The top treatment centers help struggling young adults by treating each student as a whole person whose many parts-mind, body, spirit, relationships-merge and blur inextricably. Because any one part of a young adult cannot be addressed in isolation from the others, curriculum and instruction at these treatment centers is designed to address all of these parts simultaneously. Such treatment centers employ what might be termed “integrated” approaches. Character development, work ethic, social skills, volunteerism, study skills, social tolerance, and the principles of democracy are topics that find their way, subtly or explicitly, into all teachable moments. In addition, these treatment centers seek ways to connect to the community and the larger world.
This integrative approach to education becomes even more critical-and challenging-among young adults, particularly those experiencing emotional, academic, or social difficulties. Young adults are masters at divide and control strategies. They like to divide their world into several distinct parts-school, various peer groups, parents, etcetera-and they work hard to keep these parts from interacting with each other. For young adults, whose developmental job it is to seek new levels of autonomy and independence, this compartmentalization provides a welcome sense of control and mastery over their lives. Young adults will often learn to segment their personalities as well, presenting a very different “self” to each world they occupy. This gives them the freedom to experiment with different personas as they grope their way toward an adult identity; it also gives them a greater sense of freedom and personal control. Parents are sometimes baffled by reports that their sullen, silent daughter is boisterous and popular with her peers, or that their angry, oppositional son is a compliant charmer in the classroom.
While a normal and natural part of growth, this divide and control approach can, like any coping strategy, go awry. Over-utilizing this strategy can delay identity formation and can allow a young adult to mask pain and/or pathology from those who would otherwise be in a position to intervene. At best, this can make a young adult seem distant and mysterious to her parents; at worst, it can allow emotional and behavioral issues to fester.
Effective parents, like good treatment centers, recognize that the young adult is a whole person and that problems cannot be addressed in isolation. The key to fostering healthy development is to address every area of life simultaneously and as of equal importance. Treating a young adult as a whole person and working toward integration of her world is a powerful antidote for the over compartmentalization that often accompanies, and exacerbates, pathology. To accomplish this, parents must work tirelessly to forge relationships with and between involved teachers, therapists, clergy, parents, and other stakeholders.
Even the most diligent parental efforts, however, can prove inadequate to integrate the world of a struggling young adult. When the problematic emotions or behaviors reach critical mass, it can become an impossible task for parents to do this work of integration unassisted. This is when a good boarding school or residential therapeutic program can provide a mechanism for integrating the world and personality of a struggling young person. Small, high-quality boarding schools and residential programs have special leverage to create a 360 degree embrace that supports and draws together the various parts of a young adult’s life. At its best, this embrace falls somewhere between a comforting hug and a safe restraint as the school’s staff wraps around the young adult seven days a week, 24 hours a day, to help her become and remain integrated, accountable, and safe.
To accomplish these ends, quality treatment centers and residential programs work constantly to ensure that all stakeholders-faculty, parents, educational consultants, therapists, etcetera-align philosophically, communicate constantly, and support each other’s efforts as their own. Some such schools even have parent communicators whose role it is to actively connect the dots and communicate a whole, integrated, and up to date picture of the young adult to all stakeholders-including the girl herself. This reflecting back to herself is an important strategy for moving her toward integration and wholeness, i.e. from a collage of disjointed images to a cohesive portrait.
In a small residential setting, students, eat, school, play, and sleep in a single integrated environment with a manageable and constant group of peers and adults. This allows a student to be observed and known in a way not possible at home, where the typical young adult eats, schools, plays, and sleeps in different worlds and with different people. Because of this, many parents make the surprising discovery that they can know and connect with their struggling young adult more effectively when she is in a residential setting than they could when she was at home. So while not appropriate for every struggling young adult, a boarding environment can be a powerful tool for healing the struggling young adult.