How Wilderness Therapy Programs Can Help Transform and Empower Every Struggling Teenager’s Lives
Is your teenager grappling with behavioral, emotional, or mental health challenges? As a devoted parent, you want the best for your child, but navigating the sea of treatment options can be overwhelming. Don’t lose hope! Wilderness therapy, the transformative approach that connects teens with nature’s healing essence, might be the answer you’ve been seeking.
In this blog, I share how wilderness therapy programs empower struggling teens and restore family bonds. Brace yourself, and let’s explore how the magic of wilderness helps adolescents facing mental health and behavioral challenges.
What is Wilderness Therapy for Teens?
The wilderness therapy experience is a one-of-a-kind approach to addressing the child’s internal struggles and discovering who they really are. They are in the wilderness, with no distractions, no outside pressure from parents or friends, no temptations like drugs, alcohol, and obviously no sex. Instead, they have lots of time to reflect and connect with nature.
Wilderness programs are a therapeutic environment in a wilderness setting that has a healing and calming effect on the mind. Wilderness is like an emergency room where all issues can be explored, and the primary needs can be determined.
For the first time in their lives, these teens immerse themselves in the signs of nature, the sounds, the smells of the great outdoors, and a sense of tranquility and peace that can only be experienced in nature. Most of these kids have never experienced that! Nature itself is healing.
“Wilderness therapy distinguishes itself from adventure therapy in terms of treatment context by primarily operating in remote wilderness settings, where basic outdoor life and the experience of nature are integral to the treatment process” “It applies clinical and therapeutic methods that are targeted to treat adolescents’ emotional, behavioral, psychological, and/or substance use issues.”(1)
Three Key Components of a Wilderness Therapy Program
A premier program has three components:
- Nature Immersion: Teens spend extended periods in the wilderness, surrounded by natural elements such as forests, mountains, rivers, and wildlife.
- Outdoor Activities: Teens engage in various outdoor activities, including hiking, camping, rock climbing, canoeing, and group challenges, which promote teamwork and self-discovery.
- Therapeutic Interventions: Trained therapists and counselors conduct individual and group therapy sessions, employing evidence-based therapeutic approaches like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and experiential therapies.
What to Expect When Your Child Arrives at the Wilderness Program
In the beginning, when a child first arrives, they don’t want to be there. In fact, they hate it. They are pissed off at the world. They want to continue doing what they were doing before their parents sent them to the wilderness.
As parents, you need to understand and be ready for the fact that no kid wants to stop doing what they are doing or make sustainable changes while they are in the midst of their bad behavior or crisis. No teen or “young adult” wants to leave their life and what is familiar and comfortable.
If you ask your child and try to get them to go to a program, nine times out of ten, your child will not want to go. You need to be ready for that! And more importantly, you should not be dissuaded by their refusal to cooperate.
The Role of Nature in Wilderness Programs
Remarkably, nature is healing, and after the first couple of days, your child will start to feel different, a little better, a little more relaxed, and that is when they start to look underneath all of the layers. They start to find the answers to questions like:
- Why do I hate myself?
- Why am I doing these things to myself?
- How did I end up here?
- Who do I want to be?
This is when they discover who they really are and press the pause button on their lives.
Choosing the Right Wilderness Program
When evaluating wilderness programs, choose a program that designs its therapeutic activities to mirror real-life challenges and offers individual and group therapy sessions. Do not be misled by therapy camps or weekend adventure programs in your community that promise quick behavioral improvements. The wilderness program you choose for your teenager must be in a wilderness setting and use proven therapeutic techniques and modalities.
The right therapeutic wilderness program for your child is well-run and has good outcomes. Effective wilderness therapy programs will help young newcomers overcome their initial discomfort, and confront and explore their internal struggles, ultimately leading to personal growth and improved overall well-being. Being in the wilderness, in nature, is therapeutic.
I always say: “It’s therapeutic in nature because we’re in nature.“
Some wilderness programs offer academic programs, but academics should never be the primary focus of wilderness. Young people who attend wilderness programs often get up to two transferable credits when they complete the 8-12 week program. That’s a bonus!
The Power of Wilderness: Why Wilderness Therapy Works
Adventure therapy, also known as outdoor or wilderness therapy, relies on combining outdoor and adventurous activities coupled with therapeutic interventions to promote personal growth and create self-awareness. In other words, wilderness therapy will challenge your son or daughter to confront their emotions and behaviors.
Wilderness programs are overseen by licensed mental health professionals and leverage proven experiential education methods and wilderness experiences program activities like hiking, rock climbing, canoeing, and many team-building challenges.
