Updated November 2021 to speak to young adult clients & links to blogs that were published after this one.
The Holidays always shift dynamics in the home, and school teachers feel the escalation in classrooms and see it in the quality of submitted schoolwork. Along with the significant spiritual dates at this time of year, other annual events are less anticipated: grades start mirroring changes in students’ focus, loss of commitment, decreased effort, and shifted priorities. When I was helping families with troubled teens to find appropriate treatment programs, my calls increased significantly in December – the end of the semester is quickly approaching and grades are in the gutter, even gym class. “How come he would not change his clothes? It’s an easy A!?” is what I would regularly hear from a distraught mother or father.
There has been a recent spike in users clicking on the All Kinds of Therapy site in the middle of the night and it started happening over Thanksgiving. I know that users in the middle of night are mothers and fathers. They are searching for facts and answers. The hardest decision a parent can make is sending their child away, regardless of how out of control the teen might be. Parents are blaming themselves, “Why didn’t we send him away to a summer camp for troubled teens when the weather was perfect?” In December, there are holidays… and judgment from family and friends can keep a teen in a crisis home and prevent some families from making the hardest kind of parental decision for their at-risk teen.
This blog is for you parents! What do wilderness therapy programs do for students to make wilderness treatment special during the holiday season? What you will read in this blog is something that will show you another key difference between teen boot camps and wilderness therapy. Everything that happens in wilderness therapy is for personal growth, meeting a troubled teen where they are, and helping them move forward. Having your child in wilderness therapy during the holidays — Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and/or New Years — will start your child on a path to be home and happier for future holidays!
Yes, you guessed it, traditional holiday meals come to the field! It is a break from usual program fare (which is really good); holiday entrees might include pre-cooked (whole) turkey, cranberry, stuffing ingredients, Hannukah-oriented main courses and “sides”, rolls and pies. (Evoke Therapy Programs, UT & OR)
We love to surprise the students with the same delicious food they would typically find at home. Students live on a healthy but regimented diet when they are at our wilderness therapy program; having foods like pie, turkey, ham, sweet potatoes, and other holiday food is truly a delight. Because our students stay in wall tents with wood burning stoves during the winter months, they have a nice warm environment for them to enjoy their delicious holiday feast. We also provide a small gift basket for each of the students that gives something simple that they would each enjoy. (Outback Therapeutic Expeditions, UT)
We do a special Imu (traditional underground Hawaiian oven) meal celebration and invite staff and their families–students really love this and take pride in preparing a special meal for everyone. Due to the varied cultures and religious beliefs of our staff and students, we have a winter holiday celebration in honor of the solstice. At a time that may be particularly challenging for students to be apart from their families, it’s incredible to see everyone working together and enjoying a unique holiday celebration with their Pacific Quest family. (Pacific Quest, HI)
COMMUNICATION or THERAPY
Telephone Call Home — If it is clinically appropriate then you will speak to your teen. But the important distinction is “if”. If your teen just came to the wilderness program and is struggling, you are not going to have that call because the teen (and likely you, too) do not have the healthy detachment nor tools to handle the communication yet. Instead it could create a volatile situation or create an anxious situation for parents or child. (Evoke Therapy Programs, UT & OR)
We recognize this challenge and the resilience that can result because of it, so we prepare the students by first discussing their concerns directly in group and individual therapy. As common themes develop, we create interventions that are designed to provide support while also reinforcing valuable lessons. The students are directed toward the transcendent values that are associated with holidays such as family, selflessness, gratitude, etc… and given the charge (“chance?”) to develop ways to live those same values in the wilderness. This requires a difficult paradigm shift, but what an incredible lesson it is for these kids to learn that Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Chinese New Year, etc… can exist wherever you are and with whomever you are celebrating. Values are not dependent upon external circumstances. (Outback Therapeutic Expeditions, UT)
The main form of communication when a student is in a wilderness therapy program is writing letters back and forth to parents. A letter around a holiday is an opportunity to create a dialog in a different format and allow students and families to communicate in a new way. It is an opportunity for the troubled teen to communicate and show gratitude or thanks for helping the student get to a safe place. It is surprising for a family member to receive a letter like this.
As we approach the holiday season, it is common for students to say things like, “this will be the worst holiday ever!” But as the time approaches and as they experience the purity of a wilderness holiday, it is common for those same students to say things like, “I’ve forgotten a lot of holidays in my life, but I will never forget this one. This is the best holiday I’ve ever had.” (Outback Therapeutic Expeditions, UT)
Students have an opportunity to talk about their family traditions, and of course their favorite holiday foods, while working together to prepare for this celebration. (Pacific Quest, HI)
Food, clothing, and shelter are the basics of wilderness therapy. However, a small gift might come to the field – the simple things become fun for students like a frisbee or hacky-sack. (Evoke Therapy Programs, UT & OR)
We have clients celebrate and teach others about their holiday and holiday traditions (Hanukkah and Christmas). (Pacific Quest, HI)
Create a “Gift Project” that the group does together! Yup, imagine your teen doing something for others out in the wilderness. Having a group for the holidays and have either a gift project for sending home or a letter or encourage thoughtful and small gift giving (pictures, one toy like a frisbee, hacky-sack appropriate for the field) (Evoke Therapy Programs, UT & OR)
- Therapists take this opportunity to talk about gift-giving with parents. We encourage that, if they send a gift, it be simple and shareable with the whole group (SUWS, NC)
If you are a parent who is contemplating making this decision, you will be surprised at the sense of accomplishment and pride your child will have from spending a holiday in field. The presents and electronics that have surrounded them are replaced by the magic of a sunset or sincere dialogue with a peer, a phone call home, and the mindful appreciation of a campfire feast out in the field.
Although this blog is targeted towards families in search of wilderness therapy for their teenagers, young adult wilderness therapy programs do these types of activities too. Be sure to ask the admissions person directly about safety and celebrations.
About the Author
Jenney Wilder M.S.Ed launched All Kinds of Therapy in 2015, as the only independent online directory for the Family Choice Behavioral Healthcare Industry. With an impressive case of ADHD and her starter career in the ’90s in Silicon Valley, the dream for creating a website with features like side-by-side comparison and an integrated newsletter was born. Jenney stopped counting treatment centers and all types of schools that she has visited when she hit 500 many years ago. Jenney has a Masters in Special Education from Bank Street College (NY) and a Bachelors of Arts focused on History from Wheaton College (MA).