There are several compelling reasons for choosing a wilderness program as a first step for your teen's (or young adult’s) journey into therapeutic programming. Wilderness therapy provides powerful elements of consequence, containment, and motivation that give your son or daughter the tools for introspection during and after the experience. The wilderness is unrelenting and comprehensive so students must proactively respond to this fresh, challenging environment. They learn that they must consciously make choices -- knowing that they are completely responsible for the outcomes.
Another reason we find wilderness therapy successful is because some young people do not respond to traditional talk therapy. Outdoor programs offer an active way for staff and students to relate to one another, so the emphasis is not solely on talk. In some programs, students are “in the field” for the entire experience and the therapeutic staff join them in the woods, typically for two days each week. However, in a “base camp” model, students trek for several days at a time but return to a base for a variety of activities – including weekly therapy sessions.
Outdoor programs place youth in unique settings where they are often quite unsure of themselves. Moving out of their familiar environment serves to reduce defensiveness and encourages changes in relationships with adult leaders. Most outdoor programs use a small-group format and encourage interdependence among group members. The 24/7 or ‘round the clock’ group experience is a very powerful teaching tool.
The interplay of therapy, group dynamics and the restorative power of nature creates major shifts in students’ outlook, perceptions and conduct. Removed from the distractions and temptations of home life, they are better able to explore the issues underlying negative behaviors. Because the group cannot function without everyone’s cooperation, students learn new pro-social behaviors like effective communication and problem-solving skills. Hiking to the summit of a trail in the dead of winter or getting a campfire going during a rainstorm helps develop self-esteem on an individual level and also offers students the opportunity to mentor other students – reinforcing their sense of accomplishment.
Therapeutic wilderness programs have an intense clinical focus. Every encounter, assignment, activity and experience a student has in the field has intention behind it. Intentionality gives students purpose for what they are doing and offers continual opportunities for growth. As students better understand the choices they have made in the past and the consequences of those choices, they begin to see how making better choices can change their future.
The wilderness experience is an invaluable tool for helping teens better understand themselves and for crafting an on-going treatment plan while continuing to work on academics so he/she can successfully move on with life. Often we find that this is a perfect time to get an up to date evaluation completed too.