Therapeutic wilderness programs are also known as Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Programs (OBH). While OBHs are not required to hire licensed workers, the premier wilderness therapy programs I work with employ licensed mental health professionals with clinically trained experience. In fact, everyone, including the team facilitators, has educational backgrounds in child development, learning disabilities, and nature therapy.
Some therapeutic wilderness programs specialize in working with struggling teens and teenagers on the spectrum or girl or boy-only programs. Not all wilderness therapy programs work the same way. Each offers unique wilderness experiences for teens and young adults depending mostly on the geography, the level of individual therapy, the intensity of the family program, and the goals of the adventure activities.
The best wilderness programs offer a therapeutic intervention experience and work with each wilderness client to achieve individual goals by using personalized treatment. The end result should be for these youths to achieve self-efficacy, develop healthier relationships, heal from substance abuse, and live a productive and healthy life. The strategies and activities may not be the same, but every one of these wilderness experience programs’ therapeutic processes is designed to help young people overcome their challenges and increase their motivation and resilience.
Intensive Clinical Assessment
The primary purpose of wilderness therapy programs is to help the kids understand their why and figure out what is causing their mental health or behavioral issues.
An initial assessment will evaluate the following:
- Do they have an underlying disease that has not been diagnosed?
- Are they suffering from trauma?
- Are they on the proper medication?
Unlike the once-a-week face-to-face therapy, these kids get at home and their medication management, which often means trying new meds to “help.” Working with a therapist in the field, they go beyond the symptoms and start peeling back the onion.
These young people get an opportunity to rediscover who they are and learn new life and coping skills. They learn new ways to communicate effectively and how to advocate for themselves. One of the highest values of the experience is that these kiddos gain a new balance.
They start to understand and become more aware of their role in their family, their actions, and why their parents sent them to the program. By the time they complete the program, they are reconnecting with their parents for the first time in years and are on their healing journey.
The wilderness therapy experience is very different than other therapeutic treatment programs for teens and young adults. Wilderness programs are the first response. I like to compare them to what happens when you go to the emergency room.
Wilderness Therapy Programs are the Emergency Room for Troubled Teens
Think about it, you get sick and go to the ER, and when you arrive, you are quickly assessed by a triage nurse, vitals, temperature, BP, etc. What’s your medical history? What’s happening now? Then you are examined by a physician. If you are in bad shape, they start an IV with fluids or give you medication; the goal is to stabilize you.
Only then do they order diagnostics tests: EKG, blood and urine analysis, X-rays, and CT scans, and develop a personalized treatment plan.
Similarly, your child’s treatment program cannot be prescribed until your child is assessed and stabilized. Stabilization is the first priority. Followed by individualized therapy to explore behavioral and mental health issues.
Wilderness therapy programs work because the wilderness experience is in a distraction-free environment that promotes intelligent and authentic expression.
Combining the therapeutic process, the natural environment, and the wilderness experience creates a therapeutic relationship (a bond) between the young person and the therapist, making it easier to dig deeper to understand what is driving behavioral health issues.
It’s not easy to know what’s going on at first, and the issues can be complex with multiple symptoms– but the goal of treatment is to really get past the visible signs to understand the real problems:
- Is it mental health?
- Is it behaviors?
- Is it trauma?
- Are they using the proper medications?
- Are any of their medications producing an adverse reaction?
The Role of the Wilderness Therapists
The Wilderness Therapist plays a crucial role in the success of wilderness therapy programs. They are your child’s guide through their transformative journey.
The wilderness therapist’s job as a trained and experienced mental health professional is to assess the individual’s emotional and behavioral needs, tailoring therapeutic interventions to address specific challenges. They foster a safe and supportive environment, encouraging participants to examine their struggles and emotions honestly.
Using various evidence-based therapeutic techniques, the Wilderness Therapist facilitates individual and group therapy sessions, promoting self-awareness, emotional regulation, and personal growth.
Moreover, they help participants draw connections between their experiences in the wilderness and real-life situations, fostering meaningful insights and sustainable changes. Throughout the process, the Wilderness Therapist mentors and facilitates, empowering teens to overcome obstacles, build resilience, and develop skills necessary for long-term well-being.
Why Wilderness Therapy Works
In a typical wilderness program, kids spend three to four hours two times per week in one-on-one therapy sessions. They have up to eight hours of face-to-face time with their therapist. This immersive, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). These kids begin to understand their pain, shame, and conflicts during these sessions. So it is a big deal!
When not directly working with the therapist, they work in small groups of six to ten. Learning and practicing mindful practices, play therapy, and survival exercises and working their 12-step programs. They are living outdoors in nature the entire time.
Adventure therapy and experiential learning build confidence, replacing negative feelings of victimhood and powerlessness with a new sense of accomplishment, self-confidence, and accountability.
