Counselors who work at therapeutic summer camps say that parents are often at the end of their ropes by the time they turn to them for help. They hear refrains like these:

I can’t take another night of not knowing where he is.

I’m pretty sure my daughter is on drugs.

I can’t concentrate at my job – I keep thinking about the police and juvenile court all the time. I’m afraid I’ll get fired.

His mother and I spent seven hours driving around all night, trying to find her the last time she ran away.

We’re always crying, all the time.

“It’s so hard for our parents,” said one therapist at SUWS in Old Fort, North Carolina, a program for children ages 11 through 17 years. “They don’t want to separate from their child because there is so much negativity going on between them. And turning to a residential program makes them feel like failures as parents.”

Paul Deal, a field supervisor with Adirondacks Leadership Expeditions near Saranac, New York, said, “the initial step into a wilderness program brings discomfort to teen and parent alike. Parents have to ask themselves, ‘how much more fear and confusion must you endure before you consider a change?’” Sending a child to wilderness camp brings on a sense of losing control, but “it is actually a healthy searching to reestablish control in the life of your family,” Deal said.

In addition, most parents are simply terrified of the risks involved in a summer of hiking and camping in the wilderness. They do not believe their children are in good enough physical shape to manage it, even though the teens have to pass a physical to participate. They are afraid their child will be hurt – by wild animals, lightning, or in a fall off a mountainside. The wilderness program staff has to reassure parents that the programs are very safe. They point to research by Dr. Robert Cooley from the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Industry that has demonstrated that being in a wilderness program is twice as safe as ordinary backpacking, partly due the fact that professionals trained in outdoor survival closely supervise the teens involved.

What with safety fears and emotional upset, the initial separation between parents and teens is often very difficult. Counselors say teens want to go home and many experience fear and homesickness, but that can be a vital part of their process in learning to appreciate their parents and better function in their families.

“The letters serve to ground teens and help them identify the issues that brought them into the program,” one therapist said.

The wilderness setting helps the teens get down to basics. They connect with nature, their counselors, their new peer group, and themselves. The therapy is very sophisticated, but the setting is what is important. In the wilderness, teens are unable to use their old coping methods such as running away, calling a friend at midnight, drinking or drugging. They are forced to face their emotional issues and learn to communicate with other people for help.

When the teens return from a summer of camping and hiking, they have tremendous stories to tell about their adventure. At SUWS, teens and family “solo” together for a few days. The teens demonstrate the survival skills they have learned at camp for their parents. They circle around a campfire together to talk.

One counselor said that parents are often impressed with their child’s new skills, such as starting a fire by rubbing together sticks or building a lean-to for primitive shelter. Yet they are often more impressed by the change in attitude that being in the wilderness has brought about in their child.

“The wilderness is very powerful,” one counselor said. “You get down to basics, you find out the difference between needs versus wants. You find out what’s important, and sometimes that’s about family.