The No-Resistance Approach to Wilderness Therapy
By Meghan Vivo
Troubled teens are often resistant to just about everything, including authority, rules, advice, structure, and therapy, just to name a few. Because of their oppositionality and defiance, treatment programs like boot camps that feed resistance right back to them are frequently ineffective. A better approach is the one taken by Outback, an innovative wilderness therapy program for troubled teens ages 13 to 17, whose core philosophy emphasizes giving adolescents the power of choice and the ability to experience the natural consequences of their decisions.
According to Neal Christensen, Ph.D., the clinical director at Outback, facing rebellious teens head on is a losing battle. "Students who are defiant or resistant to treatment enjoy the fight. They are looking to throw a ball at a hard wall and have it bounce back," he says. "We surprise them with 'pillow walls' that offer no resistance, which forces the student to do the work of picking up the ball and throwing it again. Soon, they begin to realize they're resisting to their own detriment. Their negative behaviors are only preventing them from getting where they want to be and living the life they want for themselves."
The therapists and field staff at Outback reach struggling teens with a no-resistance approach to wilderness therapy. "We pride ourselves on taking a warm, humanistic approach to wilderness therapy," says Ryan Anderson, Ph.D., a clinical field therapist at Outback. "I will challenge students without them realizing they've been challenged, I will learn enough about them to make them realize how much I care, and I'll roll with the resistance until I roll through it."
How Teens Learn
Parents want their children to obey the rules and respect authority. But setting limits and demanding compliance doesn't work with teenagers the way it may have when the kids were younger. Because teenagers crave independence and autonomy, they learn best not by hearing a lecture or following a strict set of imposed rules, but by actively doing and learning from their mistakes.
Adolescents also need challenge in order to feel accomplished and confident, and need to feel they had a hand in their success. "When you force the lessons, teens close off," says Andrew Powell, the field director at Outback. "By taking ourselves out of the equation and empowering the teens to learn for themselves, they are still open to the lesson. Instead of engaging in a power struggle or getting personally involved, we ask students to step up to the staff's level rather than asking the staff to step down to the student's level."
At Outback, the field staff has been trained to let students learn as much as possible from the natural consequences of their actions. If the students want to take hours getting ready in the morning, the field guides don't create artificial consequences or punishments, but let the students learn for themselves why it would've been a good idea to hike and set up the next campsite before dark.
"Rules don't define a student's experience at Outback," states Powell. "The laws are already there - they're the laws of nature. The wilderness experience can be confined to natural consequences and still be safe and effective. We're not asking for compliance, we're asking for better decisions."
Powell recalls one student who repeatedly cursed at the field staff and one day refused to get up and hike to the next campsite. The group hiked anyway and left a guide with the rebellious student, who eventually caught up to the group and apologized.
"Had the field instructors forced the issue, the student wouldn't have learned some valuable lessons," says Powell. "Instead, the field staff looked at that student and said, 'It's ok, you didn't hurt my feelings, but this is one of the reasons you're getting in trouble at home. You're going to have a tough life if you don't learn to get motivated without being hurtful to others.' Because the field guide didn't put himself in the way, the student was receptive to feedback and to understanding the big-picture lesson."
Modeling Appropriate Behavior
The Outback wilderness program is particularly effective because its staff members adopt the program's philosophy in their own lives and serve as role models to students. Rather than demanding change or punishing students with writing assignments or physical tasks, the field staff and therapists invite students to see the need for change in their lives and illustrate how the process of change has positively impacted their own lives.
Even compared to other wilderness therapy programs, Outback has a unique philosophy and a diverse group of professionals with a range of talents who are all constantly trying improve themselves in the same way they're asking their students to improve. "Combined, these pieces create an environment in which there's nothing to resist against. There are only people willing to push with you," says Anderson.
The field guides at Outback build the foundation for strong therapeutic relationships by teaching the students skills that are fun and useful to them, such as building a backpack, flutes, or moccasins, creating fire for hot meals, and properly setting up camp to stay safe and dry. After a few weeks in the field, the students and staff have experienced a full range of emotions together, building a sense of camaraderie within the group.
Nurturing relationships is a process made easier by the fact that field instructors are not trying to push their own agenda on the students and don't become personally offended when a teen acts out. "This program is all about the student," notes Anderson. "Because they understand that we come from a place of caring and compassion, they are more willing to accept us as mentors and guides. When the time comes to challenge them, the strong relationships we've built give us firm ground to stand on."
A New Philosophy at Home
Parents are an essential component of the change that occurs through wilderness therapy. The Outback staff provides parents with information, resources, and weekly therapy sessions so that parents are learning and growing at the same time as their child. Parents are also invited to attend a mid-stay visit to Outback's site in Utah to learn about the program's philosophy, reflect on their relationship with their child, and take an honest look at their child's progress and the challenges that lie ahead. By meeting in the middle of their child's program, both the parents and students still have time to effect lasting change and make critical decisions about the next steps in their family's healing process.
"Family is an incredibly powerful ally in wilderness therapy," says Anderson. "When parents and child are stuck, they're often stuck together. The work the parents do, and their conviction that Outback is an opportunity rather than a punishment, is often the key to letting the student release their resistance to change and commit to the program."
Though it may feel like the ultimate affront, resistance from teenagers is often a call for help. If your child is acting out or your family has lost its way, wilderness therapy may be the ideal environment for your troubled teen to develop trust, appreciation, and a healthy respect for boundaries. When your child is the one who chooses change, the entire family benefits from a breakthrough that can last a lifetime.