The therapeutic and fun activities at the wilderness are challenging but designed to build these kids up and teach them to confront their internal struggles head-on. Resulting in personal growth and improved well-being.
The benefits of wilderness therapy are many; it is life-transforming and empowers teens to overcome their struggles and improve their lives. Experience has taught me that, more often than not, wilderness therapy is the first positive step in the path to healing.
Wilderness Therapy’s Impact on Family Relationships: Effects and Benefits
The eight to fourteen weeks a child spends in the wilderness gives parents a much-needed breather. Parents need that time to make decisions, to get themselves to a better mental space. To process what’s happened in their family and for their own healing.
While the kids are in wilderness programs, parents get homework, worksheets, and work on writing letters; they do many of the same assignments their kids are working on with their therapist.
Midway through the program, parents visit and participate in joint sessions working with their child and their child’s therapists.
During this process, parents realize their kids don’t want to continue the behaviors that got them into the wilderness.
I advise my parents to step back and hear what their child says and how they say it.
“Wilderness, in my opinion, is therapy on steroids.” ~ Mary Warren
At this point in the healing process, these kids often share their raw feeling, what they are feeling now. But, if you listen carefully, you also hear who and what they want to be tomorrow.
A common fear shared by all parents who send their teenagers to a program is that their children will resent them. This is not true! Whenever I interview any of these kids, we talk about their behaviors at home before the program, and they tell me, “I hated who I was. I did not want to be like that.” I tell you, this is why I love the wilderness. These programs are an effective crisis intervention.
What is the success rate of wilderness therapy?
The success rate depends on many factors. In my experience, no two programs are exactly alike, and no two teenagers are alike, which makes it difficult to give an exact success rate.
However, research and studies over the years tell us that teens who complete a wilderness therapy program show 60 to 80% improvement in their emotional and behavioral well-being. The wilderness therapy programs I recommend to my clients are in the 80% plus percentile.
It’s important to note that wilderness therapy is designed to be part of a broader treatment plan, and the long-term success of the intervention often depends on the availability of appropriate aftercare and ongoing support for participants upon their return to their home environment.
Wilderness Program Aftercare: The Importance of Wilderness Program Aftercare
It’s important to know that wilderness therapy is designed to be part of a broader treatment plan, and the long-term success of the intervention often depends on the availability of appropriate aftercare and ongoing support when the child returns to their home environment.
This is why I always tell parents that when a child completes a wilderness therapy program, they need aftercare. Aftercare is usually provided at a residential treatment center or a therapeutic boarding school.
Similar to the ER example, you are not healed when you are released from the ER. You have a diagnosis, perhaps a treatment plan. You are referred to a specialist that knows how to treat and hopefully cure or help you manage your diagnosis. You broke a leg, and you go to physical therapy. After the diagnosis, the real work begins.
True healing is not flashy. In fact, it is boring. It takes time, and sometimes you are not sure it is working, and then it suddenly does. It is in the aftercare where healing happens. These kids get to hone their skills, dig deeper and learn how to have sustainable change. In residential treatment, these adolescents heal.
When a child has a mental diagnosis like Chronic Depression, Generalized Anxiety, trauma or PTSD, ADHD, ODD, Substance Use Disorder, or another Conduct Disorder, they are taught how to manage their condition and thrive in the real world despite it.
“A lot of kids won’t walk into aftercare ready. When they go to wilderness, then they walk into aftercare they’re more ready. They’re walking into their own treatment, they’re more accountable. When we go from home right into residential, there’s a lot more pushback, a lot more resistance… there are a lot of fantastic schools that may not take your kid if they haven’t completed wilderness.”
Wilderness therapy clients who complete wilderness programs and then attend residential treatment programs have much better outcomes than those that only go wilderness or adventure therapy. Why? I cannot say this enough: It takes time to heal.
Don’t be derailed by short-term, thirty-day programs that are promoted online. These programs can only deal with superficial issues. Many of my clients have tried two or more short-term programs only to have their child relapse, and that is when they hire me to find them the right therapeutic program for their child.
An involuntary stay in a psychiatric hospital or mental ward usually last until the child is no longer considered a threat to themselves. These short-term facilities or clinics have a place in the healing journey but are not enough.
A Brighter Future: Academic Performance and Personal Growth
When a child goes into wilderness or residential treatment, they are often failing school or have no desire to focus on education. Many have convinced themselves that they don’t want to finish high school. Yet, something happens after treatment, and many find a new passion for learning.
When a teen enters a program for troubled teens, they are likely to be behind in school. A treatment phenomenon is that while in the therapeutic program, these children catch up with their education and often get ahead, even taking college-level classes.
