By Meghan Vivo

Wilderness programs teach teens the skills that provide a foundation for healthy family relationships. But long-term change requires the support and involvement of the entire family, long after camp has ended. The skills teens learn in the wilderness must be practiced, reinforced, and tested in real-life situations at home. A quality wilderness program won’t make families do all of this work on their own. If you’re considering a wilderness program for your troubled teen, take a close look at the family services each program offers before making a final choice.

During the Program

“A superior wilderness program will teach new skills and offer support to the family unit, not just the teen in crisis,” says PJ Swan, LPC, Director of Family Services at SageWalk the Wilderness School, a program for troubled teens ages 13 to 17. “If the child returns home with a new skill set and approach that is different from his parents, the family will feel like they are speaking a different language.”

When discussing parent involvement with a wilderness program, the first inquiry parents should make is in regard to what services are offered to parents during their child’s stay at camp. From day one, parents should have regular contact with the therapist or instructor that works directly with their child. Check to see if the program you’re interested in offers the following parent support features:

Continuing Education for Parents. Even though parents aren’t attending the wilderness program, their child’s success depends on parents doing their own learning through reading assignments, videos, directed letter-writing, and more. A wilderness program will introduce teens a world of new therapeutic terms and skills that parents must be familiar with in order to communicate effectively at home.

“A parent who becomes educated about what their child is experiencing and learning will be able to remind their child of skills he should be using when problems arise at home,” says Swan. “If a child fails a class or gets caught with drugs or alcohol, his parent can sit down with him and discuss triggers, relapse prevention techniques, or other concepts that proved effective during camp. Parents that do the work will know how to model healthy behaviors for their children. If a parent doesn’t do the work, they won’t know how to respond constructively and resolve conflicts if their child acts out at home.”

Some wilderness camps provide workbooks and other useful literature to both children and parents. Therapists will assign certain chapters that have common themes and lessons. This way, even though the family has been separated so the child can attend wilderness camp, each family member is growing and learning at the same time. Some wilderness programs also offer a parent manual upon admission, which describes the program and the therapeutic approach in detail, so that parents understand what their child is experiencing and the reasons behind each intervention.

Weekly Phone Calls. Most top-notch wilderness programs will offer parents weekly phone calls with their child’s therapist to discuss the child’s progress. Therapists may take questions on a particular workbook assignment or solicit feedback on how the lessons are resonating with the parents. Each week’s conversation may focus on a different topic, depending on the child’s needs or parent recommendations.

“Effective therapy is a group effort,” Swan explains. “Parents can learn about their child from the therapist, and the therapist can learn a great deal about a child from the parents. Weekly phone calls give each party a chance to share insights that will further the therapeutic process. Phone calls also give parents the opportunity to be actively engaged in treatment planning and to discuss the aftercare process.”

Letters Home. Throughout a wilderness program, parents and teens should be able to write letters back and forth. Letter-writing can be a highly therapeutic and powerful communication tool while the student is in the wilderness. For students, a letter can be a positive reminder of home that shows the child she is loved and missed. For parents, the letters offer hope and an outlet to calmly and thoughtfully discuss difficult issues with their child. An effective wilderness program will have staff on hand who can provide guidance to parents and students when writing letters about sensitive issues.

Family Workshops. Family workshops are one of the most effective ways to reestablish the bonds between parents and teens. Parents from all over the country travel to camp to experience the wild firsthand. Depending on the program, parents may have the opportunity to spend a night in the field, practicing teamwork, communication, and basic camping skills in the wilderness setting.

“At SageWalk, the family workshop is the first time parents reunite with their child after weeks apart. It’s a celebration of a fresh start,” says Swan. “Students are given the chance to apply their new skills to their family relationships under the gentle guidance of trained staff and therapists who know both the parents and child well. When parents see firsthand the hard work their child has been doing at camp, and children see their parents struggling to learn the same skills they have been practicing, the family begins relating in a new way.”

At some wilderness programs, the family workshop is dedicated solely to parents meeting other parents. With the shared experience of having a child away at wilderness camp, the parents are uniquely aware of the hardships and joys each family is experiencing. By sharing questions, stories, and ideas with other parents, they are reminded that they aren’t alone.

The timing and duration of family workshops vary depending on the wilderness program you select. Some programs offer two-day workshops at the beginning of the wilderness experience while others offer one- to three-day workshops and parenting seminars in the middle of the program or upon graduation. In any case, family workshops are vital in helping families get reacquainted after a period of immense change and self-discovery.

