February 20, 2015

Boundaries and Change

Andie Mance
Outreach/ Academic Director
Second Nature Print

“A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

The ultimate goal is to help create an environment where students can expand their abilities to understand and communicate emotions, understand and respect boundaries and gain confidence in their identity and potential. Though there are countless interventions, tools and approaches to help achieve this goal, there are a few building blocks to change that we consider particularly invaluable. Firm boundaries with clear predictable structure, creating and recognizing moments of success, and using nature as an intentional therapeutic intervention are key in facilitating growth and change at Second Nature Uintas and Blue Ridge.

Many of our students will push the rules and boundaries with the hope or intention of changing the rule they don’t like. Many of them have practiced this technique at home and have been successful at exhausting their parents’ patience. In the field, pushing boundaries (whether it’s to change the rule, use it as a distraction or a power struggle), we define our boundaries and expectations and enforce them with consistency. When students know what is expected of them, they have a sense of clarity and reliability, and therefore a newfound feeling of safety and security. To allow flexibility in these boundaries creates an opportunity to struggle with the student for control as they begin to feel they have the power to change the rules for themselves. This power struggle is time intensive, distracting, and exhausting.   Staff communicate and develop initial mutual respect by communicating that they believe the students are capable of doing the work and are able to understand and meet the basic expectations. After this is established, subsequent weeks have far less push back and fewer power struggles as we have clearly defined expectations. The students know that our rules will not change and they simply run out of energy or get bored trying. When it comes to boundaries, it is a clear example of hard-easy. Though initially it is difficult and energy consuming to be firm and consistent, in the following weeks as students resist less, staff are better able to do their jobs effectively. It is easier for the students to begin to examine why they are really here without the distraction of power struggles.

It is so important to recognize the significance of the success our kids experience while living in nature. What we ask of them on a daily basis is no small feat, and the confidence that can come from rising to the challenges we present is very healthy and is something substantial they can take with them when they leave Second Nature. The longer that we, as staff, are in the field and the more comfortable we become living in nature, the bigger the risk becomes of forgetting what the kids are going through physically and emotionally as they acclimate to such an incredibly different way of life. Many of our students have never even been camping let alone backpacking for long periods of time. Often, we overlook the fact that merely living out there is a significant success for many of our kids. When the new “earth phase” student arrives, it is important for staff to remember how they felt on their first day of training. When students say, “I cannot do this”, they really believe they are not capable of living in the wilderness and doing the program. The initial shock of being transported into the wilderness is the first intervention the students may experience. Guiding them through it and helping them to understand that they are physically capable is the first of many successes we can set them up for. As the days and weeks go by, staff continue to “raise the bar”, pushing them further out of their comfort zones than they ever thought possible. With each push, new triumphs can be achieved. This helps to build a healthy confidence, which is key to change. To the staff, a mile long hike may be something we treat as easy and merely something to do to fill the day, but to most of our students, this is the longest hike they have ever done. It is so important that that success of the student not be overlooked or minimized. In nature, we are presented with opportunities to challenge our students every day just by being out there. Recognizing these every day achievements and their significance is a crucial building block towards change.

In wilderness therapy, we are most successful when we are able to intertwine the wilderness and the therapy. Nature can be the intervention that allows for and insists upon, further exploration into the struggles our students are experiencing therapeutically. A classic example that we use as a hard skills intervention is busting. It is important that busting time is not simply a time to learn to make a fire. It is an invaluable time to observe patterns, struggles, and attitudes of the students. How a student behaves during this time is often a snap shot of their week as a whole. Hiking is another opportunity for staff to observe. Hiking can bring up emotions and frustrations. Perhaps a student is embarrassed that they are not hiking well, staff can process the shame around it. Maybe the student is chaffing and angry and lashing out at the group, staff can help them communicate. Sometimes students will take on more of their share of the group weight and are suffering. All of these are opportunities for communication and processing. The wilderness has the amazing ability to see through pretense, and therapy provides insight and structure. Used together, they are even more successful in facilitating real and lasting change.

The process of change is intricate, complex, and intimidating. But it cannot be accomplished through the efforts of a single person. When we create a safe and consistent environment for change, a student is able to discover their own abilities and continue the process within themselves. That is the key to continuing Second Nature’s success, and continuing a student’s growth and change.

 Blog written by Andie Mance, Parent Coordinator, Second Nature