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Troubled Teen Programs and Recovery -- Looking for Family Strengths

by Dore Frances, IEC, M.A., founder of Horizon Family Solutions, LLC
Over the past two decades, the relationship between families and the residential programs - outdoor/wilderness programs and emotional growth schools they are attending has been debated.

This ongoing debate has begun to refocus attention from looking for family deficits to looking for family strengths which then contributes to the positive long-term outcome of residential / wilderness assistance. Moreover, when visiting a program, school or outdoor therapy program, I look for those that have shifted their attention to finding ways to actively support families' efforts to prepare their child for success in the program, and beyond, instead of interacting with families only when their child is experiencing difficulties.

This change in thinking about the family-program relationship refocuses a long-standing overemphasis on pathology and an outdated assumption that the family causes a child's educational and/or mental health problems.

From this family resilience perspective, the family-school/program relationship can become a collaborative one in which the staff recognizes that successful interventions to enhance children's learning educationally, mentally and socially also depend on tapping into a family's resources and not just specific change techniques alone. As a result, assessment and intervention efforts may be redirected from looking at how a child's challenges and problems are caused to looking for family strengths, or resilience, that can be incorporated in resolving a child's problems.

From this positive, future-oriented stance, staff and family members work together to find new possibilities for growth and to overcome impasses to children's development, growth and learning. A family resilience perspective considers each interaction between home and the program as an opportunity to strengthen a family's capacity to overcome adversity. Two basic premises guide this resilience theory approach, in my opinion. The first premise is that while stressful crisis and persistent economic, physical, and social challenges influence the whole family and its capacity to successfully be involved in their child program, key family processes mediate the impact of these crisis and the development of resilience in individual members in the family unit as a whole. A second premise is that while family processes mediate how children may or may not be prepared to participate in their residential program/school,these key family processes can be strengthened by the way the program responds to families. As the family becomes more resourceful, its ability to support and work with the program/school is enhanced.

As a result, each family-program/school intervention can also be a preventive measure. There are no longer any stereo-typed descriptions of family structures - customs, lifestyles - are all different and unique. Prior to 1980 it was believed that there was only one type of family structure - the two parent intact family with a stay-at-home mother - this was "normal" and it was perceived that this had a positive effect on children.

At that time it was assumed that the major source of youth's needs for residential placement and academic problems was their location in particular family groups - such as (a) divorced parents, (b) working mother, (c) absent or missing father, (d) young mother, (e) poorly educated mother, (f) racial or ethnic minority.

This no longer fits or describes the children of the 21st Century.

I believe that no one model of optimal family functioning fits all families or family circumstances. Therefore, a family's functioning in working with the program or school in which their child is enrolled needs to be assessed in context, relative to the family's life challenges, structures, resources and values. We now know that the particular ways the family members interact with their children while in residential programs and schools are much more powerful predictors of their child's overall achievement than basing it on family status variables (income, parental education level) or family structure variables (divorced or intact), alone.

Dore Frances, IEC, is an educcational consultant, childs right advocate, parent coach, specializing in working with troubled teens and their families in the United States, Canda, and abroad. See her site at: www.guidingteens.com or contact her by phone at:(541) 312-4422, or email at:Dore@DoreFrances.com.
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