Transitions and Aftercare

As you go through this process with your child, you will inevitably manage many transitions — from program to program, from program to home, or even back to a program.

You might be transitioning from home to a wilderness program; then from a wilderness program to school. You might be transitioning from a residential treatment program or therapeutic boarding school to a young adult program if your child is not ready to come home or live independently but can no longer be in a program with teens under 18. Transitioning between programs may be fraught with stress and changes — both for the child and for the family.

Transitioning to a
Wilderness Program

If you are putting your child into a wilderness program for the first time, most programs will advise you not to tell your child ahead of time for fear that they will run away or do something destructive or dangerous. If you think your child may be willing to go to a wilderness program, involving them in the process — perhaps with other family and professionals — may reduce this stressful transition substantially and lead to a gentler path to a wilderness program.

They will advise you to use a “transport” group that they can recommend to take your child from your house to the program. As noted in the section on wilderness programs, the teens call this getting “gooned.” Some call it getting kidnapped. It may be a traumatic experience for both the family and the child. The services come in the middle of the night and wake your child up and take them to the airport, escort them on the place, and bring them to the program location. We know this can sound scary, but being prepared is vital to a more smooth transition.
Some parents describe the feeling of watching the process unfold with tears streaming down their faces as their child is escorted away — hoping that their child understands that they are doing this because they believe it is the only way to safely address their issues. We have also seen teens laugh about it later, who may have been incredibly angry at the time, but who later thanked their parents for forcing them into a program where they could recover their health.
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Transitioning from Wilderness to
Residential Treatment or Therapeutic Boarding

As noted in other sections, most teens end up going from a wilderness program to residential treatment or a therapeutic boarding option. For many children in a wilderness program, especially if it was not their choice to go to wilderness (which is the vast majority), nobody told them that this was only the beginning of the journey — that there is a next step.
Many teens may feel like they have fully recovered and want to come home. They may find it difficult to accept that they now have to transition to a whole other program and not rejoin their friends and life at school and at home. The staff at wilderness programs will help you navigate this transition and it is helpful that most other teens will be following a similar path. We have found that the more you can involve your child in the process, the better the outcomes. Like all of us, the more autonomy children have in the process, the more empowered they may feel to take control of their health.

In addition, because wilderness programs only offer essential amenities, transitioning to residential treatment or therapeutic boarding school may often feel more comfortable. It is important to keep in mind that your child will be learning to navigate a new environment – from meeting new friends, to learning new rules, and to meeting new staff and therapists.

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Visiting your child
in a program

You may experience complex feelings about seeing your child — perhaps a combination of guilt and sadness and anger and love. That is totally normal. Visiting your child in a treatment program is difficult.
There is almost always a structure to the visit including activities the parents do with their children and as a group. There may be separate parent groups that allow you an opportunity to connect with other parents. You may be camping together if your child is in a wilderness program. If the visit is at a residential treatment program or a therapeutic boarding program you may be allowed to take your child “off campus” to stay in a hotel or other location with you, if your child is ready.

Be prepared — your child may be angry. These visits are hard and emotional. You may find that you really connect and get insight into your child and the dynamics that brought them to this point. But you may also feel very disconnected and frustrated. Sometimes, an “off campus” visit will provide an opportunity for a child to relapse into whatever behavior got them into the program in the first place. That can be tremendously frustrating.

Just remember — this is a journey. There will be steps forward and a few steps back along the way.

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Transitions from a program
to home and back

Another type of transition — and one that is equally hard — is home visits. In wilderness programs, there are no home visits. Similarly, there are no home visits in the first few months of a residential treatment program. But after a number of months, and if a child is adjusting well, the staff will work with your family to determine if your child is ready for a home visit.

Visits are often for a holiday, an event, a family wedding, or other occasion. The staff will work with your child and family to come up with a plan for the visit and ground rules designed to give the visit the highest chance of success.

You may feel very excited for your child to come home. You may likely also have some trepidation. If addiction is the issue, how do you keep them away from enabling friends? If anxiety and depression are the primary issues, how do you avoid the triggers that exacerbate the problem?

How do you prepare the rest of the family? What happens if there is a relapse or incident of some kind? How should you treat your child differently? How long should the visit be and what kinds of activities should you plan?

The program will help you through all of these questions before any home visit. But it may still be a difficult transition for everyone.

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Transitioning to a
Young Adult Program

Just like you, your teens know that they have the legal right to sign out of any program once they turn 18 (absent a guardianship). If your child turns 18 in a program for teens, they will be required by law to leave (a few programs can get an exception for one year). They may be ready to transition back to home or independent living. What if they are not?
In that case, absent getting a guardianship over your now young adult (which is extremely hard to do), the only way for them to go to a program for young adults is with their consent. Involve them in the decision and let them be part of the decision making process. Look at the various programs together and go over what they offer. And remember — now that they are 18, you have no right to their medical information — the only way you can continue to speak with their doctors or therapists is if you get their consent.
Expect far less parental involvement at these programs. The staff will work with your child to craft a schedule that often includes getting a job nearby or signing up for classes or other activities. They may help your child find a local therapist who can continue to work with them. The goal of these programs is to help your child build up the skills they will need to transition to more independent living — be it budgeting, cleaning, grocery shopping, or cooking.
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Transitioning home or to a
more traditional learning environment

Another type of transition — and one that is equally hard — is home visits. In wilderness programs, there are no home visits. Similarly, there are no home visits in the first few months of a residential treatment program. But after a number of months, and if a child is adjusting well, the staff will work with your family to determine if your child is ready for a home visit.

If your teen has spent time in one or more programs, they likely worked through the issues that got them there, or least learned coping skills that help them control their impulses and/or have found healthier outlets for their stress.

Some children may repeat a year of academics at their school at home to make up for lost time.

Some children may move back home or into their own apartment and find a job or start taking classes at a nearby program. There may be hiccups and bumps in the road, but overall, they will have developed the mental health tools to enable them to live a healthy, constructive, and happy life — as well as the ability to reach out for more help if and when they need it.
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