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What Happens At Treatment Centers Over The Holidays?

updated December 2017

When your child or troubled teen is away at a treatment center or wilderness therapy program and can not come home for the holidays, it is hard.  When I was directly working with families on placement of their troubled teen in a residential program or short term assessment and treatment program, December was a busy month.

Thanksgiving might have been ruined or behaviors were yet another struggle to deal with — not leaving the room because of anxiety, sneaking out because of unhealthy friends or use and abuse of substances in the home and a disregard for the family and rules.  Families would call or meet with me and always struggle with the conflict of needing help … ” but it’s [insert holiday here — Christmas, Hanukkah or New Year’s] time” and families often need another perspective when considering placing their child at this particular time.

The answer always to a parent was “their behavior is unsafe” and “do you want to deal with this over a 10 day vacation from school?”  If a parent could wrap their head around sending the child away after an assessment, the next question is  “What will happen at the treatment program?”  

And that is why this blog was created, you are about to make the hardest decision as a parent — visit the program before you enroll and learn about what that program does to make the holidays special.  

All Kinds of Therapy reached out to residential treatment centers and collected some examples of the strategies programs use to  soften the struggle for families and their children, regardless of children’s oppositional behavior, anxiety, depression, social skills weaknesses, substance use or substance abuse.  After all, part of The Holidays is a conscious intention to to slow life down, reflect on the year passed and profoundly focus on the family focus;  residential treatment centers do a lot to bring it all together.

(There will be another blog about wilderness therapy over the holidays, later this week).


  • Staff and students work together to create and prepare family-style meals for each holiday. We also plan fun outings and activities to relax, play and enjoy the holiday. (Novitas Academy, ID)

  • Our academic team created a gratitude tree in the school hallway, the kids would write a note daily on leaves as to what they are grateful for. It was a different way for everyone to get excited and share things for which to be grateful. (Elevations RTC, UT)

  • I have seen students from a treatment center in Ballet West annual performance of the Nutcracker in downtown Salt Lake City. (Programs leverage regional events that support the treatment vision.)

  • Calo Culture Club [an employee sponsored group] created Operation Angel Tree. We know there are some in our Calo family that don’t always have the extra money for Christmas. We also have some employees that want to give back, but are not sure how. And, because we don’t want anyone to go without this year we created Operation Angel. A confidential program, employees can anonymously support a need, make a financial contribution or donate (gifts). Likewise, an employee in need can anonymously request assistance and/or receive support without anyone knowing. The Culture Club places  an angel on the holiday tree in our front lobby with a corresponding number that includes a matched need/gift. It’s really wonderful to see us taking care of each other and our little twist on secret Santa.  (Calo, MO)

  • Deepening relationships. Generally, the girls on campus are a small minority of the general population, and this is framed as an opportunity. Often, they interact with residential staff in a more intimate fashion, talking about the meaning of family, going on off-campus outings in a small group setting, and Christmas caroling in the small towns surrounding the school. (Greenbrier Academy, WV)
  • Staff and client gift exchange with our male teen clients (12 -17) at our Riverside program.  The students make a gift through the Expressive Arts program for a specific staff member whose name they draw out of a hat.  Each staff person draws the name of a kid and gets a specific small gift  from a wish list created by that client.  Together at a nearby indoor ice arena they all open the gifts together — food, skating & a trip off campus. (Northwest Passage, WI)

  • All programs transform the program to recreate and honor that feeling of home.   Depending on the program or where the teen is in treatment, the students might help the staff create the warmth of the decorated and festive campus. We decorate campus for the holidays (Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas) in order to create a festive and family atmosphere for our students. (Novitas Academy, ID)  

  • “Service to Others” is the theme of the family dinners that occur at Calo. Since most of our kids have been relinquished at some point in their life, but they also were chosen by a loving family. During the holiday season we facilitate an “Adopt a (local) Family” program. This means that every student team at Calo identifies a family in need and essentially adopts them for the season. This includes meeting the family, establishing an understanding of their situation, securing in-kind donations, as well as active fundraising. Our students also obtain other gifts like clothes and toys for the children. The students from Calo typically include a handmade and personalized holiday card for the family. (Calo, MO)

  • There are many family and cultural traditions that can be involved to make this happen. We see this as an opportunity to not only celebrate the cultural differences, but also have the students educate each other on their traditions. We find this helps our students gain greater understanding and empathy for each other and grow closer together. Each home at Alpine will have their own little house celebration. While this varies by home, it is typical for them to exchange small gifts with each other, take turns talking about their favorite traditions, and, for those that wish to, make a favorite dish to share. The girls also help in the decoration of the homes. (Alpine Academy, UT)

  • In our assessment program, we have a special visit from Santa.  We created this because we have younger clients in this program.  The whole story is that everyone enjoys a visit from Santa and all the students, regardless of age loved it, more than anticipated. (Northwest Passage, WI)



  • What if we are observant & want our teen to attend services?  Most programs will encourage and support by making sure they make it to the church or synagogue to attend services.

  • At larger programs, the service might come to a program.  When a family is interested in ensuring the religious needs are met for the child, be sure to ask about how it is done for a student before enrolling.

