How do programs create a safe student culture?

Teens entering residential care are often impulsive, angry, guarded and anxious. Of course when they arrive they are now living among other teens with similar feelings and at varying stages of development. Verbalizing their fears in healthy ways is often beyond their ability for at least a few weeks. Any questions regarding their behaviors early on in treatment seems to only intensify feelings of guilt and shame and initiate defensiveness. It often feels like any attempts at therapeutic interventions at this stage will be inadequate and even counterproductive. Earlier on, teens tend to be highly resistant to developing relationships with staff and peers and are hyper vigilant in blocking any type of approach.

The only way to break through the tough veneer is to demonstrate a deep level of integrity. If properly demonstrated, integrity is able to exhibit reliability and honesty. The very presence of staff creates an impression that the main focus is on helping the teen, not on benefitting the adults. The culture of the entire program must show this posture of integrity in order for the teen to begin the process of lowering his or her guard.

Only a positive environment will give opportunity for change as well as reduce the risks associated with teen care during the journey. Of course, any program that is able to bring lasting solutions to troubled teens’ problems is also exposed to the potential of incidents. A positive culture will reduce risk and, in turn, increase the positive outcomes for youth.

In order to create a positive culture, there are many known factors that influence success. Here are a few of the most critical elements in any top-notch therapeutic program:


In order for students to gain new directions in their lives, the program must provide structure with constructive guidelines. Teens often feel out of control and anxiety only builds as fears of the unknown remain. A structured and consistent program allows parents and teens to have realistic expectations. But the program also needs to be flexible – too much structure can be as detrimental as too little. Choices must never be negated by routine and order, for it is through choices that learning may occur. Even though most students arrive reluctant and resistant to counseling and the prospect of change, they must sense that the program is capable of helping them change. To be motivated to change, one must at least believe personal change is possible within the environment.

Staff development

Staff skill development plays an important role in any quality program. Barbara F. Okun noted in Effective Helping (1982) that there are five characteristics that caregivers on any level should possess: self-awareness, honesty, congruence, ability to communicate, and the knowledge of how to establish rapport and build a positive relationship. These are skills that staff in every position of the treatment facility should possess in order to establish a deep connection with teens. Effective nonverbal and verbal communication is the path to establishing rapport. Seeing the world from the student’s point of view might only be the first step, but it is critical. This understanding must be communicated; then trust that develops through feeling safe can be established. Staff and youth alike must have a sense of belonging, value, being treated with respect, dignity and acceptance. There must be freedom to make mistakes, to forget, and to ask for help.

Relationship building

Relationship-building skills in residential treatment programs most often start with managing conflict. Conflict is inevitable in therapeutic programs that work with struggling teens. Well-trained staff is able to avoid power struggles and turn conflict into a meaningful growth experiences. Quality staff knows how to stop, listen, identify the problem and allow the teen to develop solutions. They actually hunt for win-win solutions by involving the youth in decisions and exploring some choices and consequences.

We expect our staff to be firm but friendly, definitely not aggressive and most importantly, to separate the behavior from the youth. Staff skills must include the ability to control negative emotions (especially their own) and avoid escalating the situation whenever possible.

Effective communication is not only a method of disclosure, but also a path to discovery. Effective listening will broaden a youth’s view of himself and the world around him. This type of really engaged ‘active’ listening requires strict attention and the ability to be objective in situations that will often evoke strong opinions and judgment. Listening at this level demonstrates a true willingness to be part of a meaningful exchange and instead of just confront. According to Bowman (et al., 1998) good active listening is being able to encourage, clarify, restate, reflect, summarize and validate.


Good quality therapeutic programs understand how to create a positive culture. In spite of working with resistant students, Shelterwood has always found a way to help their students lower their walls and open themselves up to their great potential. The teens we get to work with have tremendous gifts and abilities that often lay dormant under the heavy weight of self-doubt and fear. Helping our teens uncover their true identity is a truly rewarding experience for us all.

Why does my kid shoplift?

