As the winter holidays approach, parents of troubled teens across the country are hoping “things will be different this year.” Instead of worrying about how the holidays will go, if their son or daughter will create discord among family members, or if this holiday season will be as tumultuous as the last one, many parents of adolescents who are barely getting by in school or at home are taking advantage of the upcoming holiday break to enroll their teens in wilderness therapy.
Out of School, Out of Control
Like other vacation periods such as summer and spring break, winter vacation means more down time, which leads to less rules and structure and more opportunities for struggling teens to engage in delinquent behavior. “Young people tend to focus more on the social scene during school vacations,” says Kathy Rex, Executive Director of SUWS Adolescent and Youth Programs. “Winter, even more so than summer, brings out school parties, which often come with underage drinking, substance use, and heightened emotions.”
More down time also means more family time, which can escalate interpersonal conflicts and make evident problem behaviors that may have been less visible when school and work were in full swing, says Michael Ervin, Regional Director at SUWS of the Carolinas, a therapeutic wilderness program in North Carolina.
The holidays can be full of stress and anxiety for adults as well as teens. Add to the bustle of family gatherings a teen who is angry, defiant, depressed, or otherwise acting out, and many parents are pushed to their breaking point.
“When the family system is stretched beyond its means, the holidays are a good time for everyone to go to their own corners, regroup, and then reconnect,” says Rex. “With guidance from the field staff and therapists, the wilderness experience can help the family get their relationships back to a pure, enjoyable place where they recognize each other’s strengths and abilities and have meaningful, productive communications. It’s a strange irony, but being alone often helps us appreciate each other more.”
A Safe Place to Reconnect
Wilderness programs keep struggling teens healthy, happy, and out of trouble, with as little time away from school as possible, says Rex. The average wilderness program lasts 30-45 days, but programs like SUWS offer stays as brief as 14, 21, and 28 days.
Wilderness programs are beneficial for teens who are currently living at home as well as teens who are coming home from boarding schools and other out-of-home placements. Before the teens have the option to get into trouble, wilderness programs help them maintain their therapeutic progress and stay on track.
Trained to handle all seasons and environments, wilderness programs take special safety precautions in the winter and provide weather-appropriate clothing and equipment so that students exist in the elements quite comfortably.
“Time in the wilderness is an opportunity for at-risk adolescents to identify problems and focus on what is truly important in their lives,” says Sue Crowell, Senior Vice President of Outdoor Programs at Aspen Education Group, the nation’s largest and most comprehensive network of therapeutic schools and programs. “The teens may be missing out on this year’s family functions, but a few weeks in the wilderness can change the whole next year around, and the years after that.”
Home Away From Home
Spending the holidays in the wilderness can be one of the most memorable, enriching experiences a teen can have. Many wilderness programs make the holidays a special time in the field, honoring different religious holidays, offering days of reflection for students of all faiths, and preparing special meals on Thanksgiving and other holidays.
Even though the teens aren’t at home with their parents and relatives, there is still a strong emphasis on family. Students of wilderness therapy become part of a cohesive unit of peers, or “wilderness family,” that helps them understand their place in their own family and the importance of those family bonds.
According to Mike Bednarz, MA, MBA, Executive Director at SageWalk the Wilderness School in Oregon, many staff members volunteer to work on the holidays because it is a particularly rewarding time to be part of a child’s experience away from home. “My times in the field during the holidays have been some of the best experiences I’ve had,” says Bednarz. “Students are more attuned to wishing they were home, more thankful for what they have, and more willing to take an honest look at their lives. They may not be at home, but they know how much they are cared for.”
The holidays can be an especially therapeutic time to be in the wilderness. Students often share favorite holiday memories and family traditions, and make special cards and gifts to send home. “Speaking from personal experience, you value the holidays much more when you’ve had to miss one,” says Ervin.
“Spending the holidays in the wilderness can be a real learning opportunity,” adds Bednarz. “It’s a good time to reflect on what is missing in your life, what the holidays were like last year, and what they could be like next year.”
Sometimes students exchange gifts in the field, such as small items they made from nature or personal items with little or no monetary value. “I still remember the best gift a student gave me – their wish that I could participate in my favorite challenge at camp,” says Bednarz.
A Lifetime Together
Understandably, parents want to keep their children home for the holidays. But in many cases, waiting can have far worse repercussions than spending one holiday apart. “Whether the teen is struggling with family dynamics, falling grades, social interactions at school, or other emotional or behavioral issues, a child on the edge of falling into a deep hole needs help right away,” states Rex.
Wilderness therapy is not about punishing a troubled teen or sending them away out of convenience. It is an opportunity to address real concerns that tie into the teen’s long-term health and safety in a caring, nurturing environment. And while distance is never easy, especially around the holidays, says Rex, “one holiday apart can bring a lifetime together.”