The Dangers of Keeping a Troubled Teen at Home

When a teen is in crisis, a parent’s first instinct may be to keep the child at home – close to the parent. A parent’s desire to keep the teen “safe” may in fact cause him to be more at risk. In a study on wilderness therapy conducted in 1999, the director of one therapy program said that “In many cases, we are literally reaching underwater and grabbing the hand of a drowning victim.”

Kids in crisis need help. They need more help than parents can give, and often more help than they can get from more traditional forms of therapy.

Though only a few studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of wilderness therapy and residential programs, the research that does exist is compelling. According to one study conducted in 2001, adolescents showed greater improvement after an 8- to 12-week wilderness therapy program than after completing a tradition outpatient program . They also showed greater continued improvement in three-, six- and twelve-month follow-ups. Another study found that wilderness program participants came away from the program with a stronger sense of identity and a belief in their ability to achieve their goals.

In order for wilderness and other residential therapy programs to work, both the staff and participants need to be carefully selected. The therapists are typically required to have a Masters Degree in Social Work or some other related field. They may also be required to become certified as Alcohol and Drug Counselors. They are experienced in the issues that most often affect troubled and at-risk teens, and know how to help bring about positive change in an adolescent’s life.

Most wilderness therapy programs consist of three phases; 1) an orientation phase during which the staff ensures the teen’s body is physically capable of hiking, 2) a personal development phase, and 3) a transitional phase.

Substance Abuse Issues
There is a common misconception that a teen who struggles with drugs or alcohol simply needs to “get clean”, and then he or she will be fine. Most substance abuse counselors agree, however, that the real work can only begin after the system has been cleansed. Only then can a teen begin to think clearly enough to process his or her thoughts and feelings and start on the road toward true healing. That’s why the personal development phase of a wilderness therapy program is so important. Without it, the teen is practically guaranteed to go right back to his own lifestyle as soon as he’s back home. The personal development phase often includes difficult tasks that challenge the teen’s abilities and give him a sense of accomplishment when they’re completed. Many teens who have completed wilderness therapy programs have said their self-esteem increased dramatically because they did things they never would have thought possible.

Teens often live close together with other teens in wilderness therapy programs, sometimes living in cabins with several others. These unique living conditions often force teens to improve their social skills. Conflict resolution, communication, and cooperation are all tested. Teens get “hands on” situations that help them learn how to have healthy, productive relationships.

The transitional phase of a wilderness therapy program helps kids move successfully from the relative safety and protection of the program back into the “real world”. It equips kids with coping mechanisms, and helps them develop and aftercare program where counselors and sometimes even mentors can hold them accountable.

Though parents may want to keep their teen home where they can keep an eye on him or her, they may end up doing more harm than good. At best, the teen’s behavior will improve slightly – though probably not permanently. At worst, the teen will take advantage of the parents’ unwillingness to “send him away” and will act up even more.

Though it can be hard to part with a child for 8 or 10 weeks, the long-term benefits achieved at wilderness therapy programs far outweigh the difficulty of a short-term separation.

1. Assessment of Treatment Outcomes in Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare, Keith C. Russell, PhD – 2001