Screen Shot 2015 12 30 at 12.52.29 PM 300x173 Why does my kid shoplift?Most people like to get something for nothing – a bargain, a discount, or a freebie. But those people who actually resort to stealing are often “crying for help.” According to Something for Nothing: Shoplifting Addiction and Recovery (2002), people who resort to stealing are actually trying to resolve one of the following ten emotional motivations.

  1. Anger – to try to take back, to make life fair
  2. Grief – to fill the void due to a loss
  3. Depression – to distract from sadness, to get a lift
  4. Anxiety – to calm fears, to comfort
  5. Acceptance & Competition – to fit in
  6. Power & Control – to counteract feeling lost or powerless
  7. Boredom & Excitement – to live life on the edge
  8. Entitlement & Reward – to compensate oneself for over-giving
  9. Shame & Low Self-Esteem – to create a reason to feel successful at something, even if it is a negative action like stealing
  10. Rebellion & Initiation – to break into one’s authentic identity

For parents raising teenagers, when stealing behavior occurs, two strategies do not tend to work well: “under kill” and “overkill.” Rather, I would suggest that stealing behavior is an invitation for a conversation with your child. Engage your teen in discussion about these deeper motivations as opposed to letting the behavior slide or overreacting to it with guilt and shame. We all like to learn about ourselves and uncover unrealized motivations – teens are no different. Addressing the behavior at this deeper level limits the wrestling match of deception and investigation. Instead, join your child in answering their cry for help by locating the emotional hurt within them, find them help to deal with the causal issues, and help set them free for a lifetime.

Why Teens Don’t Follow Rules

debate small Why Teens Dont Follow RulesSometimes we are so busy trying to get our teens to follow a few simple rules and conform to our direction that it is easy to forget that the main goal of adolescents is to actually to do the opposite of what we want.  Teens are determined to differentiate themselves from their parents at all costs.

Because teens are trying to separate themselves from their parents, there will always be a desire for distance between the teen and his parents.  They have very little motivation to connect with their parents through being the same.  Let me explain this – teens want your love but they don’t want to be like you in order to get it.  As parents, we like who we are and believe that modelling our lives has some value.  We hope that our kids emulate our work ethic and values.  But this is the exact opposite of what teens are trying to achieve during the stage of adolescence (and it is just a stage – it will end).  Sure, teens still want the love of their parents and will do many things to achieve a connection, but they also want to separate themselves from us as parents in order to create their own individual identity.

Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.” John F. Kennedy

If they can’t separate in a healthy way, they will do it more forcefully.

Rebellion might actually be in our DNA.  Even our nation was founded as a result of rebellion and the fight against conformity with the Catholic Church in Europe.  Yet, we have a deep desire to be connected.  We want to be known and understood by others.  This tension between a desire to be connected and rebellion plays out in adolescence.  Teens want to be separate and still be cared for.

How can they separate themselves from you if they continue to listen and follow your direction for life?  They will not want to change their destructive behavior if changing means being more like their parents.  So we need to be mindful of the changes that we are asking of our kids.  We want to give them an escape route – an opportunity to be their own person, but still remain in relationship to us.

So take time to determine with your spouse what you are trying to accomplish as a parent.  Don’t discuss these goals with your teen initially, and perhaps never.  These are simply larger parenting goals.  When it is all said and done, what do you as parents hope happens when your child is in your home? What are your top priorities – faith, safety, education, athletics, or service?  What areas of life are you leading them toward?  By having larger goals, you might find that you are able to let go of some of the smaller stuff.  In fact, the small stuff might actually be getting in the way.  For example, I really hope that my daughter leaves home with a strong sense of self and has strong spiritual values.  Yet, it seems like I spend a lot of time challenging her to work harder in swim practice, and I spend very little time actually praying with her.

At our treatment facility, we encourage parents to sit down and discuss between themselves what they are trying to accomplish with their child.  I don’t think you would be surprised to find that most parents have pretty different views of what should happen with their sons and daughters.  Becoming unified as guardians will bring peace to the home and allow you to focus on what really is important.  Let go of the small disputes that derail your relationship with your teen and focus on the things that you really want them to learn before they leave home.

In what ways are you training your child?