It is impressive to see how these kids who once refused to attend school not only graduate high school but many of the kids I’ve helped over the years become nurses, therapists, doctors, business people, and even journalists. Many volunteer to work in community programs that help troubled youth. Whenever I hear one of these stories from my residential or wilderness therapy clients, it really fills my heart with joy!
Over my career, my observations have been consistent with a study that assessed the outcomes of teens and young adults twelve months after completing a long-term residential treatment. According to the study, 86-91% attended or had successfully graduated high school.
What are the negatives of going to wilderness therapy programs?
There are some potential issues associated with wilderness programs. Nothing is perfect, and these types of programs for teens require a “Buyer Beware” caution.
- Misleading or false advertising, Some programs that promote themselves as Wilderness Therapy Programs for Troubled Teens are boot camps. Boot camps are bad for kids and cause horrible trauma.
- Uncomfortable and Challenging Experience, Physical and emotionally demanding activities are challenging and painful. Combine that with a shortage of home comforts, limited access to electricity and water, and the unpredictability of the weather. If you think about it, you can see how wilderness can be an uncomfortable and challenging experience for some teenagers.
- Potential for Relapse, while wilderness programs have very good outcomes. They are short, and when children transition home without an aftercare plan and ongoing support, they risk relapsing into problematic behaviors.
- Cost and accessibility, Wilderness therapy programs are expensive, and health insurance coverage varies greatly, often considered out of network. Travel can also be a concern due to geographical constraints. Most reputable programs are near national parks, forests, mountains, and other pristine wilderness.
Working with a therapeutic or educational consultant to avoid these potential issues is essential, expeditious, and beneficial. Educational consultants have in-depth knowledge and understand the program’s strengths and weaknesses, including which wilderness therapy is safe and their suitability for specific needs or life circumstances.
“What an educational consultant provides for family, first of all, as an advocate, because I don’t work for programs or schools. I work for families and with parents. My job is to partner with parents to really look at what’s happening in their family. What does this kiddo need?” ~ Mary Warren
Educational consultants have access to a wide reputable network and bring an impartial and objective perspective on different programs. They also can evaluate accreditation, safety protocols, and more. Working with an ed consultant to find the right program for your teenager also gives you support throughout the process and a family advocate to ensure your child receives treatment and progresses.
Lastly, it will save you time and stress!
Why are Long-term Residential Treatment Programs Effective?
Long-term residential care (or wilderness aftercare) offers an intensive, structured environment conducive to treatment and healing.
Residential treatment centers are designed to address all aspects of the patient’s life. Treatment programs are designed to treat the underlying issues and use evidence-based therapeutic modalities tailored to each patient’s unique needs.
Residential treatment is also where these kids get back into academics, are reintroduced to their cell phones, and prepare to return home. At first, the home visits are short. Then they are followed by intensive sessions to understand the homecoming experience and evaluate how well the child avoided triggers and managed their feelings and emotions. Follow-up home visits are also assessed to gauge how the treatment progresses and whether the child is learning to manage their emotions healthily.
In aftercare, teens learn how to get along with their families and how to understand family values and dynamics. In short, residential treatment teaches these kids the skills they need to become who they want to be, see themselves in a new light, and believe in new possibilities.
Take the First Step Towards Healing
Ready to empower your struggling teen and stabilize your family’s connections? Don’t wait another day! Book a complimentary consultation with me, and embark on a life-transforming journey of healing and growth. Your teen deserves a brighter future—click now to schedule your free consultation.
(1) Fernee, Carina & Gabrielsen, Leiv & Andersen, Anders & Mesel, Terje. (2017). Unpacking the Black Box of Wilderness Therapy: A Realist Synthesis. Qualitative Health Research. 27. 114-129. 10.1177/1049732316655776.
Bowen, D. J., Neill, J. T., & Crisp, S. J. R. (2017). Wilderness Adventure Therapy Effects on the Mental Health of Adolescents. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 17(3), 199-212. DOI: 10.1080/14729679.2016.1254461
Russell, K. C. (2001). The Use of Wilderness Therapy in the Treatment of Adolescents with Behavioral Disorders. Child & Youth Care Forum, 30(6), 453-469. DOI: 10.1023/A:1013095328781
Cole, E. M., Fox, J., & Rose, J. (2018). Wilderness Therapy for Adolescents: A Review and Critical Examination. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 27(6), 1758-1767. DOI: 10.1007/s10826-017-1003-y
Giles, G. M., Greenway, M., & Mills, C. (2015). The Effectiveness of Wilderness Therapy for Adolescents in Australia. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 15(2), 150-162. DOI: 10.1080/14729679.2014.966490
Behrens, Ellen & Satterfield, Kristin. (2011). A Multi-Center Study of Private Residential Treatment Outcomes. Journal of Therapeutic Schools and Programs. 1. 10.19157/JTSP.issue.05.01.03.