Wilderness Therapy programs are residential treatment facilities for troubled youth or wayward teenagers with an array of emotional and behavioral upsets. Depending on the program, problem teens live for weeks or even months learning about themselves through both the wilderness element and therapeutic sessions of these programs.
While the therapeutic atmosphere offers daily opportunity for young people to learn independence, self-reliance and maturity, the real work comes when therapy ends. Therapy programs have the luxury of new places and new spaces—where typical everyday pressures and people mean the potential to regress into poor attitudes, behaviors and activities are lessened. When your triggers aren’t present, you’re less likely to act out. But returning home can be one of the hardest parts of a successful wilderness treatment program because it all started at home.
The role of parents is vital to the success of bringing a troubled teen through their storm and into their light. Part of that process is the enrolling of the teen in a wilderness program. But it doesn’t end there, and it shouldn’t. Be wary of programs that promise a transformed teen 5 weeks after you drop them off. Registering for a wilderness therapy program for your at-risk teen is the first act of letting others join you in parenting your child.
Tracking the progress of your teen while they are in therapy is just plain good parenting. Connect with your teen, connect with their therapist and other staff that will be joining you in parenting your child for a stretch of time. Staying connected during the therapy time could contribute to a smoother transition for your teen when they return home.
Here are some tips to help sustain the positive results achieved at a wilderness therapy program during the transition back home:
- Start family therapy sessions if you haven’t already
- Learn to identify triggers of bad behavior—is it food, stimulus, friends, your responses?
- Create clear boundaries—exact times, what is okay, what is not okay
- Make expectations known—chores, bedtimes, language, etc.
- Agree upon consequences before a problem arises—what will happen, when, etc.
- Research the resources in your community so if a problem arises, you have access to professional help right when you need it—counselors, local treatment programs, hotlines, support groups
- Determine which places have good influences and positive adult role models for young people and connect your child with those groups
Ultimately you and your family will make the decision that best fits you as a unit. Preparing for your teen to return from a wilderness therapy program will be emotional for you both. Your child will have likely gone through some serious revelations about themselves and their part in the world. They will have built significant bonds with supervisors and other participants. They will be in the midst of using brand new tools. Honor their hard work by mindfully creating a welcome that is both understanding and pragmatic.