Wilderness therapy programs are short-term, high-impact outdoor adventure camps for troubled teens. In the past decade, these programs have gained popularity among families and the media as catalysts for change in teens with behavioral problems such as low self-esteem, poor academic performance, defiance of authority, depression, and drug or alcohol abuse.
With average lengths of stay generally ranging from 30 to 60 days, wilderness therapy provides a safe, structured "wake-up call" to struggling teens who need time to re-examine their choices and distance from the negative influences in their lives. Many teens return from wilderness camp with a new appreciation for life and new skills to improve their relationships at home. But some teens need more than one or two months away from home to address severe emotional or behavioral issues.
As the final weeks of wilderness camp wind down, parents across the country are asking, "Is my child ready to come home?" At most wilderness programs, this determination is made based on considerations of family stability, academic progress, personal growth, and the resources available in the home community. After evaluating all of the factors, parents work with the teen's therapist to decide whether the camper is ready to return home or should continue on to a longer term residential facility.
"Even though parents are often eager to reunite with their child after camp, going home isn't always the best answer," says Sandy MacDonald, clinical director at a therapeutic wilderness program for troubled teens ages 13 to 17. "Depending on the adolescent and the severity of his or her issues, two months in the wilderness may not be enough to change behaviors that have built up over a number of years."
From the moment the campers arrive at a wilderness program, the staff and family members begin assessing the intensity of each child's behavioral issues and emotional needs, and creating a continuing care plan. Then, in the middle of the wilderness program, the therapists and parents evaluate the camper's progress and the family's level of stability. A mid-session parent workshop gives parents the opportunity to interact with their child in the field and assess his or her progress.
Together, parents and therapists review the current state of the parent-child relationship and the child's level of responsiveness. Do parent and child respect each other's boundaries or do they use their emotions to hurt one another? How much family conflict remains after a few weeks apart?
In determining the best course of care, therapists also evaluate the dynamics between the family members living at home. Are the child's parents on the same page or do they have diametrically opposed viewpoints? If the child's parents are divorced, therapists consider the degree of consistency between the two home environments. Are both parents committed to making the necessary changes and improvements?
The program therapists make recommendations for each teen's continuing care, based in part on the severity of the behavioral issues, the child's overall progress, and the stability of the family unit.
"Once the parent workshop is complete, we switch gears and prepare for the transition to the next stage of treatment, whether at home or another treatment center," MacDonald explains. "If the camper is moving on to a boarding school or residential placement, we coordinate with the new therapist and prepare the entire family for what to expect. If the camper is going home, we do everything we can as far in advance as possible to help families create a home environment that is suitable for continued growth."
For teens returning home, Wilderness program therapist Laurie Wilmot, LCSW, recommends that parents begin family therapy, practice their new communication and boundary-setting skills, and institute weekly family meetings while their child is still at camp. Therapists teach parents the skills to identify problems before they get out of hand, to make good, calm decisions, and to follow through with clear consequences. That way, the family unit is stable and the rules are well-established before the transition occurs.
"Teenagers rebel against structure by testing boundaries and challenging their parents' authority, but structure and rules make children feel safe," says Wilmot. "Before a camper returns home, her parents should be united and consistent in setting and enforcing rules, and the teen should be able to demonstrate that she is capable of living within set parameters."
What happens after wilderness therapy depends a great deal on the family unit. Sometimes parents are only ready to commit to sending their child to wilderness camp, and may not be ready or able to change the family dynamic. In those cases, MacDonald notes, it may be to the child's advantage to continue on to a structured and nurturing residential placement.
In deciding what happens after a wilderness program ends, therapists also speak with parents about how their teenager is performing academically. Is he ready to reintegrate into public school? Is he caught up in course credits?
If the old school climate isn't sufficiently nurturing, therapists will work with the family to evaluate other school settings or academic resources that might give the child a better chance for success. Sometimes teens can return to public school in a different location, some go on to private school, and others perform best in a therapeutic boarding school.
In cases where family finances make a long-term boarding school arrangement unfeasible, the program staff and parents work together to come up with a cost-effective alternative.
"My job is to give parents the optimal recommendation, and then help them make a decision based on where they stand emotionally and financially," explains Wilmot. "We discuss the pros and cons of every option, and come up with a plan B, if necessary."
Another important consideration when devising a continuing care plan, according to MacDonald, is the family's access and willingness to take advantage of resources in the home community. Are there places outside the home where the child can form appropriate relationships and a social support network? If the adolescent is struggling with substance abuse, does he have access to outpatient therapy and addiction counseling? Are there professional services available in the area, like a family therapist who can work with both the parents and child?
"Healing a child is really a family process," counsels MacDonald. "It's not about one person being right and another being wrong, or one person getting therapy while others wait for the problem to be resolved. Individual counseling is important for personal growth, but working together as a family in therapy is the best way to mend relationships."
During the transition home, it is also critical that teens have opportunities to connect with other adults or authority figures outside the home, whether through school clubs, the local gym, team sports, or otherwise. Healthy relationships with coaches, a new peer group, or relatives, siblings, or other family members can provide teens with positive role models and trusted sources for advice and emotional support.
Making the Choice That's Right for You
Whether you decide to bring your child home or continue on with a longer term placement after wilderness camp ends, the transition can be emotional for both parents and teens. With the expert advice and support of professional therapists who have worked closely with you and your child, you can feel confident in your decisions and your commitment to your child's future.
"During this decision-making process, we ask parents to get really honest with themselves and with each other," says Wilmot. "The biggest gift they can give their child is to differentiate between what's in their best interests and what's in their child's best interests, and make the best choice they can for their child."
Adirondack Leadership Expeditions is a wilderness program for troubled teens that promotes growth through a focus on insight-oriented experiences.
Wilderness programs for troubled teens serve as excellent alternatives to boot camps because teens learn through natural consequences and positive peer relationships.