Online Parent Support Groups. Another useful parent support feature offered by some wilderness programs is parent discussion groups on the Web. Some camps also maintain online message boards where parents can interact with other parents as well as wilderness instructors and therapists. Parents are more successful when they feel supported and understood; connecting with other parents is a great way to meet this need.

After the Program

By the end of a wilderness program, parents and therapists should have worked out an aftercare plan for each child. The first three months after wilderness camp can be a trying time for the student and family, as they struggle to create new behavior patterns and relate in positive ways. Although a wilderness program is not intended to be the primary support system after camp, a high-quality program will offer basic supports to help ease the child back into home life.

If the child is continuing on to a long-term program such as a therapeutic boarding school or residential treatment center, the wilderness therapists should communicate with the child’s new therapist to ensure a smooth transition. Since the wilderness therapist has spent many weeks getting to know the child and his family, he or she can offer helpful insights and recommendations so that the new therapist isn’t starting with a blank slate.

If the child is going home, the therapist and aftercare mentor should work with the family to develop a plan for success at home, setting up therapeutic resources in the local community, support groups, family meetings, and healthy activities.

According to Swan, “The wilderness experience is an intense, short-term intervention that can achieve phenomenal results for troubled teens. Life in the wilderness is highly structured with 24-hour supervision from trained field instructors, while life at home usually comes with a lot more freedom and less hands-on guidance. Thus, families often need a little extra support implementing their newfound skills in the real world.”

Regular Phone Calls. A few wilderness programs provide an aftercare or continuing care mentor who makes therapeutic recommendations and contacts the family on a regular basis to offer guidance and support. In some cases, the aftercare mentor will speak with the parents every few weeks, and schedule a weekly phone call with the child as well. Aftercare support from a wilderness program usually lasts up to three months after graduation.

Discussion Groups. Web-based discussion groups and online message boards offer continuing support after camp ends, sometimes up to one year after graduation. Each week, a therapist may choose a theme to discuss online with parents and teens, presenting a “refresher course” on skills they learned at camp. “Sometimes it just helps to hear other parents’ voices,” observes Swan. “Using tools provided by the program, parents form a type of online support group where they can share experiences, discuss concepts, and get ideas about what might work for their child.”

Crisis Help Line. Not all wilderness camps offer help if a child is in crisis after camp ends. But if there is a major problem that can’t wait until the next scheduled phone call, some wilderness programs offer a crisis help line, answered by aftercare mentors who can talk to parents about how they handled a certain issue or situation and offer ideas for a healthy resolution.

Recommendations for Parents

When a child returns home, his parents take over the role of wilderness field instructors. This can be a daunting task for families that are focusing on reconnecting and rebuilding. Though teenagers may disagree, parents are human beings, too. They need to be nurtured and rejuvenated to be able to balance work, marriage, and the hardships of parenting teenagers.

“The most important thing parents can do while their child is away at wilderness camp is take good care of themselves,” says Swan. “They need all of the energy and strength they can muster to re-learn how to interact with their child. At SageWalk, we put a lot of time into teaching parents the value of self-care.”

At SageWalk, therapists encourage parents to take at least 15 minutes every other day just for themselves, totally uninterrupted. “‘Me time’ has to a nonnegotiable part of the family routine. Parents can use this time for exercise, meditation, walking, reading, journaling, praying, or whatever they enjoy,” states Swan. Therapists also recommend every parent go on a date with themselves or a friend, spouse, or partner at least once a month. According to Swan, “A ‘date’ means four hours away from the children, with cell phones turned off and no talking about the kids, the in-laws, or money.” When parents learn to take care of themselves, they are modeling healthy behaviors that teach kids how to take care of themselves as well.

“Daily relaxation helps relieve the depression and anxiety that often unhinge parents dealing with troubled teens. It’s like being on an airplane – you must put on your own oxygen mask before placing the mask on your child. If a parent doesn’t take care of herself, she has less to give to her child when the child needs her most.”

Since 1997, SageWalk the Wilderness School and its team of licensed clinical professionals, certified chemical dependency counselors, master’s level educators, and highly trained wilderness-based instructors have been helping teens aged 13-17 address issues like depression, substance abuse, learning differences, Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, and related issues. Located in beautiful Central Oregon, SageWalk’s wilderness program is a powerful intervention that helps reunite families that have been torn apart by the behavioral problems of a troubled child. For more information call (800) 877-1922