  • Because we usually have Jewish students attending the program, we have a menorah in the courtyard that we light-up during the holiday. Each day, they kindle a new “branch”. It is fun because it is almost life-size and all the students enjoy it.  We also have a Christmas tree. (Elevations RTC, UT)

  • The girls that are of a similar faith will often get together from all the homes to participate in a tradition. For example, the girls of the Jewish faith will typically get together each evening to light the Menorah.  (Alpine Academy, UT)



  • Increased communication – this covers a lot of ground, and includes the primary therapist and other staff staying in touch with the parents and/or guardians, providing updates, sending pictures, and also providing support for family members that have feelings secondary to their child being away from the home. We also, when appropriate, increase communication between the child in treatment and the family. We have found that Skype is particularly welcomed during this time of year. We further encourage communication through email, and the sending of cards and letters. (Greenbrier Academy, WV)
  • “We always remind ourselves and our students that we have a very diverse student body at Seven Stars.  Our social skills groups are the perfect place for us to talk about traditions and holidays.  The students enjoy talking about special meals and visiting relatives.  We talk about different symbols, special food, service to others and traditions in general.  We make a variety of decorations for our dorm and talk about their meaning.  Sometimes a family will send special holiday treats for the whole group to enjoy.”  (Seven Stars, UT)



  • For both the student and family many of the conversations regarding the true meaning of the holidays, the making of handmade gifts and cards, and the natural sense of longing that seems to occur when apart during the holidays provides a powerful set up for the next scheduled on-campus family workshop. The entire family learns together that the most important gift is that of love and connection with each other and this is often celebrated on a much deeper level as a result of the experiences that they had while remaining on campus. (Greenbrier Academy, WV)
  • If the student cannot go home for the holiday, then families are encouraged to visit.  A teen might have an overnight with the family at a local hotel or the family will visit the program.  What the teen does with their family will come down to where they are in the treatment process.  One family I worked with, visited  their child at the program and they played games together for the holiday. The simple task of playing for them was about them learning how to do little things together and creating a relationship and laughing together.

  • At Novitas, we encourage families to spend the holidays together whenever possible.  It is not mandatory that students go home for the holidays but we do believe in family integration and involvement to the greatest extent possible for each family.  Therapists spend time with students and families planning and preparing for their time together in order to increase the likelihood of a positive, healthy family holiday.  (Novitas Academy, ID)  

  • At Elevations, our dietary staff set up a dinner for any families on campus as well as set up a nice dinner for our students who did not have family here. The entire staff and treatment team does a wonderful job of making it homey for our students. (Elevations RTC, UT)

  • What happens if I can not get to my child?   Northwest Passage has members of the staff who will spend extra time with the student – including off campus during the holiday. This happens all year long at NW Passage too.  Distance is hard and always harder during the holiday. (Northwest Passage, WI)

  • At Alpine Academy we see each student, and her family, as part of our big family. As such, they share in these special Holiday times and traditions with their Alpine family, even if they are unable to go home with their actual family.  Families who are visiting the campus join the house and join the celebration.  (Alpine Academy, UT)



  • Stockings and presents Christmas morning for those who have not been able to go home for a visit.  This all happens in their pjs, eating treats, and having fun.  We also have done a Christmas morning scavenger hunt in the building that leads the kids to discovery of the components to a larger “gift” that is something new for the unit – like new recreation equipment or sleds for the community. (Northwest Passage, WI)
  • Purposeful activity – we have had a number of students remark that their time over winter break was one of the most meaningful “holidays” they had ever experienced. They typically are involved in a number of service-oriented activities that may include making and providing gifts for underprivileged children, visiting nursing homes and other hospitals, and once again providing comforting words, cards or homemade gifts. “Themed” groups around the spirit of the holidays are held regularly, and making gifts that symbolize their hope for relationships with significant family members provides a way to concretize their feelings. When the time comes that they get to present these gifts in person, the feeling of connection and heartfelt emotion is palpable. (Greenbrier Academy, WV)
  • Parents usually can send gifts and the treatment facility will have parameters around how much can be spent or the volume of gifts.  

These are just some of the things that the treatment centers do for their clients over the holiday.  Call the programs and have conversations about what they do or better still– VISIT the program to meet the staff and ask the questions to the people.  This is a hard decision.  You can not have regrets or hesitations about it.  What can you can do check and double check and feel comfortable with the staff and therapists.  Read this blog about questions to ask when you are calling or visiting treatment centers.   The holidays are stressful enough and you need to believe that your troubled teen will be ok in the treatment center for whatever behavior or diagnosis that needs to be addressed.



About the Author

Jenney Wilder M.S.Ed launched All Kinds of Therapy in 2015, as the only independent online directory for the Family Choice Behavioral Healthcare Industry. With an impressive case of ADHD and her starter career in the 90’s in Silicon Valley, the dream for creating a website with features like side-by-side comparison and an integrated newsletter was born. Jenney stopped counting treatment centers and all types of schools that she has visited when she hit 500 many years ago. She was the sponsoring author of the only Economic Impact Study of the Family Choice Behavioral Healthcare Industry, which revealed the only true financial figures about this industry (in Utah). Jenney has a Masters in Special Education from Bank Street College (NY) and a Bachelors of Arts focused on History from Wheaton College (MA).