The Potential Harm in Sending Your Kids to Boot Camp

Medically reviewed by Karen Richardson Gill, MD, FAAP on April 5, 2015Written by Annamarya Scaccia on April 5, 2016
Kids boot camp

Many parents turn to boot camp as a last resort to help address their kid’s troubling behavior.

They fear that their troubled child will either go to prison or succumb to addiction. Therefore, parents see boot camp as a way to teach their kid the self-control and discipline needed to improve their emotional and behavioral problems.

If you’re considering sending your kid to a boot camp, read this guide first.

What are boot camps?

Often, when discussing juvenile boot camps, people first think about the controversial military-style programs popularized in the 1990s. In military-style boot camps, kids live in a confined, barracks-like environment and are put through vigorous physical and mental activity by authoritative supervisors. They must adhere to strict routines, march in military columns, and follow the rules. Military-style boot camps are often popular because of their “tough love” attitude.

But not all boot camps are the same. While most boot camps follow a military structure, some offer kids a therapeutic environment focused on life skills and treatment to address issues. Those boot camps are often billed as residential programs.

In residential programs, kids receive individual therapy that addresses their issues and underlying trauma. Group and family therapy may also be available. They also attend skill-building sessions that teach them how to cope, solve problems, and improve social behavior. These programs can occur indoors as in a boarding school or out in the wilderness, which has also become a popular option among parents.

What’s the potential harm?

Potential cons

  1. There have been numerous cases across the United States in which teens and children have died under the supervision of a boot camp instructor.
  2. The militaristic atmosphere and structure does not prepare children for the transition back to daily life.
  3. Many boot camp programs lack adequately trained staff and are negligent in their operating practices.

Military-style boot camps are not without controversy. In 1998, after a year-long investigation, the United States Department of Justice criticized a Georgia-based boot camp program as “ineffective punishment.”

Many critics of juvenile boot camps view the military-style techniques — including bulldog drills and strict regimens — as extreme, problematic, and harsh, and that they can lead to accidents or death. They also say that the aggressive approach and authoritarian environment runs counter to what is needed for positive childhood development, according to a 2001 National Institute of Justice (NIJ) briefing.

Boot camps punish rather than discipline troubled kids, and the negative reinforcement hinders children from improving their behavior, critics say. Therefore, kids will revert back to their problematic and risky behavior because they aren’t taught new life skills or given individualized therapeutic treatment.

The NIJ study also found that militarized youth programs do not successfully prepare youth for transitioning back into their community. The brief pointed to research that shows boot camps don’t focus enough on effective therapy techniques, which makes them ineffective in reducing recidivism (relapse to old behavior).

Healthcare professionals regard residential treatment programs more favorably because of the holistic structure. But parents have criticized these programs, particularly wilderness boot camps, for their physical demands.

Wilderness camps have also been criticized for allowing abuse and death. A 2007 United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) report selected 10 cases between 1990 and 2004 in which a teen died while in a private residential program. In its examination, the GAO found that many wilderness and boarding school programs lack trained staff and adequate nourishment, have ineffective management, and are negligent in their operating practices.

Can boot camps work for some kids?

Potential pros

  1. Some children report that the boot camp “altered the course of their lives” for the better.
  2. Specifically in wilderness programs, children reported continued therapeutic and behavioral improvements over 12 months.

Despite contrasting research, some youth do walk away with a beneficial and positive experience.

A 1996 United States Department of Justice report on correctional boot camps found that, at three different boot camps across the South, Midwest, and West, some kids who graduated felt the programs have “altered the course of their lives” for the better and are proud to have completed a military-style program. But the DOJ also cautioned that that encouraging experiences could only be meaningful if the kids have the support to continue their positive growth in their communities.

As for wilderness programs, a 2004 study by the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council (a group of licensed health professionals that run wilderness programs) found that 81 percent of families surveyed said the wilderness program was effective. The study also found that kids sustained therapeutic and behavioral improvements from their wilderness treatment over 12 months.

The takeaway

Parents considering boot camp should first weigh if such a program would be the most effective way to help their child.

It’s also important to understand whether or not your kid would be receptive to boot camp in the first place. Once you know they are truly open to the idea, you would then need to determine which style of boot camp is best.

But make sure you fully recognize the disadvantages and how they weigh against the beneficial aspects of the boot camp. Your child could end up walking away with a positive experience, but if placed in an unsuitable program, they could return to their old behavior. 

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