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Why Therapeutic Wilderness Programs for Troubled Teens Work

Therapeutic wilderness programs take troubled and at risk teens into the wild for a learning and growth experience. These programs typically last from a few weeks to a couple of months in duration, and although often lumped together with "boot camp" style treatments, are quite different experiences.

Therapeutic wilderness programs are rarely confrontational in nature, and are about "building up" rather than "tearing down". In most, the wilderness experience is used as a part of the therapeutic milieu, as a great teacher of true consequences and responsibility, with trained counselors helping to guide teens through their journey of exploration.

Why Does Getting into Nature Help?

Challenge and Trust

Most kids coming into a therapeutic wilderness experience will have already been through various outpatient and in some cases, residential treatment programs – and have not had success in changing their behaviors and or self worth, for the better. At a most basic level, getting these kids into the wilderness can intensify the therapeutic value of the time spent.

In the wild, these teens are taken well outside of their environment and their comfort zone, and forced to come to terms with a new landscape and new challenges. Through the necessities of daily living, they are forced to interact with intensity, instead of apathy - and through challenge and intensity, comes a new openness to emotional and behavioral growth. You can ignore your therapist in an office, but you probably won’t ignore your therapeutic counselor when she's guiding you through building a shelter in a rainstorm.

These troubled kids often have trust and authority issues, and are not easily reached through conventional therapeutic tactics. Getting them into an environment where they will need and want to listen, can be an enormous breakthrough in itself.

Nature Is an Authority That Cannot Be Manipulated

Troubled teens tend to blame others for their failings and unhappiness. Bad grades are the result of an unfair teacher – mom takes the car keys away after a curfew infraction, and "she hates me". Authority figures are blamed, and there is no recognition of the role they played.

These teens will often become master manipulators and experts at confusing and clouding issues – experts at getting away with what they want to get away with.

But nature is not so easily manipulated.

Nature neither punishes nor rewards, it just exists - and you are accountable for your actions. 

Wilderness therapy teaches experientially that we are all responsible for our actions, and ultimately, we receive consequences for our actions. Nature is neutral, you can blame it, and it doesn’t care. If you fail to build a good shelter, you may get wet. If you don’t wear sunscreen, you may get burnt. You can choose to listen to your counselor's advice or not, but ultimately, you pay a consequence for your decisions, and the authority doling out the consequences, cannot reasonably be blamed for "hating you".

At best, nature helps kids to understand that they are responsible for their actions, and that the things they do bring consequences, both good and bad, in nature, and in life. They learn that they can choose to succeed, that success is in their power, but that they must do it for themselves, and that if they don’t – no one else is to blame.

The Therapeutic Bond

For greatest therapeutic progress, there needs to be trust between the therapist and the client, and this trust is hard earned for skeptical and apathetic teens. Through the daily realities of living and playing together, counselor/therapists on expeditions can make great headway into building the kinds of therapeutic relationships that can lead to great breakthroughs. It can be easier to talk with someone who carries a pack beside you everyday for weeks, than it can be to talk to a stranger in an office, that you meet with for an hour once every week.

Self Esteem

Therapeutic wilderness programs are designed to challenge, but also designed so that kids will succeed. Teens may think that they cannot survive in the woods, cannot build their own shelters, climb up mountains or white water kayak, but they can. They are taught how to, and they prove to themselves that they are capable of more than they had realized.

Many teens come into a therapeutic wilderness experience, suffering low self esteem and a lack of confidence. Wilderness successes can help them to overcome their doubts.

Family Healing

Healing and change needs to come from both sides, and without parental involvement, and a commitment to better family dynamics, lasting change is unlikely. All therapeutic wilderness programs incorporate family therapy and participation. Time away gives both sides an opportunity to cool off, to reflect, and to think about what changes need making.

Parents are generally invited to participate in overnight family therapy workshops, where the whole family joins together to talk about what went wrong, and work on creating new and healthier systems for the future. Sometimes parents will even be asked to spend a night or two in the woods, with their newly skilled and self reliant teens showing them the ropes for a change!

Wilderness experiences are growing up experiences, helping kids learn what they need to be healthy and happy young adults.

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