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Residential treatment for at-risk youth

How to talk to your at-risk youth about residential treatment

For more than a decade, mental, behavioral, and substance abuse disorders have been on the rise among young people. The COVID-19 pandemic only added to increasing instances of persistent sadness and hopelessness, as well as suicidal thoughts and behaviors1. For many children and adolescents in need of emotional and behavioral care, residential rehabilitation can be highly effective — but it’s not always easy to motivate them to embrace the process.

Faced with the prospect of an extended stay in a treatment center, young people may feel anything from trepidation to outright resistance. Some are not fully aware of their psychological or behavioral problems, while others may recognize the need for treatment but fear entering an unknown environment outside the home. Whatever your child’s needs and anxieties, the following tips will help you navigate conversations about residential treatment.

1. Choose the right moment to bring up residential treatment

The decision to place your child in residential care is often laden with emotion. In the heat of a mental health or behavioral episode, it’s easy to speak rashly out of fear and desperation. Yet doing so will likely muddle your core message and, just as importantly, make it more difficult for your child to process what you’re saying. This is because the amygdala is activated when we feel stressed or threatened, triggering the release of hormones that prepare the body to fight or flee. In such situations, the cerebral cortex – where reasoning and executive decision-making occurs – shuts down, making it difficult if not impossible to respond rationally.

If possible, choose a calm, unhurried moment in which to broach the subject of residential treatment. When your child feels safe and at ease, they will be more receptive to reason and capable of accurately perceiving your motives.

2. Be up-front about their needs

When the time is right, be honest and straightforward about why you believe residential treatment is necessary. Explain the results of any evaluations your child has received and, when possible, lean on the authority of their physician. Emphasizing a doctor’s recommendation appeals to the reasoning center of the brain and can combat the misconception that residential care is a punishment. Rather than an elaborate time-out, frame the facility as a safe space in which your child will have the ability to heal and grow so they can be more successful in future.

3. Actively listen to their feelings to promote increased mental health

Encourage your child to ask questions and share how they’re feeling. Are they afraid of living with people they don’t know? Are they worried they’ll get behind in school or miss social events? They may even feel shame or embarrassment surrounding their diagnosis. Acknowledging and validating their emotions — even challenging feelings such as anger and aggression — will help your child to feel seen and heard and, ultimately, process the need for residential treatment in a healthy, fact-based way.

4. Emphasize the positive

Without invalidating your child’s emotions, highlight the positive aspects of rehabilitation by considering what matters most to them. Perhaps treatment will better equip them to be successful academically, to make friends more easily, or to engage in everyday tasks. There may even be aspects of the facility itself your child will enjoy, such as the opportunity to meet peers with similar diagnoses. Helping your child to focus on the good parts of residential treatment will make them more receptive to the process, which improves outcomes in the long run.

Find integrated child and adolescent psychiatry and medical care at our residential rehabilitation program. At Nexus, youth with mental and behavioral health challenges benefit from the combined care of a multidisciplinary team representing a range of specialties, from medical and psychiatric to behavioral and rehabilitative care. This integrated approach allows us to care for the whole child throughout the continuum of care. Whether your child has chronic co-occurring conditions, or has developed medical conditions as a result of behavioral or mental health challenges, our team of experts is ready and able to help.

1Kids’ mental health is in crisis. Here’s what psychologists are doing to help | American Psychological Association

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