Helping Adolescent Girls Develop Self Esteem and Emotional Wellbeing in wilderness therapy

In my work with emerging adolescents, I hold central the knowledge that their worlds are becoming immensely more complex as they transition from childhood into adolescence—suddenly, academic pressures are greater, their social world is more dynamic, and the emotional demands much higher. Technology and social media have only increased the intensity of this time and amplify the risks associated with falling behind. Many emerging adolescents need more help developing the skills necessary to take on these new challenges than their families can provide—often, their families are seeking education and support with their child's early adolescence as well.

At Blue Ridge, we offer a unique opportunity to slow things down and teach essential skills, all while providing emerging adolescents with daily structure, healthy sleep and diet, and exposure to peers who are on similar journeys. My group at Blue Ridge is specifically designed for this population; we intentionally balance healthy challenge with comfort, provide ample opportunities for creative expression, and implement programming that addresses this population's unique set of needs.

Early Adolescents

We understand that the needs of adolescents ages 12-14 often differ from those of older teenagers. Emerging adolescence is a crucial phase in child's development. Research from Andrews et al (2021) shows us that during early adolescence, young people become increasingly susceptible to influence from peers while sensitivity to judgment or rejection from peers rises. Andrews suggests there are three strong predictors of social and emotional wellbeing and the development of a strong and stable sense of identity in teens:

  1. A capacity for emotional and nervous system regulation
  2. An ability to navigate peer influences
  3. Being skilled in understanding their own thoughts and feelings as well as the thoughts and feelings of others.

Further, this research links weaknesses in these areas to increased risk for poor mental health outcomes as teenagers struggle to navigate their relational worlds. Therefore, the culture of my group is tailored to the unique needs of younger adolescent clients, to aid the development of those three essential processes and to set 12-14 years olds up for success throughout their later teenage years and into adulthood.


1) Emotional Regulation

The building blocks for emotional regulation are a part of the fabric of daily life in my group. My clients often come to me feeling overwhelmed by and out of control of their own emotions. They and their families report symptoms such as:

  • Low frustration tolerance
  • Anger outbursts
  • Overwhelming sadness
  • Withdrawal from friendships
  • Anxiety
  • Oppositional behavior
  • & School avoidance, among many others.

With many of the students in my group, their nervous systems are out of balance, with fight, flight, and freeze impulses running the show, and their current coping mechanisms are not working. I help them to better understand their own emotions and learn new skills to be able to cope in healthier and more adaptive ways, while incorporating mindfulness practices and nervous system regulation techniques to support more adaptive functioning.

These skills increase a young person’s awareness of their own thoughts and emotions, thereby creating a greater sense of control over their responses (Davis, D. M. & Hayes, J. A., 2012). They also aid in calming the nervous system allowing students more access to feelings of empathy, calm, happiness, relaxation, engagement, and joy, to name a few (Dana, D., 2018).


2) Navigating peer influences

The foundational work of emotional regulation and nervous system balancing lends itself to the next area of focus in my work with emerging adolescents: relationships. My students often lack the skills necessary to engage in healthy, reciprocal, boundaried relationships with their peers. In my group, emerging adolescents begin to examine their own and their family’s value systems in new ways. They learn about basic human needs: belonging, fun, freedom, power, and safety; and they explore new, healthier ways to meet their needs each day. They also discover more of themselves by taking on new challenges each day. Students in my group get to experience being a cook, a leader, a fire-maker, a friend, a storyteller, an explorer, and so much more! These basics of identity development and exploration are essential for young people if they are to learn to maintain a stable sense of self under increased social pressure to conform.

The wilderness offers an opportunity to engage in relationships unlike any other setting. There are no doors to close, there is no quitting a relationship when things become challenging. My students work to develop skills of assertive communication including honest and vulnerable expressions of emotions and the ability to give and receive thoughtful, in the moment, feedback with their peers and staff. They practice, often for the first time in their lives, healthy repair in relationships, and they often leave us with an increased sense of confidence in their abilities to create deeper and more meaningful relationships than they once believed possible.


3) Understanding thoughts and feelings of self and others

A third major predictor of mental and emotional wellbeing and resilience in adolescence is mentalization, which is the young person’s ability to understand their own thoughts and emotions, as well as the thoughts and emotions of others (Andrews et al, 2021). This ability begins to develop in early childhood (Fonagy et al, 2018), and it can be fostered and strengthened in therapy during adolescence. Imagination is one key to successful mentalization.

I work with emerging adolescents to strengthen their attunement and their imagination by providing a supportive and empathetic approach in therapy and integrating art and creativity into our work. Together, we explore their own thoughts, experiences, and emotions and begin to imagine the thoughts, experiences, and emotions of those around them. With a strong foundation of relationship, I am able to challenge the young people I work with to think with increasing flexibility and to begin to allow for the possibility that those around them may have experiences that vary from their own.

While significant progress in this area can occur during my sessions with my clients, trained field staff are also present in therapy sessions each week so that they can bridge this work beyond the confines of a traditional therapy session, supporting students’ practice of mentalizing in day to day life so that they are well prepared to carry their increased awareness into their lives beyond treatment.


About the Author: Regan Adair, LMSW, primary therapist for Emerging Adolescents ages 12-14

It is my goal in working with emerging adolescent clients to create a strong, trusting, respectful therapeutic relationship within which they can develop the skills necessary to succeed in their social, academic, and familial lives long after they have finished treatment. I believe that every young person I work with is doing the very best that they can, and that the new skills they will learn and insights they will develop in their time at Blue Ridge will set them up for greater success throughout their adolescence. I look forward to supporting you and your child as they embark on this journey!

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Andrews, J.L., Ahmed, S.P., and Blakemore, S-J. “Navigating the Social Environment in Adolescence: The Role of Social Brain Development.” Biological Psychiatry 89, no. 2 (2021): 109–18.

Dana, D. The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.

Davis, D.M. and Hayes, J.A. “What Are the Benefits of Mindfulness?” Monitor on Psychology 43, no. 7 (2012).

Fonagy, P, Gergely, G, and Jurist, E. L. Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self. Routledge, 2018.