Boot Camps Don’t Work. Here’s Why.

Punishment-based programs such as boot camps and Scared Straight programs are not effective in improving troubled teens behavior. Amy Morin, LCSW, succinctly describes the problem with boot camps. “Kids in military-style boot camps learn to do what they’re told when someone is yelling in their face and threatening to make them do push-ups but when they don’t have this in the outside world, they aren’t motivated to behave.”

Scared Straight programs actually increase the likelihood that teens will commit criminal behavior because many teens see the criminals that they are exposed to as “cool” and try to emulate them. Given the prevalence and publicity of boot camps and scared straight programs, this may come as a surprise. It shouldn’t.

Punishment alone is not enough.

Punishment alone has no meaningful long-term effect on changing behavior. Dr. Michael Karson described an experiment where rats were conditioned into pressing a lever by intermittently rewarding them. Then, researchers divided the rats into two groups. In one group, the rats stopped receiving the reward when they pressed the lever. The rats pressed the lever 100 times before they lost interest in it. In the second group, the rats received an electric shock when they pressed the lever. In response to this punishment, the rats in this group avoided the lever for a short period of time. Then, the rats pressed the lever 100 times before they lost interest in it. The punishment had no long-term effect on the rats’ behavior whatsoever.

Rather than punishment being effective in changing long-term behavior, Karson suggests, children and teens may learn to avoid the problem behavior for a short time. Then, when they think no one is watching, they are likely to resume the problem behavior. Moreover, they are likely resentful toward the parents who punished them. Some research indicates that teens’ still-developing brains may be at a disadvantage when it comes to learning from punishment.

Help is available.

If punishment doesn’t work, then what does? Does that mean that teens can just “get away with” whatever they want to do? Of course not. Clearly define the way that you expect your teen to behave. Also, it’s okay to get excited when your teen does something right, just like you used to when your teen was a toddler. According to Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, “If your teen notices that your attention focuses primarily on his problem behaviors, he will do whatever it takes to gain it. He wants your attention as bad now as when he was three or four years old.”

Teens need to be taught the right thing to do, not just to be afraid of punishment if they do something wrong. When teens need help more than parents are able to provide on their own, it is alright to ask for help.