In the first three essays of this four-part series, we looked at the emerging role of the family coach in the continuum of care provided by schools and programs for struggling teens and young adults. Perhaps nowhere will the family coach fill a more critical position than in supporting and guiding the family of a young person returning from a residential placement.
In his book, The Art of Coming Home (Intercultural Press, Inc. 2001), Craig Storti discusses the reentry issues for expatriates returning home, "…in a larger sense, reentry never truly ends. After all, people don't actually get over experiences, especially profound ones; instead they incorporate them into their character and personality and respond to all subsequent experiences from the perspective of their new self." For the adolescent or young adult, their stay in a wilderness program and/ or a long-term therapeutic school represents a most profound experience.
Unlike the voluntary experiences of the expatriate, the vast majority of young people in wilderness programs or emotional growth schools were placed there against their will. For many, this event results in feelings of anger, shock, fear, distrust and resentment. Overcoming these initial negative feelings and turning the placement into a positive learning and growing experience is of course the primary task of the school or program. To a remarkable degree, most schools and wilderness programs do a good job of assisting the young person's turn-around in attitude and views while they are still in the program. However, the student's translation of the lessons learned in program to their life at home and in their community is a key determiner of how the student views the subsequent experience of returning home.
The lack of empirical data regarding long-term outcomes for our industry is well known. However, anecdotal information suggests that a significant number of wilderness or emotional growth school graduates revert to earlier dysfunctional behaviors soon after returning home. When these youngsters talk about their newly re-experienced struggles, two major themes emerge; they feel the placement experience was not relevant to the "real world," and/or that while they were willing and able to change, their parents and other family members were not.
The challenge of making the in-program experience relevant to the student's view of the "real world" is a substantial one for counselors and therapists. In some ways the necessarily artificial environment of the therapeutic school, or the equally foreign experience of the wilderness program, works against this need for proving relevancy. In both areas, experiences and environments are carefully controlled to provide "teachable moments" without the complexities of the outside world. While this methodology can provide powerful experiential education, the milieus and methods can also strike the resistant or cynical young person as contrived and irrelevant to the challenges awaiting them at home.
While the parent or family coach can do little to influence the program's or child's translation of program values into at-home tools, the coach can assist the family in making the home environment relevant to the values of the program. This process begins while the student is still in the program.
While assisting the parent in understanding and supporting the program and student's work, the coach must continually remind the parent that they are a primary factor in determining the eventual outcome of the program experience. Unless the parent and other family members are willing to take a look at their role in the student's need for outside placement, and are willing to make necessary changes in their behaviors, the student's chances of a healthy, successful re-entry into the home and community are rather poor. As Dr. Tim Thayne, Homeward Bound, says in his white paper, Preventing Adolescent, Antisocial Behavioral Relapse After An Out-of-Home Placement, "… this perspective that relapse is more a factor of family and ecosystem functionality, which is in effect fostered by the parents or guardians, proves to be a difficult standpoint to advance with private-pay clients because of the natural conflict of interest that exits; i.e. parents, after spending considerable amounts of money to solve a problem believed to be their child's problem, don't like to hear that, for the treatment gains to transition home successfully, they themselves must also make changes."
Yet change they must, for no child's "problem" sprang from, nor exists in, a relational vacuum. With sensitive and skillful coaching, parents and other family members can learn through their child's therapeutic process to recognize that the child's problem is a family problem; one that must be addressed by all concerned.
In order for the coach to act as a bridge between program and family, he/ she must be well grounded in the program's philosophy and tenets. In addition, the coach must possess a first-hand experience of the family's functioning styles and beliefs. The real value of the coach will come in his/ her ability to assist the latter in integrating the former. That is, making the home relevant to the program.
The tools the family coach may employ are varied. They may include behavioral contracts, parent education and skill building, family values clarification, individual life coaching, goal setting and relationship building. As we discussed in earlier essays, the primary role of the coach is to build on existing and newly emerging strengths while focusing all concerned on a future of health, happiness and continuing personal growth.
The challenges facing the returning young person are substantial and involve most areas of the ecosystem. Not only must the young person cognitively and emotionally integrate the positive lessons of the program, but he/ she must also be able to translate a new skill set into his/ her life at home, with peers, at school and in the greater community. This is a daunting task and one that requires coordinated support from a number of professionals and other caring adults. The parent or family coach can be an important link in this chain of support.