Israeli programs offer innovative model for struggling teens

Searching for a more holistic approach to emotional and behavioral issues, parents turn to Israel for innovative programing.

Overcoming the angst of being a teenager (or parenting one) can be tricky. When teens are struggling with emotional or behavioral issues, it becomes a greater challenge, especially in a world that is quick to diagnose and medicate. When issues go unnoticed or worse, swept under the rug, a teen will more likely turn to other, less safe venues for support or escape.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Innovative programs in Israel, like Free Spirit Experience, Naale Elite Academy, and Counterpoint Israel are filling the gap by providing environments that use challenge by choice and empowerment models to help teens grow and heal.

S.C., mother of 15 year-old Free Spirit participant, T.C., was searching for help for her son in the United States and was offered extremely limited options. “When my son went off the rails, all the consultants and professionals steered us toward 12-step programs, the wilderness program in Utah, and therapeutic boarding schools,” S.C. said. “We felt misdiagnosed as a family and our child 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.”

Photo: Free Spirit Experience

This is an all too common experience for parents. But there are now growing choices in Israel to counter this frustration and for teens to get a fresh start.

Among them are Free Spirit, an 8-10 week customized, therapeutic experience in Israel for teens that need a restart in their lives, Naale Elite Academy, a high school program for teens from abroad who need a change and Counterpoint Israel, camps for Israeli teens from difficult and low socio-economic backgrounds, run by Yeshiva University students.

What sets these programs apart is that they don’t view teens as broken or troublemakers that need to be fixed; they see a whole person that needs the right environment to get re-centered and flourish. At Free Spirit, teens are immediately cherished and given responsibility and at Counterpoint Israel counselors don’t know who has a troubled background, so all the teens start out on even footing.

S.C. 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,” S.C. explained. “We needed a paradigm shift that returned him to physical and mental health and didn’t leave him stigmatized for the rest of his life.”

They breathed a sigh of relief when they found this approach in Free Spirit, a program that uses a challenge by choice approach through outdoor and wilderness therapy, and other confidence building activities. “When he arrived at Kibbutz Hazorea there were no privileges to be earned,” S.C. explained. “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 programs. He started at 10 and was treated with dignity and respect. His anger and oppositional behavior dissipated immediately.”

Photo: Free Spirit Experience

Teens typically have a keen sense for authenticity, are extremely emotionally sensitive and can immediately pick up on people’s intentions. Julia (16) was hesitant when her educational counselor told her about Free Spirit, but calmed down 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,” Julia said. “We were able to develop a really nice relationship even before I came to Free Spirit.”

To make sure each teen gets what they need, Naale has a network of professionals, including dorm counselors, social workers, language specialists, psychologists and of course dedicated teachers. “Every child needs something different.” Ilana Joffe, Naale counselor explained. 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.” The students really feel their genuine care. “I love my teachers, they really help a lot and give you extra support if you need it,” Ross Pressner, Naale Junior said. “They are the best.”

Transformations take place every day in these programs as teens are given the environment they need to thrive. Deb (19) has a special Free Spirit story. She was born in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red light district because her mother was a sex-worker. When she was 14 she was sent to live at Kranti, an NGO that educates and empowers girls who were born in Kamathipura.

Deb lived in Kranti for 5 years and really wanted more independence and to find work but was depressed and smoking and drinking a lot. Robin, Kranti co-founder, suggested she go to Free Spirit. “Robin told me they will help me develop my mind and help me adjust when I get back to India,” Deb said. “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,” Julia explained. “But I realized here that I prefer having responsibility and it’s helped. I’m coming out of this strong.”

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,” Deb said. “When I talk to Adina (counselor), I’m very proud of myself that I can share with people. I am now able to recognize when I feel like I need to shut-down, and I know it’s not healthy.

Photo: Free Spirit Experience

In Counterpoint Israel, the campers are often repeat customers. Two of my campers in Kiryat Malachi, who were amongt the most difficult and wild students, are no longer in counterpoint,” Ariella Muller, Counterpoint counselor, said. “They are now madrichim (counselors) in their own camps, teaching younger kids and are giving back to their own community.”

The success of the approach of these programs speaks for itself.

After only one week at Free Spirit, Matt (16) already felt different. “People here are a lot easier to talk to,” Matt explained. “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. It’s a nice concept. Not like that where I’ve been.”

For Julia, “It really changed my perspective on life and I got a lot of tools to help me. Learning about relationship was huge. I now see that my parents really love me and that everyone has good intentions.”

When teens feel supported and safe, transformations can happen naturally. With new programs, like Free Spirit, offering a different model for struggling teens, parents can breathe easier knowing that the future is more hopeful for everyone.

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