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Is Wilderness Therapy the Answer to Your Struggling Teen’s Behavioral Issues?

Picture of Mary Warren
Mary Warren

Therapeutic Consultant
and Parenting Coach

Healing the Teen Spirit: How Wilderness Therapy Programs Help Struggling Teens

Is your teenager grappling with behavioral, emotional, or mental health challenges? Are they defiant, feeling angry, or are they utterly absorbed by their smartphone or their gaming consoles? Wilderness therapy might be the breakthrough you need.  In this article, I’ll explain how nature can foster healing and why it could be the answer for your family. 

Exploring the treatment options to help teenagers with behavioral or emotional problems can be overwhelming. Don’t lose hope! Wilderness therapy is a transformative approach that connects teens with nature’s healing essence, and it might just be the treatment your teenager needs now. 

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. The child is in the wilderness, with no distractions, no outside pressure from parents or friends, no temptations like drugs, alcohol, and obviously no sex. What they have instead, is lots of time to reflect and connect with nature.

Wilderness programs are a therapeutic environment in a natural 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.

Teenagers who attend wilderness camps find themselves immersed in nature for the first time in their lives, with the sounds and smells of the great outdoors and a newfound 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)

 

Wilderness Therapy: A Group Therapy Session

The 3 Key Components of a Wilderness Therapy Program

  1. Nature Immersion: Teens spend extended periods in the wilderness, surrounded by natural elements such as forests, mountains, rivers, and wildlife.
  2. Outdoor Activities: Teens engage in various outdoor activities, including hiking, camping, rock climbing, canoeing, and group challenges, which promote teamwork and self-discovery.
  3. 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 Teen Wilderness Program

As you can imagine, when a child first arrives, they don’t want to be there. In fact, they hate it. They are pissed off at the world and you especially for sending them away. Why? Because they want to continue doing what they did before they were sent to the wilderness. 

As parents, you need to understand that the anger will subside and be ready to deal with the fact that no kid wants to stop doing what they are doing.  They don’t want to change 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.

Getting your teenager to agree to go to any therapeutic program will fail 9 out of 10 times. You need to be ready for that! More importantly, you should not be dissuaded by their refusal to cooperate.

The Transformative Power  of Nature in Wilderness Therapy 

Remarkably, 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 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?

During this time, they discover who they really are and press the pause button on their lives.

wilderness adventure therapy activities

How to Select the Best Wilderness Therapy Program for Your Teen

When you are evaluating wilderness programs, consider the following: 

  • Designs therapeutic activities to mirror real-life challenges.
  • Offers individual and group therapy sessions.
  • Must be in a wilderness setting
  • Use proven therapeutic techniques and modalities
  • Employs licensed mental health professionals and therapeutic specialists
  • Has a history of good outcomes

Do not be misled by therapy camps or weekend adventure programs in your community that promise quick behavioral improvements. 

Effective wilderness therapy programs help participants overcome their initial discomfort, confront and explore their internal struggles, and ultimately lead 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.

While academics should not be a consideration for choosing wilderness therapy, some wilderness programs offer academic programs and up to two transferable credits to students who graduate from an 8-12 week program. That’s a bonus!

The Power of Wilderness: Why Wilderness Therapy Works When Other Treatments Fail

Wilderness therapy will challenge your son or daughter to confront their emotions and behaviors. These therapeutic programs, also known as adventure therapy, rely on a combination of nature, adventure, and therapeutic intervention.

Under licensed mental health professionals’ supervision, they employ 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). But you must be aware that they are not one and the same. OBHs are not required to hire licensed workers.

I only work with premier wilderness therapy programs that employ licensed mental health professionals and are clinically trained. 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 autistic spectrum, and there are girl or boy-only programs.

Each wilderness program offers unique experiences for teens and young adults, depending on the geography, the level of individual therapy offered, the intensity of the family program, and the goals of the adventure activities.

Choose a wilderness therapy program that offers therapeutic intervention and personalized treatment focused on the child’s specific needs and goals. 

When your child completes the program, they should be on their way to: 

  • achieve self-efficacy
  • develop healthier relationships
  • heal from substance abuse
  • have a more positive attitude
  • be ready to live a more productive and healthier life
  • increased 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, working with a therapist at a wilderness program in the field, they go beyond the symptoms and start peeling back the onion. They 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 for teens and young adults is very different than other therapeutic treatment programs. For many struggling teenagers, wilderness programs are the first response. I like to compare them to what happens when you go to the emergency room. 

    I always say Wilderness Therapy Programs are the ER for Troubled Teens ~ Mary Warren, Empower My Teen

    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 diagnostic tests, such as 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 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.

