramatically—but it may not always be the best choice. If you're unsure what to do, work with your child's counselor, therapist, and doctor to weigh the pros and cons of each option as objectively and lovingly as possible.

Treatment Program Options

Broadly speaking, treatment programs are offered either on an outpatient basis, allowing your child to live at home, or in a more structured live-in residential program.

Outpatient Treatment Programs

Outpatient programs are those that provide treatment during the day while your teen continues to live at home at night.

Outpatient Options May Be Best When...

  • The teen poses no risk to themselves or others at home
  • The teen's home environment won't interfere with their ability to progress emotionally and/or behaviorally

Intake starts with a diagnostic evaluation. This typically consists of a series of psychological or neuropsychological tests. The former helps identify emotional, behavioral, and learning difficulties that may be contributing to the teen's difficulties. The latter seeks to determine if there is a neurological (brain-based) component that may help explain the child's behavioral or thought processes.

Depending on the findings, individual, family, or group therapy may be recommended. For teens who are struggling at school or at risk of dropping out, outpatient treatment may also include exploring alternative schools that may be better able to address and meet their specific needs and concerns.

Your teen's treatment plan will be developed based on the results of their initial evaluation and are highly dependent upon their individual diagnosis. 

Residential Treatment Programs

Residential programs provide full-time support and monitoring within a secure, inpatient setting.

Residential Options May Be Best When...

  • Your teen's behavior is dangerous
  • Outpatient treatment has proven unsuccessful
  • There is a risk of harm to anyone in the home

While placing a teen in a residential program may be one of the most painful choices a parent can make, it can also be the wisest. A teen's emotional status is often influenced by their surroundings, making sorting out their feelings all the more difficult. By pulling your teen out of their environment, they may be better able to isolate and address issues without distraction, judgment, or interference.

Residential treatment programs can be broadly defined as follows:

  • Group homes are those that provide 24-hour supervision and support within a home-like setting. Many of these facilities are secure and have structured check-in/check-out policies for those who are in school or are otherwise able to leave during the day (such as to attend outside doctor's appointments). These may be a good option if a teen is at risk of running away, providing security and oversight without making the child feel as if they are "in jail." Some include family-centered counseling as part of the structured treatment.
  • Residential treatment facilities are more controlled and often clinical environments. They are designed to provide intensive care for teens with more severe behavioral or emotional concerns. These may include alcohol and drug rehab programs, hospital-based residential care, extended care facilities, or teen boot camps (which typically involve an isolated outdoor environment and physical activity).

Court Ordered Treatment

In some cases, the treatment may be legally mandated. An example would be if a teen has been arrested or convicted of a crime and ordered to get a specific type of treatment as a part of their sentence.

If outpatient treatment is court ordered, it will be necessary to work with the teen's counselor or court officer to determine the details of treatment (sometimes referred to as the diversion program). Your attorney can be included in this process, ensuring that your teen is able to access the most appropriate care possible.

A Word From Verywell

The needs of every child are individual and specific. When choosing the treatment option best suited for your teen, focus on facilities that can meet their specific needs. While no one facility may tick all the desired boxes, working with a counseling team can help you make the most appropriate and strategic choice possible.

You may or may not be able to involve your child in the decision, but you'll at least be assured that your child's short- and long-term interests—namely, to get better and develop into a healthy adult—are being properly served.

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