When I arrive at the offices of Confident Living in Boulder, CO, I met Dave Herz, Founder. Confident Living is not a residential program, but rather an approach that is available to support an adolescent's return from a therapeutic residential program or as a way to avoid the need for placement in the first place. Though Confident Living has offices in downtown Boulder, their real work occurs in public areas within the Boulder and Denver communities, with plans to expand to other communities. Their clinically trained therapists work with adolescents and their parents to help teens at-risk to develop interests and become responsible adults. Typically, they work with teens whose problems range from academic underachievement, isolation or poor peer relationships, to drug use, aggression and acting out that possibly resulted in legal trouble.
Formerly a teacher at an alternative high school, Dave Herz trained as a therapist and founded this program in 2000. He felt the most effective way to influence adolescents to make life-enhancing decisions was to first become someone whose opinions mattered. Being available in real world settings rather than in the counseling office was a more constructive way of coaching adolescents and parents to make better decisions in the moment. He developed an approach now called the "Herz Dynamic," that is the heart of the Confident Living program. Its three important elements include:
1) A client/therapist relationship with depth and continuity;
2) coaching about dealing with problems under real world conditions; and
3) a dual focus on adolescents and their parents; both have their own therapist and both are expected to actively participate.
Meeting with Confident Living staff and program participants at their office, a tea house and then a restaurant, gave me a sense of what it is like to interact with this program. Rather than pushing therapeutic intervention, they focus on building relationships based on respectful boundaries and ethical behavior. The adolescent sometimes only accepts this voluntary program because it's the least offensive option offered. He or she is assigned a therapist according to shared interests and temperament, who then helps the adolescent build confidence, life skills and positive relationships. The parent's therapist plays a slightly different role, coaching them to let their teens "fail forward," rather than rescuing them. Thus, the students learn to become accountable for their decisions and break their cycle of destructive behavior.
Dave said talk may be beneficial but real life skills are better acquired through "action therapy," giving an example of a client who only had the courage to break dance when he had been drinking. Because of their therapeutic relationship, Dave convinced him to take a break-dancing class while sober, driving him to the class and waiting in the car until it was over. The client did so well he eventually wanted to help younger kids to learn how to dance. Though once referred to as a "rent-a-friend," Dave said adolescents generally become good friends with their therapists and appreciate having someone outside their circle to interact with. As their relationship deepens, they develop trust, which then allows the therapist to address more difficult behavioral issues.
I talked with parents, therapists, and adolescents from two families who have used the Confident Living program. The male and female adolescents had been in fairly clinical residential programs, and then worked with Confident Living therapists for approximately a year after returning home. The adolescents welcomed the therapist's attention and support, and their parents expressed appreciation at having another capable adult to influence their teens since they often had reached an impasse. They appreciated how the therapists supported their adolescents' job search, navigation of new friendships, school and acquisition of appropriate coping mechanisms. When a younger brother in one family began showing disturbing behaviors, they involved him in this program. The other family is also considering it for a younger child.
I met four other wonderful Confident Living therapists who varied in age, interests and background, yet shared a compassion for the families they worked with. They individualize their work, referring if necessary to other clinicians for needs beyond their expertise, and then include that practitioner in team discussions. This collaboration effectively coordinates everyone's efforts. Therapists said when meeting each month about a family, the parent's therapist tends to gravitate towards the parent's perspective, and the adolescent's therapist aligns with the adolescent. By discussing this with Dave and the other therapists, they maintain a greater perspective on how to best support the family, while also providing an advocate for each member.
Participants are given choices, not ultimatums. Once they agree to the first meeting, and the work has begun, families decide in six to 18 months when "it's done." Dave severs involvement with parents who won't do their work. He used to work with an adolescent even when the parents refused to be involved because he wanted to help the adolescent. Then he realized how much more effective they are when the parents also participate, and now requires this of all families. Therapists meet with parents and adolescents each week and are available 24 hours a day for emergency phone calls. Though seldom used, they feel that this availability gives families courage to attempt new behaviors. If they do make an emergency phone call, in most cases they wait three hours to return the call; by then, the parent and/or adolescent usually figures out how to handle the situation on their own. These therapists work on an hourly basis, choosing the number of families they feel they can appropriately handle, often also maintaining a private counseling practice.
About six of 90 adolescents in the Confident Living program needed referral to residential programs at some point. Dave also occasionally recommends short-term interventions, such as a wilderness, equine therapy, or drug/alcohol rehabilitation program. When residential placement is needed, the Confident Living program's "Herz Dynamic" can reinforce the therapeutic work, perhaps allowing an earlier return home. It can definitely support healthier family communication, perhaps alleviating the need for residential placement. Is a "Dave" necessary in every community in order to reproduce this program successfully? Fortunately, there are many who share his compassion, competence, creativity, dedication and cheerfulness. Now they have a viable model!