Neuroscience of Transitioning Home from Residential Treatment

For several years I have been giving presentations on how brain development and the process of learning can help us understand and improve therapy in residential care. I have been able to apply the principles of learning and memory in areas of parenting and bringing about positive change in people’s lives.  When I was recently asked to do a group about transitioning home from residential treatment, I began to wonder how these principles might also help in the process of engineering a successful transition to home for our students and their families.

Transition includes difficult challenges such as applying the tools and strategies learned in treatment to the home environment and avoiding the pitfall of feeling like nothing has changed when relapses occur. Once old patterns and thoughts arise, discouragement sets in along with feelings of hopelessness.

Understanding how the brain makes associations can help combat these feelings. When we learn or experience something new, a neuron is activated and becomes dedicated to that new thought or action. This new information is connected to other neurons which form a network and spread throughout different regions of the brain. Our students, through group therapy, individual therapy, family therapy, and recreational therapy learn new ways of thinking about life, family, relationships and especially themselves. As they learn new coping and relationship skills, their brains are forming new and powerful networks as neurons connect to each other and allow them to do different things than they did when they were home. All of these new thoughts and skills become associated to being in residential treatment. Their brains have developed a neural network dedicated to treatment skills and ideas.

Prior to treatment, students also developed a huge neural network of thoughts and behaviors associated with life at home. Scientists refer to this as “state dependent learning” which means the brain will access different neural networks depending on where the learning took place. When our students return home, their brains begin accessing the home network rather than the treatment network. This causes them to slip back into old ways of thinking, feeling and reacting.

By reviewing their assignment from their treatment binder, parents and daughters can help stop these old patterns.  As a family, they have already worked through these same feelings, behaviors and issues while in treatment.  Applying the assignments and interventions that helped them in treatment, parents and daughters can engage the new network of neurons to fire in the home setting.  Both the treatment network and the home network of neurons communicate and connect to each other to change old ways of thinking, feeling and reacting.  By encoding new thoughts and actions, families can create new experiences which bring positive outcomes at home.