Name Withheld’s letter, like many I’ve received from aggrieved parents, focuses on the parents’ pain. Mothers and fathers who write me often believe I cannot understand their situations, nor how difficult their child was — despite the fact that I was once that troubled teen myself. Parents invariably say they couldn’t help their son or daughter, so they outsourced the teen’s treatment. And they mention how well their child is doing today. The letters are often written shortly after the child has returned home — in Name Withheld’s instance, a mere year — when the teen is likely still worried about being sent away again. Studies have shown that the trauma caused by these programs emerges years later because children toe the line until they can break free once more.
And shouldn’t we be more concerned about the needs of the child than we are about the difficulty faced by the parents? No doubt a child can become difficult. But how? And why? These questions are rarely addressed.
The experiences of each family member are linked. Failing to connect children’s issues to their surroundings is the first misstep down a dark path. And parents are not the only culpable entity; the troubled-teen industry preys on the fears of parents and leads them astray.
Finn Cohen’s interview with Kenneth R. Rosen [“Sent Away,” August 2021] weighed heavily on my heart. Two decades ago, in my early twenties, I was a counselor in a wilderness-therapy program in Utah for two years.
As a psychotherapist I know healing cannot happen without safety and trust. Waking young people in the middle of the night, removing them from their existing relationships, and viewing them as the problem — rather than as part of a family — does not create the conditions for change.
Until I read this interview, however, I hadn’t considered that wilderness therapy might have been traumatizing to those kids. As Rosen says, the staff at these programs generally do not listen to the teenagers’ perspectives. I was trained to see them as manipulative, and not to empathize with them. Though I worked with more than a hundred young people, I’m sad to admit I don’t remember a single one of their names.
To Rosen, Cohen, and anyone else who was harmed by one of these programs, I want to say: I’m sorry for the role I played. I commit to using my position as a therapist to speak up about these programs and to learn more about the experiences of those who went through them.
I was a psychiatric nurse for twenty years, three of those spent at facilities for adolescents, and I can testify to the validity of Kenneth R. Rosen’s descriptions of therapy programs for “troubled teens” [“Sent Away,” interview by Finn Cohen, August 2021].
I left after the bad behavior of unqualified staff went unaddressed by the administration. There was a short supply of listening, respect, or integrity, and I hated to see the patients caught in the maw of institutional ignorance and greed. One of the doctors had been molesting adolescent girls for years; though he was reported many times, he still kept his license.
Oftentimes all one had to do was meet the family of the kids to realize what the problem was.
These kids were sometimes hard to like. The amount of rejection and physical abuse they suffered left them in a rage — a terrible, righteous rage. There was no one to advocate for them.
“Sent Away” reminded me of my experience, in the early 1980s, working at a dental practice that treated adolescents who were in a private therapeutic-treatment program. Though the kids were described to me as incorrigible, troubled youth, they were mostly personable and entertaining.
Being the single mom of a three-year-old daughter at the time, I didn’t give much thought to the program, the kids, or their parents. My assignment was to clean their teeth. We were briefed on how to manage the difficult patients: Rule #1: Once they were in the office, lock the doors so none of them could run away — which a couple attempted. Rule #2: Don’t leave them alone with sharp instruments within reach, because they might try to pocket something to use as a weapon or for picking locks. Rule #3: Don’t discuss the program’s treatment methods, staff, or living conditions.
Decades later I read about accusations of harsher-than-necessary treatment, which focused on peer confrontation, public humiliation, and extreme consequences for rule-breaking that bordered on abuse. The program has since been shut down. After reading Rosen’s interview I came across a disturbing 2017 documentary, The Last Stop, made by former residents of the program. Though it’s been almost thirty years, I recognized one of the kids in the film.
In the meantime I’d become the parent of a troubled twelve-year-old daughter. In 1992, for reasons I believed were justified, I sent her to a therapeutic wilderness program in Montana for four and a half months. It had been recommended by a highly regarded adolescent therapist, and I thought it would be better than waiting for further interactions with law enforcement, truancy, or running away. I was envisioning her eventual spiral toward incarceration or total self-destruction. I was determined to get “it” before “it” got me. Or her. I was a worn-out, scared, and desperate mother, trying to save her child.
Many variables affect which kids get sent away — and why. There are well-intentioned parents, and there are those who simply want to dump their kids somewhere. There are well-staffed and poorly staffed programs. There are kickback therapist referrals driven purely by dollars, and there are those who leave room for negotiating costs. Often enough, by the time a situation reaches a tipping point, it’s hard to keep a calm head. For many parents it’s a do-or-die moment that demands an immediate decision.
I prefer to think that, like myself, most parents’ primary intention is to save their kids from themselves. Success usually relies on the parents’ participation in that process, which means leaving their sense of infallibility at the door. The most effective treatment program my daughter was in required me to attend weekly meetings, no excuses. Honest exchange, forgiveness, and relationship adjustments are necessary to move forward.
As a parent who sent a sixteen-year-old son to a therapeutic boarding school, I was frustrated with “Sent Away.” While I have empathy for what Rosen and Cohen went through, I feel compelled to respond with a parent’s perspective.
I would have given anything for my son to find help in our community, as Cohen suggests. Therapists with openings were virtually impossible to come by, and convincing a defiant teenager he needed help was an insurmountable feat. Rosen’s “families need to come together and figure these problems out as a team” is an oversimplification that assumes a willing child.
Our son was self-medicating for anxiety and depression — not to mention barely eating or sleeping — which resulted in drug overdoses and multiple ER visits. Deciding to send him away was the most difficult and courageous thing my husband and I did as parents. We were willing to have our son hate us if it meant his getting healthy.
Our son was at his school for a year — the most difficult of our lives. I’m grateful to his program for bringing our family back together. He’s been home for a year now, and we are doing well. I will never regret our decision, as painful as it was, because he got the help he needed.
“Sent Away” brought up unpleasant memories. When I was twelve years old, my parents sent me to a residential program in Los Angeles, where I was physically abused by a staff person. As bad as things were with my parents, I desperately wanted to go back to living with them. After trying to run away a few times, I was sent to juvenile hall. From there I was allowed to return home.
My experience was not nearly as bad as some. Still, no child should have to go through what I went through.
Years ago I met editor Sy Safransky at a Sun retreat. I told him how I always enjoy finding the theme that links each piece in a given issue, even the photographs. I read The Sun cover to cover, always in order, never skipping around. Safransky proclaimed me the “perfect reader.”
As a parent I especially enjoyed discovering August 2021’s theme: from the interview on troubled-teen programs, to the poem about men in prison, to the essay about a beloved brother who is also a pathological liar, to the excerpt from Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, in which a privileged young person must disobey his father to pursue his spiritual quest. Then an essay about a young person dealing with her parents, an essay about a complicated relationship, and an essay about a single mother trying to master gardening and life. The Readers Write on “Summer Jobs” featured many memories of the authors’ younger years, and the short story features parents raising their children in extremely complicated situations. One final piece about the nature of friendship in the time of pandemic, and the Sunbeams about parenting — the perfect wrap-up to this beautifully crafted issue.