Wilderness Therapy programs are highly-intensive, 30-90 day short-term programs specifically built to greatly disrupt the negative, self-destructive thoughts and behavior patterns that teenagers who are struggling typically fall into. Students in these programs spend nearly their entire stay in an outdoor wilderness setting, where they are hiking, camping, and learning survival skills in the wilderness.
Every wilderness therapy program has a unique approach, but the premise underlying the wilderness therapy is universal: nature is a fantastic teacher, because in nature, consequences matter. Most teenagers who enter these types of programs have never hiked, camped, or learned how to take care of themselves or their thoughts in tough and rigorous physical conditions. Being in the wilderness also helps kids step out of the environment in which they have become so entangled, whether it be school, their friends, or their home, abruptly breaking the patterns in their lives that have become so harmful to themselves and others.
When Does a Teenager Need Wilderness Therapy?
Wilderness therapy programs are generally well-suited for teenagers who need strong intervention in their reckless and deceptive behaviors, anger, rage, promiscuity, drugs, alcohol, stealing, addiction to technology, pornography, inappropriate use of social media, anxiety, or depression. Some programs may also be built for students who are experiencing "failure to launch" or who seem to be collapsing in on themselves and are unable to deal with normal day-to-day life.
Wilderness therapy is also a great "first step" in the process toward healing. We regularly talk to families who have tried to place their teenager in a therapeutic boarding school or residential treatment center, but their application has been rejected because the programs where they applied were not equipped to handle the current state of their teenager. In our experience, there are many cases where 6-18 month residential programs may accept a teenager once they have completed a wilderness therapy program.
The Benefits of Wilderness Therapy
One of the most therapeutic aspects of wilderness therapy is the regular, rigorous exercise involved. Hiking and backpacking every day requires a lot of water, which can help teenagers flush the substances (alcohol, drugs, etc.) that they have typically abused for an extended period of time out of their bodies. Teens often begin thinking more clearly once the initial, sometimes painful withdrawal phase wears off. It’s also well-researched and generally understood that regular exercise can help anyone think more clearly, not just troubled teenagers. (We should note here that wilderness therapy programs generally require students to be sober for a specific period of time before entering a program if they are diagnosed addicts).
Another important aspect of wilderness therapy is learning how to have real and positive relationships, accepting your own faults and limitations, and taking responsibility for your own behavior. Groups of 6-12 students usually hike together, which means they have to get along in order for everyone to progress, and they all have to deal with each other when someone behaves poorly or holds the rest of the group back. When the teenagers see how poor behavior by others affects both themselves and the rest of the group, this thought process begins to turn inward toward their own behavior.
Most wilderness therapy programs have specific goals that every student must complete in order to move forward in the program. They may have to start 100 fires with two sticks, or they may need to build a lean-to, or they may need to teach other students a specific skill, or various other personalized goals — like not speaking for an entire day, for those who have trouble controlling their impulse to be abusive toward others in their language.
Nature is a Fantastic Teacher
In nature, poor decisions result in painful consequences. If a teenager forgets or refuses to eat or drink water at night, they will pay for their decision the next day in the form of physical weakness and muddled mind. If a teenager does not put her backpack together correctly in the morning, she will pay for it in the form of an off-balance and difficult journey for the day. If a teenager is not patient, consistent, and diligent in starting a fire, they will not be able to even come close to starting a fire. The process of having to deal with the consequences of nature, as well as dealing with disappointment in a healthy way, is a primary teaching tool in wilderness therapy.
Run By Experts in Their Field
In general, wilderness therapy programs are run by people who are experts in their field. They have been working with teenagers and their families for years, if not decades. Because they have been working in wilderness therapy for an extended period of time, they understand the benefits and the pitfalls of wilderness therapy, and work really hard to provide the best route to success for you and your family. In many cases, programs will also offer parenting seminars and training while your child is in the program to help you better understand the problems your teenager is facing in the context of their world, their friends, and your family.
We Can Help You Find Wilderness Therapy Options for Your Struggling Teenager
The Envoy Group has worked in the residential therapy and wilderness therapy industry for over 10 years. Having been in your shoes, we know that your search for a wilderness therapy program is difficult, stressful, and time consuming. Thankfully, there is we can help you! We have visited and assessed over 80 programs across the country, we have met the staff, directors, and owners. We also get feedback on a regular basis from the hundreds of parents who have placed their teen in a wilderness therapy program at our suggestion. Our services are provided at no charge, and as such, you are under zero obligation whatsoever to heed any of our suggestions. Contact us today and we will work to help you find wilderness therapy options for your family.