How Wilderness Programs Help Troubled Teens

As a parent of a troubled teen, you may be nearly at the end of your rope in trying to find ways to help your child. One of the more popular troubled teen programs is a therapeutic wilderness program. However, as a parent, you may balk at the thought of having your child out there in the wild. Is there really therapeutic benefit in a wilderness experience? Does nature in its wild, raw beauty really have therapeutic powers?

Decades of experience by wilderness therapists and outdoor educators attest to the effectiveness of teen wilderness programs for young people struggling with personal issues, emotional upheavals, addictions, involvement in gangs and criminal activities, as well as psychological problems.

Here are some ways that a nature-based program can help:

– Nature confronts a teen with the fact that his choices have consequences. One of the roots of the issues a troubled teen faces is his failure to see that some of his problems are a result of his past choices. Unlike parents and other authority figures, nature cannot be manipulated. Because nature simply is and the teen is the one doing the interacting, the teen is led into the realization that he cannot place all the blame on his surroundings but that he can make choices that can affect any future outcome. During the program, teens who refuse to learn basic skills such as starting a fire or participate in building a tent will have to contend with the consequences – a cold meal or a night out in the cold.

– The wilderness provides an exhilarating and physically challenging environment. Being isolated in the wilderness has two-fold benefits. It removes the teen from an oppressive environment where he is distracted and rendered more vulnerable to unhealthy influences and temptations. It also offers a safe, neutral environment by which he can begin again – with himself and with relating to others. The combination of natural beauty, fresh air, the need to sweat it out and the need to call up reserves of physical strength can actually be an invigorating experience. These can help a teen get in touch with all that is positive in him and challenge him to focus on positive things can do and enjoy rather than on how he responds to the negative influences around him.

– Nature nurtures a sense of accomplishment with each completed milestone. Activities such as hiking and camping give the teen a wonderful sense of achievement as he works with others towards meeting a milestone. As the teen proves that he is indeed able to do something he never thought he could, his confidence and self-esteem grows to greater heights.

– Nature enables a teen to have a healthy appreciation of basic benefits and amenities he may have taken for granted. Electricity, running water, hot meals and all the other things can now be seen with more appreciation as they realize how these basic benefits require much cooperation and work from the team to achieve. The lack of basics can also push a teen to go beyond his comfort zone and challenge his perceived limitations as he proves for himself that he is able to survive and even thrive by learning basic living skills.

– The wilderness presents an environment that is free of distractions. In the wilderness, the teen does not have the usual distractions – his gang, the internet, video games or the television. The lack of distractions enable the teen to focus on the wilderness program’s regular routine – waking up at a certain time, getting eight hours of sleep and going for daily exercise. All these promote physical and emotional wellbeing. The teen also gains from the healthy diet supplied by the program, the fresh air and sunshine.

– The wilderness is an exhilarating setting for recreational activities. Aside from hiking and camping, a wilderness program can also offer a variety of activities, performed individually and as a team. The challenges and the enjoyment a teen can get from such activities can spark a renewed interest for life and what it has to offer.

– The wilderness offers more opportunities for self-exploration. Self-exploration activities are an essential component of a wilderness treatment program. Activities such as journal writing, goal setting and evaluation as well as writing letters to loved ones are done during quiet periods. The environment provides an ideal background that heightens his self-examination and introspection. This “journey to himself” can effectively bring out his concerns and feelings as well as realizations of how his past choices have hurt him and those around him. With a strength-based approach for the activities, the teen also gets to know his weaknesses, instead of someone else pointing these faults to him.

– The wilderness engages the teen outside of their comfort zone. The wildness of nature does not allow a teen to continue to be uninvolved and apathetic to the activities in the program. Rather, they are pushed to leave their comfort zone and learn to interact with the challenges of their environment and the activities. While it is easy to ignore a therapist inside the safety of his office, it can certainly be difficult to ignore a wilderness counselor who is giving instructions while the team is negotiating the rapids while riding a raft.

– Nature builds an awareness of the value of interdependence. Surviving and thriving in the wilderness and completing outdoor challenges will require not just self-reliance but cooperation with other members of the team. He learns to work with others and to value their contribution for the good of the team. He also has an increased awareness that he can contribute and that he has his place in the world.

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