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The Wish to Fix Your Troubled Teen Can Put Her In the Grave

The Wish to Fix Your Troubled Teen Can Put Her In the Grave. Cyndy Etler. @cdetler Troubed Teen

Remember the toddler days, when life was all cute? You told kid what to do—Wash your hands! Go to bed!—and kid did it. Kid ran to you on chubby legs, arms up in your face like, “Gimme a hug.” You even got to decorate kid with ginormous $20 hairbows.

Not so much, once puberty hits. Ginormous hairbow is traded for see-through-crop-top-romper thing. Go to bed is met with Go to hell, or whatever today’s rendition is. Parenting a teen isn’t simple. It’s not fun. And it sure as hell ain’t cute.

What’s a desperate parent to do?

What’s a desperate parent to do? Dr. Phil would have you send your “out of control” teen to RTC, a.k.a. residential treatment center. As a grownup, I get the appeal. Sending your teen away=instant sanity. No more screaming matches. No more hiding your wallet. No more blistered 3 a.m. eyeballs, ears strained for the sound of a car door slam.

But as a former RTC teen, I get something else: while these programs can be great for the parents, they can be deeply not great for the teen. Like, long-term, broken-human, PTSD not great.

Combine pain-in-the-ass teenagers with closed-door institutions, and bad things can happen. How do you think residential programs turn your hellion into a sobbing apology machine? Not with hugs and hairbows.

Combine pain-in-the-ass teenagers with closed-door institutions, and bad things can happen.

For 16 months as a teen I was brutalized—physically, psychologically, sexually—in notorious RTC Straight Inc. When I finally got out a handful of empathetic, respectful adults helped me heal. Today, I am that adult.

So I join Facebook parent groups, right? To share my insights and ideas. One of these groups was called “Support for Parents of Troubled Teens.” I think. I can’t say for sure. That’s the crazy part.

I’d been in that group for about a year. Parents would share what was going on with their kid. I’d offer solutions. Parents would reply, “Wow, that’s perfect. Thanks!”

Then came my big revelation—holy shit, there are no blogs or mags or anything out there for parents of teens! It’s all ads for RTCs! That’s like, the only option! Shocked, I posted about it in some parent groups. Maybe you saw my post. It included these lines:

I was put into a troubled teen program and it destroyed me. Many of my peers committed suicide when they got out. I know today’s RTCs aren’t generally as bad, but: there’s GOT to be help that doesn’t resort to sending teens away, doesn’t there?

When I went on Facebook a few hours later, the “Troubled Teens” group was gone from my list. I couldn’t even find it in a search. Something about my post was so egregious, the group’s moderator needed to extra-super-banish me. But…huh? My post was aimed at preventing teen suicides. I thought this was a group for helping struggling teens?

Yeah, maybe not. That’s the really creepy part.

Check this out. A few weeks before I was wiped out of “Troubled Teens,” I was struck by a post at the top of the feed:

Moderator, if this post is inappropriate, please remove it.

Parents, are you struggling to find the right residential program for your teen? I can help! I research RTC programs so you don’t have to. I will only recommend the best place for your child.

Alarm bells clanging in my head, I posted a reply:

Parents, I beg of you: do your own research. Carefully consider if sending your child to a program is your best option. They can be highly abusive, and hide it behind slick marketing.

The original poster replied, saying,

I agree, Cyndy! That’s why I personally vet each program I refer families to.

I bit my tongue—my thumbs—on my retort: “But who are you? And why should parents trust your opinion?” I wasn’t in it for the pissing contest. Still. Why did the moderator leave that comment up? It was clearly an ad; the poster was seeking customers for his RTC location service.

I understood, two weeks later, when I was banished from the group. Dude who wrote that post was the moderator. He’d created the group to lure customers. You join a group for parents of “troubled teens”? Bingo! Potential client! He could read your posts, gauge your desperation (and bank account), and pounce with a quick DM.

Can I prove this? No. Am I convinced? Pretty much. Because I know how program people work: with kid gloves, Vaseline, and a scam artist’s handbook.

If the goal is “breaking troubled teens,” torture is highly effective.

Okay, do over. I know how my program people worked, and they were shady AF. High level government connections allowed Straight Inc. to keep its operating license, even after lawsuits and investigations cited physical, sexual, and psychological torture. The place used rubber stamps of psychiatrists’ signatures for regulatory and insurance claims forms.

Rubber frigging stamps. Because there was no actual therapy happening, there was only torture. Plain and simple. And, if the goal is “breaking troubled teens,” highly effective.

I can’t say exactly what happens in today’s RTCs, but I can say this: there are empathetic, respectful tools for helping struggling teens. They don’t involve locked door facilities or gazillions of dollars. And they work. I’m literal living proof. Without them, I’d be on the other side of the grave.

Want to learn more about my experiences in Straight Inc? Check out my memoir.

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