How to Choose the Best Treatment Program for a Troubled 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 troubled teen can be a difficult one. The first thing you will need to do as a parent is to accept that there's a problem. It is only then that you can make the best choices to better help your child overcome whatever difficulties he or she may be facing.

While there is an ever-expanding array of treatment programs available for troubled teens, 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 most appropriate 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 available option as objectively and lovingly as possible.

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

Types of Outpatient Treatment Programs

Outpatient programs are those that provide treatment during the day while your teen continues to live at home at night. These options are often the best place to start if you and your counseling team fully believe that:

  • The teen poses no risk to himself/herself or others at home.
  • The family dynamics won't interfere with the teen's ability to overcome his or her problems.

Intake starts with a psychological evaluation, which typically consists of a series of psychological or neuropsychological tests. The former helps identify the emotional, behavioral, or learning difficulties that may be contributing to the problem, while latter seeks to determine if there is a neurological component that may explain, at least in part, the child's behavioral or thought processes.

Depending on the type of issues your child is facing, your team may recommend individual, family, or group therapy.

In some cases, the choice may be legally mandated if the teen has been arrested or convicted of a crime. If outpatient treatment is ordered, you would need to work with the court-appointed counselor or officer to work out the details of treatment (sometimes referred to as the diversion program). You may want to do so with the aid of an attorney to ensure your teen is able to access the best care possible.

For teens who are struggling at school or are at risk of dropping out, treatment may also include the exploration of alternative schools better able to address and meet the needs of troubled teens.

Types of Residential Treatment Programs

Residential programs provide full-time treatment within a secure, residential setting. This type of program is most appropriate for teens whose behavior is dangerous, whose outpatient treatment has proven unsuccessful, or who risk harm from someone at 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 problems are often tangled in a web of environmental influences—at home, in school—that can make sorting out one's feeling all the more difficult. By pulling your teen out of that environment, the child may be better able to isolate and address the problems without distraction, judgment, or interference.

Residential treatment programs can be broadly defined as follows:

  • Group homes are those that provide 24-hour therapy, supervision, and support within a home-like setting. Many of these facilities are secure and have structured check in/check out programs for those who have school or are granted leave. They 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 he or she is "in jail." Some include family-centered counseling as part of the structured treatment.
  • Residential treatment facilities are conducted in a more controlled, often clinical environments. They are designed to offer intensive care for teens with more serious behavioral or emotional problems. 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).

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 those facilities which can meet those specific needs. While there may not one be one facility that ticks all of 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 your child short- and long-term interests, namely, to get better and develop into a healthy adult, are being properly served.

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Article Sources

  • DeAngelis, T. "Better options for troubled teens." Journal of the American Psychological Association. 2011; 42(11):69.