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Lost teenagers return home, through Israel

    Overcoming the angst of being a teenager (or parenting one) is not easy. When teens are struggling with emotional or behavioural issues, it becomes a greater challenge, especially in a world that is quick to diagnose and medicate. And if issues go unnoticed or, worse, are swept under the rug, a teen will more likely turn to other, less safe avenues for support or escape.

    Searching for help for her 15-year-old son in America, SC* was offered limited options. "When my son went off the rails, all the consultants and professionals steered us toward 12-step programmes, the wilderness programme in Utah and therapeutic boarding schools," she says. "We felt misdiagnosed as a family and our child was wrongly pegged as an addict for life. We felt that our child was being set up for failure. It made him desperately angry, depressed, hateful and destructive."

    This is an all too common experience for families. But innovative schemes are now available in Israel to help teens grow and heal.

    Among them are Free Spirit, an eight-to-10-week customised, therapeutic experience; Naale Elite Academy, a high-school scheme for teens from abroad who need a change and Counterpoint Israel, camps for Israeli teens from difficult backgrounds, run by Yeshiva University students.

    What sets these programmes apart is that they do not view young participants as broken or troublemakers who need to be "fixed"; they see a whole person who, given the right environment, will re-centre themselves and flourish. At Free Spirit, young people are given choices and responsibilities, while staff at Counterpoint Israel are not told who has a troubled background, so all the teenagers start on an even footing.

    SC understood how important this approach was for her son's healing and refused to accept the choices she was offered.

    "We do not believe the answer to his life is for him to sit in a room every day and examine his weaknesses," she says. "We needed a paradigm shift that returned him to physical and mental health and didn't leave him stigmatised for the rest of his life."

    They were relieved to find this approach in Free Spirit. "When he arrived at Kibbutz Hazorea, he did not have to start at zero and undergo the humiliation of having to prove himself worthy of every tiny privilege, as he had to do in previous programmes," says SC. "He started at 10 and was treated with dignity and respect. His anger and oppositional behaviour dissipated immediately."

    Teenagers typically have a keen nose for authenticity, are extremely emotionally sensitive and can immediately pick up on people's intentions. They are wary of being patronised.

    Julia, 16, was hesitant when her educational counsellor told her about Free Spirit but warmed to the idea when Tamir, co-founder and psychologist came to visit twice. "I saw that he was very calm and had a very deep understanding of what's going on," says Julia. "We were able to develop a really nice relationship even before I came to Free Spirit."

    Teens take part in wilderness activities and other confidence-building programmes. Naale has a network of professionals, including dorm counsellors, social workers, language specialists, psychologists and dedicated teachers. "Every child needs something different." says Ilana, a Naale counsellor. "Everything that a child needs, we take care of. I talk with the parents all the time to let them know what's going on with their kid."

    Ross, a Naale junior , adds: "I love my teachers, they really help a lot and give you extra support if you need it. They are the best."

    Transformations take place every day in these programmes as teens are given the environment they need to thrive. Deb, 19, was born in Kamathipura, Mumbai's red light district where her mother was a sex-worker. When Deb was 14, she was sent to live at Kranti, an organisation that educates and empowers girls from Kamathipura.

    Deb lived in Kranti for five years and wanted more independence and to find work but was depressed and smoking and drinking a lot. Robin, the co-founder of Kranti, suggested that she should go to Free Spirit. "Robin told me they would help me develop my mind and help me adjust when I get back to India," says Deb. "I heard about it and I was like, 'Yalla, let's back my bags.'"

    Julia also needed a change of scenery. "My parents were trying to give me a stress-free space with no responsibility, because they thought it would help me focus on my school work," says Julia. "But I realised here that I prefer having responsibility and it's helped. I'm coming out of this strong."

    Free Spirit works on the principle of challenge through choice. Teens are responsible for their time – morning wake-up, calls to their parents, getting themselves to events and commitments promptly, without reminders or assistance from staff. They must also clean their room and water the flower and herb garden.

    Once a week they work with a trainer who teaches them how to train and take care of dogs. Whenever they leave the kibbutz , they are responsible for packing a bag with everything they need (such as a map and torch).

    Deb's zest for life is contagious and she is now dreaming of becoming a dance therapist to help other girls like her. "I used to tell myself that I'm not proud of myself and that I haven't done a lot for other people," she says. "When I talk to Adina, the counsellor, I'm very proud of myself that I can share with people. I am now able to recognise when I feel like I need to shut down, and I know it's not healthy."

    At Counterpoint Israel, the campers often return but for a happy reason.

    "Two of my campers in Kiryat Malachi, who were among the most difficult and wild students, are no longer in Counterpoint," says Ariella Muller, a counsellor. "They are now madrichim in their own camps, teaching younger kids and are giving back to their own community."

    The effects of the approach of these programmes can be rapid.

    After only one week at Free Spirit, 15-year-old Matt already felt different. "People here are a lot easier to talk to," he says. "In the UK you make friends only through friends of friends or from school. Here you can go to a park, join a game of football and then you're friends."

    Julia adds: "It really changed my perspective on life and I got a lot of tools to help me. Learning about relationships was huge. I now see that my parents really love me and that everyone has good intentions."

    When youngsters feel supported and safe, such turnarounds can happen naturally. With these alternative support strategies for struggling teens, parents can breathe easier, knowing that the future is more hopeful for everyone.

    *Names have been changed

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