Should I Send My Daughter to a Therapeutic Wilderness Program?

A Conversation with the Executive Director of Aspen Achievement Academy, one of the few JCAHO accredited wilderness therapy programs in the United States.

Contrary to typical stereotypes and gender assumptions, wilderness programs are not just for boys. If you are considering placing your daughter in a wilderness program, don’t buy into the stereotype that wilderness programs are too rigorous or difficult for girls, who have never really “roughed it” in any sense of the term. This article will debunk that stereotype and point out the many benefits of wilderness therapy for girls.

Parents can actually do their daughters a disservice by shielding them from difficult challenges. As girls develop, it is healthy for them to know they can face hardship head on and overcome it. When parents deprive their daughter of these growth opportunities, they question her ability to face problems, overcome hurdles and develop into a stronger, more confident individual. They unintentionally send the message that they don’t believe in her, which in turn leads her to assume she can’t believe in herself.

Girls, even those who have never known physical hardship, actually adapt quickly to the wilderness. Boys and girls are similar in their ability to accept being placed in a wilderness program by mom and dad and to embrace the reality that they aren’t going home until they complete it. Once this realization sets in and they begin to participate in the program, attitudes improve and girls acclimate to the environment and to living outdoors. Early on, the girls experience healthy physical changes attributable to a lifestyle that includes ample sleep, daily hiking, fresh air, sunshine, a good diet, sobriety and emotional safety.

One of the biggest benefits of a wilderness experience is that girls are distanced from negative social ideals based on image and status that pervade popular youth culture. Instead, they become immersed in a culture based on honesty, reality and open communication. Each girl becomes an integral part of a small social group sharing a common experience and genuinely caring about each other, which also functions as a continuous support group. This structure encourages girls to bond quickly with both students and staff and offers a blank canvas for each girl to discover and develop their real selves. Things that interfere with this journey of self-discovery are played down in the field, while the daily activities of wilderness living naturally lead to the development of a positive self-image and the self-esteem that grows from facing and surmounting physical and emotional challenges that are part of the experience.

Wilderness camp provides a safe refuge from the media bombardment, affording girls an opportunity to discover and accept who they are, physically, mentally and emotionally. By living close to nature and experiencing the peaceful surroundings of the desert, students get acquainted with their intuitive side, leaving the superficial behind. The spiritual qualities of students move to the foreground, further prompted by being part of a cohesive social group that offers encouragement, while also holding each member accountable by insisting on mutual honesty. Overcoming fears and physical challenges leads to enhanced identity development and resiliency skills that are transferable back home.
From a developmental perspective, teenage girls have a basic need for healthy relationships with other girls. Often this development period is stunted because many young girls who do not socialize properly are drawn too soon to the attention they receive from boys. Consequently, they begin to feel more comfortable with boys than girls. Being part of an all-girls group in the wilderness buys back some of this precious socialization time.

Being a girl in today’s teen culture can be stressful and riddled with emotional anxiety. As girls struggle to cope with this kind of pain, they often fall into such behaviors as eating disorders, substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, cutting and depression. A wilderness intervention can be an effective way to treat such behaviors, while building a healthy identity and developing communication and resiliency skills to prepare them for the next hurdles in life. Successfully completing a wilderness program empowers girls to discover and begin to develop their true identity.

Gary Ferguson, author of Shouting at the Sky: Troubled Teens and the Promise of the Wild, succinctly summarized the value teenagers derive from a wilderness experience:

When we run from our challenges they become monsters. When we walk through them, embrace them through ritual, fear turns to courage, hate to love, and ignorance to wisdom.