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The Big Picture of Wilderness Therapy and Choosing Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness For Your Child

I have been doing admissions for therapeutic programs for over 15 years. I spend my days speaking with concerned parents and helping them decide whether or not Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness might be a good option for their child. Choosing to send a loved one to a wilderness program is one of the most difficult decisions that a family will ever make. Having your child leave home is rarely easy, even under the best of circumstances. Parents are dealing with a struggling teen or young adult, the family system is stressed, they are looking at a huge financial commitment, and the uncertainty…well, of many things, and now they have to choose. Can we wait until Summer? Do they need this, really? Can they even handle it? What kind of punk kids will be there? Etc? Etc? Etc? There are endless questions, and the answers to some of them are concrete and straight-forward. But the truth is there are many, many difficult questions that have complex and nuanced answers. The purpose of this blog is to answer some of these questions, but also to help someone who is considering wilderness to think about some of the other, more difficult questions, in a pragmatic and meaningful way.

What I want to address first is not actually a question at all. In fact, most families I speak to never even ask, but I suspect many are worried about it, and it is, in my opinion, the most important thing for parents to know when thinking about a wilderness program. It is what I say to families, without exception, when I am asked after our initial conversation what else they should know about our program. Wilderness programs are not a punishment. This is true both in intention and practice. In fact, there is nothing even remotely punitive about this experience, and I believe this fact is overwhelmingly evident, even to angry teenagers, by the end of the very first day. There is a lot of misunderstanding out there about what therapeutic wilderness programs actually are, and much of it is perpetuated by otherwise bright, caring, and professional treatment providers. It is not malicious, it’s just a simple lack of exposure in most cases. What we do, intensive therapeutic work that requires emotional vulnerability, cannot possibly be achieved in an environment where the student feels as though they are being punished or are unsafe. In fact, that kind of transformational, life-changing progress can only be achieved in the context of a trusting relationship where one feels absolutely secure. In many cases, our students have not experienced the level of emotional safety among peers, or adults that they do while participating in our wilderness program. The trick is helping them trust in their ability to create that safety in the ”real-world.” Spoiler Alert: They can. And they do.

How do I know my child really needs this?

The answer to this question is not what you expect. Everyone needs this. You need it. I need it. We all do. Naturally, we tend to work with young people who are struggling in a variety of ways. Yet, that fact does not imply that the only benefit of this work is for those who have gotten off track. Similarly, one would not suggest that exercise is only for those who are out of shape. If I had the opportunity to work with only high-performing students that have shown no indication of social, academic, or emotional difficulties I would expect that they would have a similarly life-changing experience after completing our program. Give me the high school valedictorian, the varsity quarterback, and the prom queen, they “need” it too. Therapeutic work done in a wilderness setting has nearly universal benefit.

How do I know it’s the right time?

Get ready for some tough news. When you KNOW it is the right time to consider a wilderness program, things have probably gotten out of hand. Perhaps your child is in the hospital or has gotten into trouble. The trick is to get them in the woods BEFORE you have overwhelming evidence that it is the “right” time. Parents already know things are on the wrong track. Their child is struggling, they have tried therapy or medication, or maybe another kind of program. They are hoping desperately to see some signs that positive change is occurring. The really tricky part is that parents are invested in believing that their child will figure things out on their own, and are unwilling to consider wilderness until they really “know” it is the right time. Sadly, oftentimes that is during a period of crisis. My hope would be that parents would be willing to have a conversation about therapeutic wilderness before it’s abundantly clear that it is needed.

What kind of kids go to wilderness programs? Who will my child be around?

It is natural that, when your child goes somewhere, you want to know who they are with, and that they are safe. Almost every parent I speak to asks me what the other students are like in the program. A very important part of this program is the peer culture and the therapeutic milieu. We want our students to have a cohort, a group of other students they can relate to, and share the experience with. Part of our job in admissions is to match each incoming student with a group of students that will be a good fit, both interpersonally and therapeutically. The group itself and who is in it is a hugely important part of the program. Most of our students struggle with some level of anxiety or depression, some have used substances to self-medicate, some have difficulties socially, or become dysregulated and don’t know how to cope. Sound familiar? I think that most parents are really wanting to know who will NOT be in the group with their child. We do not work with violent students, or those who need primary substance recovery support, no one is schizophrenic, and very rarely do we ever work with anyone who communicates directly with the devil…just kidding. I am also frequently asked about the field guides, their training and where they come from. Wilderness field guides rarely get the recognition they deserve and are a critical part of each student’s success. Field guides receive an incredible amount of training weekly by clinical staff, and throughout the week by senior guides. They work with the Primary Therapist to plan goals and set limits and boundaries for students. They also communicate important events of the week to therapists that will be important for their sessions. Many wilderness therapists worked as field staff themselves before going to graduate school. Now, I just want to get this out in the open…some of them have man-buns. We are ok with it, but I like parents to know before their field visit.

Is my kid tough enough? I don’t think she will be able to handle it.


The answer really is that simple. They are. Being successful in a wilderness therapy program doesn’t have to do with their primitive camping skills. Our purpose is not to break them down and show them how tough it can be. That is not the point. What we actually do is show them how capable they are by highlighting their own agency. Planned, unavoidable, success happens every day, and sometimes it is as simple as drying out a sleeping bag or learning to tie a clove-hitch. When you pair that with the really tough stuff, (hint: they talk about it with their therapist) they start to see the patterns and habits that exist in their everyday lives and how what they are doing out here really does have meaning for them intrinsically. It is something foundational that they can take with them.

These are only a few of the questions that I am lucky enough to talk to families about every day. I know there are many thousands more. Call me, ask them, even if you don’t know now is the time. There is a whole lot to this process, but in many ways, the really important ways, it is very simple.

Jon Young, Associate Director of Admissions