    As a trained and experienced mental health professional, the wilderness therapist assesses the individual’s emotional and behavioral needs and tailors 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.

    Wilderness Therapist at a Wilderness Program for Struggling Teens

    Moreover, they help participants connect their wilderness experiences to 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). During these sessions, these kids begin to understand their pain, shame, and conflicts. 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.

    Wilderness therapy has many benefits; 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.

    Benefits of Wilderness Therapy Programs: Family Healing

     

    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.”

    ~Mary Warren

    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 will likely 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.

    Adventure therapy is a major component of therapeutic wilderness programs.

    The Downsides of  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 education 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!

    The Effectiveness of Residential Treatment for Struggling Teenagers

    Worried Your Teen Will Backslide? How Residential Care Prevents Relapse after Wilderness

    Most teens thrive in wilderness therapy, but it’s normal for parents to worry about their children backsliding into old habits.  You are right to be concerned, and here’s why residential treatment is the next crucial step to solidify their newfound skills and prevent relapse. Here is how it works:

    Benefits of Residential Treatment After Wilderness

    • Root Cause Therapy: Uncover and address the underlying issues driving their behavior (trauma, anxiety, mental health struggles, etc.)
    • Learning New Skill: Learn healthy coping mechanisms, emotional regulation, and life skills for long-term success.
    • Gradual Reintegration: Reintroduce technology responsibly, practice skills in a controlled setting, and prepare for the transition home.
    • Family Involvement: Work together through therapy to rebuild trust and create a healthier family dynamic.

    Residential care provides the structure, support, and continued therapy your teen needs to turn their wilderness breakthrough into a lifetime of healthy choices.

    “We were so scared he’d lose everything he gained in wilderness. Residential treatment helped him build a strong foundation – now he’s a totally different kid.”

     

    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.

    Mary has been an absolute rock for us. She brings clarity and years of experience to the complex, confusing, and high-stakes process of helping our kid with multiple challenges. There have been countless times that we have been torn up about how to handle the numerous difficult decisions that have come up and just a few minutes of talking it through with Mary has made all the difference in the world. She is extremely professional, dedicated, and absolutely passionate about her work helping struggling teens and young adults, and she brought all of this to bear on our struggles. I recommend her to the highest degree possible. We feel extremely lucky to have her on our kid’s team!
    We discovered Mary 5 years ago when our son was failing 9th grade, heavy into drugs and starting down a path with gangs, and there was nothing more we could do to help him. Here we are now, after two RTC's and two wilderness programs with a son who graduated high school and is working full time. Mary's advice was spot on at each turn in the road. Not sure where we would be without Mary and the focused programs she advised us on. And even though our son is on a good track, we continue to use Mary for coaching to make sure the whole family stays on track.
    The best decision we ever made was engaging Mary Warren in the process. Mary took the time to get to know our situation on a personal level. She then utilized her skills, network, and experience to cut through red tape and facilitate placement options that would have been impossible to find on our own. During treatment, she was an active extension of our family, staying connected to the process every week, consulting with us as parents through the highs and lows, giving advice, showing compassion, and always reminding us that hope for a better future was real. It is rare to find a service provider where the term “exceeds expectations” is tangible, Mary and her team did just that. Highly, highly recommended. We are now in a stabilized phase with our son. Mary’s involvement in our lives was instrumental, we are eternally grateful.
    Mary has been a fantastic support to us as we navigated wilderness, residential treatment and aftercare for our teenage son. She is knowledgeable and caring. Her advice has been spot-on time and time again. She has been a rock for us in this challenging journey towards healing for the whole family. I recommend her highly!
    Sending our son to a therapeutic boarding school was the most significant decision my wife and I have ever made and I am so glad we had Mary’s help at every step of the way. Going this process on our own with our limited knowledge was not going to maximize our chances of success. We were fortunate to have found Mary of EmpowerMyTeen. Mary has deep knowledge of the schools available and was able to help us find one that fit our son well. There is so much information and misinformation out there and Mary helped us focus on the truth. We requested Mary’s services for placement services and coaching for the whole period that our son was in the program. Our son is home now and doing very well. The overall success our family had is as good as we could have hoped for and we give the credit to Mary and the wonderful staff of the school. Mary is professional, knowledgeable, experienced, kind and empathetic.

    Parent Success Stories – Real results from struggling and at-risk teens

    What Parents Say About Working with Mary Warren

    Read inspiring testimonials and success stories from parents whose teens found a brighter future, and see how Mary can help your family find healing and hope. 

     

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