Sending a child to residential treatment is not something parents take lightly. They love their children and want them in the home. But some who have obstinately obstreperous children sometimes perceive they have no option left but a residential program.
This post will not argue for or against residential treatment. In fact, group homes and facilities help many to get their feet on solid ground for functioning well in society. All I want to do here is to comment on a few aspects that Christian parents might question or consider alongside the broad scope of other data in their decision-making process.
Ethics and Timing
Christian parents live under the mandate in Ephesians 6:4. God places the primary responsibility for instruction and discipline in godly living upon parents, specifically fathers. Therefore, some parents might conclude that residential treatment is not an ethical option. I here proceed upon the understanding that residential treatment does not categorically violate Ephesians 6:4.
Timing can add pressure to an already difficult and emotion-charged situation. Anger in the child that escalates into mild aggression raises the question, is the child bluffing or is he building up to violence? Parents don’t want to send the child away. Neither do they want anyone in the family harmed because they failed to take action soon enough. Civil authorities will not take action until there is an actual assault. Yet many facilities will not accept a child who has been physically violent, so waiting until the police have to be called will sabotage a residential option. Therefore, parents might feel pressure to choose residential treatment (or boarding school) before they have evidence that the child will truly try to harm someone. What a heavy burden!
Two Possible Benefits
Some children endanger others, such as by bringing drugs into the home, harming others, sexually molesting the siblings, or repeatedly damaging property. Sending an aggressive child out of the home to another residence is one way to protect family members.
Programs appeal to difficult, troubled children in ways which families sometimes cannot, such as through the daily structure, the consistent system of rewards and consequences, the responsibilities they can assign and the rewards they can offer. Centers have the personnel for constant supervision, private tutoring, or counseling that parents cannot provide. The staff are there because they really care about kids. It may be that having a non-parent authority reduces the emotional pressure on the child. Since he isn’t expected to love this person with a close familial love, he relaxes his hypervigilance enough to hear the beneficial counsel being given. Many adults are living productive lives today due in part to the positive influence of a boarding school or residential treatment facility. I am thankful for the people who give of themselves to help children in residential programs.
Two Possible Disadvantages
Residential programs may expose the child to unbiblical ideas without the counter-balance of parental teaching, so be diligent about research ahead of time. There are a few programs that are well-grounded in a biblical approach to counseling. Most programs are built on philosophies and theories of psychology. While the staff almost certainly love the children and desire the best for them, along with any biblical views held they unwittingly incorporate teachings and methods which contradict the Bible, e.g. encouraging self-esteem. This does not mean that such a program cannot be helpful, just that parents need to be aware and plan accordingly. They are at a disadvantage in correcting the child’s thinking because overriding the counsel of the child’s teachers or therapists will undermine their authority and sabotage what help they might provide.
Parents risk permanent separation. With the child away from home, parents and siblings grow used to a more peaceful way of life and may not want the child to return and inject conflict back into the family.
Programs can be helpful even if they aren’t completely biblical. I believe that a family environment closely supported by the local church with biblical counseling is best, but non-Christian services of many types can be helpful. Some parents cannot afford the expense of the place they prefer and so a less biblical option is all they can swing. I am very thankful for all who devote themselves to children in group residential homes and programs. Even if it is not a solidly biblical facility, time there can promote helpful changes in perceptions and thoughts or promote some helpful habits that might be beneficial influences God will use as part of drawing the child to Himself in the future.
Residential programs cannot fix your child. Generally speaking, parents of a persistently defiant child want the child fixed (as defined by the particular parent). If he would just behave, they can have a happy family.
No one but God can “fix” your child. Your child can choose willful ways no matter how skilled the residential staff is, just like he did even if you parented well. Therefore, you need to evaluate your own goals, give up your dream of what your family “should” be, and choose biblical expectations. Bowing to the sovereignty of God, respect your child as he exercises his God-given personal responsibility for his own choices. Avoiding blaming the staff; hold the child accountable for his own behavior and attitudes.
Facility or home, behaviorism is deceptive. Cognitive-behavioral therapies commonly applied at facilities tend to have a degree of success at improving behavior because the child finds that good behavior earns rewards and privileges. This is a good result, just not the final goal. It gives the impression that methods of behavioral change “work.” While improved behavior is a fine (secondary) goal, it can be deceptive. The child who improves apart from dependence on Christ might conclude that he can be good without God. Then he is less likely to see how sinful he still is at heart.
In Christian contexts, home or residential facility, a manipulative child can falsely profess faith in order to fool others and feel good about himself. He might “get saved” several times at different church events like VBS and church camp. He might even think he is sincere each time. He can appear morally upright to himself and others and speak Christian lingo while still unsaved. This manipulation is less likely to succeed in those programs and families which emphasize repentance, insist on changed behavior over time, and are willing to challenge the child’s profession of faith when behavior contradicts profession.
Your child will carry significant differences from the rest of your family. Hopefully, your child will return home. Allow that fitting into your family would be difficult for any child who has spent a long period of time away from it because the child will not have been home to share your household habits or events that build memories in common. He won’t have been molded by your particular family culture. He will carry a different “home” and church culture with him and he will be aware that there is a part of him you can’t understand because you didn’t live it at the facility with him.
- What am I most wanting to accomplish by sending my child to residential treatment? Am I looking for relief from my despair or a quick fix of the child? Or is this the best for the child and family?
- Have I sought help from my church leaders? Have I sought biblical counseling? Have I made use of every resource that a local church can provide? Does my church agree that I have done everything I can?
- What is my exit strategy? On what basis will I bring the child home? What can be done to prepare for success?
If You Send Your Child
If you send your child to a residential program, among other actions you take don’t forget to:
- Stay in close contact with personnel there. Develop good rapport with the staff. Stay aware of your child’s situation and staff beliefs and actions.
- Refrain from interfering. Allow your child to suffer consequences without your pity. Let him benefit from the principle of sowing and reaping. This is one important way to love him.
- Be as supportive of the staff as you can be. They care about children. Do not be an oppositional parent even if you disagree with them. They have reasons for how they do what they do, especially in a group facility as opposed to a home. Support them and speak well of them to others and especially to your child so as to affirm their authority over him. Seek to understand their point of view.