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Upon entering wilderness therapy, adolescents begin to realize that the multiple distractions present in their daily life are not present. The remoteness of the backcountry provides adolescents little to hide behind and focuses their energies in such a way that intervention is effectively focused on those areas that are present. Although many adolescents are savvy and can demonstrate high functioning, the rawness of the environment tends to evoke patterns and dynamics parallel to the behaviors that led to their enrollment at Second Nature. Additionally, the group experience facilitates that the adolescent respond to peers and adults without using their familiar escape routes of shutting down, running away, or other oft used responses to confrontation and accountability.
First, nature is unrelenting, cannot be negotiated with or manipulated. Adolescents at Second Nature experience the natural lessons that life has to offer by living in the context of the natural environment. Second, experienced Field Instructors, the Therapist, and peers who are in the latter stages of the program are skilled at holding boundaries and creating natural and logical consequences that mirror the lessons essential to a healthy life. And finally, parents are provided support, coaching, and the distance necessary to create and reestablish healthy patterns for communication and behavior (communication begins with letter writing and may include family therapy phone calls, when applicable). Thus, the experience becomes the “immovable object” and your child is left to experience the futility of his or her old coping strategies or to adapt, utilizing new tools and insights.
The use of metaphor is recognized as the most effective means of bypassing an adolescent’s natural resistance and defenses in therapy. Fundamentally, wilderness therapy is a rich classroom for metaphors. Teachers’ lessons as well as classic parables and fables are filled with allegory and symbols due to their effectiveness in teaching lessons. Therapeutic metaphor has always been associated with bypassing resistance in therapy: Freud and others utilized dreams, hypnosis, and other metaphorically rich interventions because the defense of the conscious does not easily recognize the layers of the metaphor and thus the messages and lessons can be incorporated. Think for example of those things that adolescents reject, apparently without rationale or reason that could be of benefit to their lives. For instance, the dropout who rejects education and is not receptive to lectures from parents on the value of education in the well-rounded life. Yet, that same adolescent might be open to listening at the foot of a wilderness counselor while she teaches the value of preparation, study, natural science and so forth because these directly relate to the skills of camping and survival. Or the adolescent who lacks discipline or a sound work ethic, yet is willing to spend hours harvesting materials, preparing the bow-drill set and working to create fire using the Native American Bow-drill technique. A very important and often neglected part of this process is that the wilderness therapy team must be skilled in decoding the metaphor so that the stories make practical sense for assessment and aftercare planning.
Perhaps most obvious is the experiential value of wilderness therapy. Parents often refer to their child’s ability to manipulate or say what he/she thinks others want to hear. The experiential aspect of the wilderness allows the therapist to require more than just lip service or promises to change. Adolescents must demonstrate and behave and live the change. The narrow experience of the wilderness group therapy becomes a microcosm from which the adolescent and the therapist can extrapolate the lessons and experiences to broader contexts of living. The adolescent will often unconsciously recreate, however subtly, the same type of relationships, patterns, symptoms and dynamics he/she did at home and the therapist can use these characteristics to help the child first see the problem in this new light, and then change behaviors using new insights and skills.
Second Nature boasts one of the most experienced and respected clinical teams in the nation. In contrast to many other wilderness programs in which the therapy and field experience are more disjointed, Second Nature's approach involves sophisticated, well trained, and experienced therapists and field instructors who work closely together to integrate remoteness, accountability, metaphor, and experiential components of the program with advanced therapeutic expertise to create a powerful microcosm of change. Therapists work in tandem with the field instructors to ensure effective implementation of the individualized treatment plan. The consistency of this powerful combination essentially requires in a positive way that students change rapidly to adapt to the expectations and role modeling present in their environment, and the subsequent growth and insight is much more deeply internalized that in other models. Outcome studies indicate that Second Nature students make significant change while in the program and maintain much of it after they transition out of the wilderness therapy program.
The wilderness experience is foreign to most adolescents and as such, represents a challenge even to the experienced camper. The child’s poor self-image is often manifested in the initial stages with an “I can’t do this” response. To which skilled Second Nature staff and parents respond, “I know it is challenging, but I believe you can.” Adolescents often cultivate the skills to avoid challenges and discomfort in its infinite forms, but the muscles of adaptation, resilience, and other coping attributes have atrophied. Thus the adolescent is again required to align himself with the immovable object and create, or access in himself, the ability to adapt. Feelings of confidence, competence, and strength will emanate from the child as the short weeks unfold. It is one of the common denominators of the experience for the parents to hear and see things in their child they never knew existed, or believed were long lost. This new sense of confidence and strength carries into other areas of life. Therapists support parents in allowing their child the opportunity to struggle through some of these growing pains. A parent’s instinct is often to fix, rescue or enable the child. The wilderness therapist, embedded in a nurturing and firm context, communicates to the child, “I know you can do this.” There is no message more empowering. Success in the wilderness is only a surprise to the child. And most often the child internalizes self-respect, self-efficacy, and confidence.