By Meghan Vivo

“(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” are two favorite holiday songs that can be heard in every shopping mall and on every radio station at this time of year.

But sometimes being home for the holidays isn’t so happy. If you’re the parent of a troubled teen or young adult, you know this firsthand. Despite your best efforts, your child is out of control, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, breaking all of the rules, and using winter break as another opportunity to make the rest of the family miserable.

In these situations, spending the holidays at a wilderness therapy program can be the best solution for both young people and their family.

A Memorable and Meaningful Holiday in the Wilderness

The holidays are a time when people naturally think about family and home. This makes spending a winter away from home particularly meaningful. The therapists and field instructors at Aspen Achievement Academy, a wilderness therapy program for teens, and Passages To Recovery, a wilderness rehab program for young men, draw upon the heightened emotions young people feel at this time of year to make the wilderness experience even more effective.

“The winter is one of the most effective times for struggling youth to participate in a wilderness therapy program,” said Gil Hallows, MS, executive director of Aspen Achievement Academy and Passages To Recovery. “It is so impactful to be away from home, especially during a major holiday like Christmas or Hanukkah. Our students gain a real appreciation for the things they’ve always taken for granted – their traditions, their loved ones and the comforts of home.”

A Profound Sense of Gratitude

Many field instructors volunteer to work on the holidays and be with the students rather than their families because it is so rewarding to see the profound transformation that happens over the holidays.

Celebrating the holidays with their “Aspen family” in the desert, the staff and other students grow closer through their shared experience, which creates a spirit of harmony and good will. This positive peer culture helps young people open up and learn from each other’s experiences.

Rather than focusing on material possessions and lavish gifts, participants in wilderness therapy enjoy the simple pleasures of the holiday season: heartfelt letters from home, crafts that are useful during their time in the wilderness and the company of other young people who understand their struggles.

Participants at Aspen Achievement Academy and Passages To Recovery also enjoy a special meal on holidays, such as a turkey dinner, pumpkin pie and other traditional favorites. In this way, they get a taste of tradition while focusing on the important work of learning new life skills and improving their relationships.

“Our students discover that they can have a meaningful holiday without a lot of presents,” explained Hallows. “By re-evaluating their priorities and focusing on what is truly important, they return home with a profound sense of gratitude.”

By enrolling their child in a therapeutic wilderness program during the holidays, parents send a powerful message to their child that a healthier, happier future is more important than a date on the calendar. When students at Aspen Achievement Academy and Passages To Recovery reunite with their families at the end of the wilderness therapy program, the spirit of love and gratitude is palpable.

“It is emotional every time we bring students and their families back together, but it is especially striking after the holidays,” said Hallows. “Parents miss their children and children miss their parents, and both have concluded that there is something more important than gifts and holiday traditions – the child’s safety and well-being.”

Keeping At-Risk Youth Safe

High-risk behavior among adolescents and young adults tends to increase over winter break. According to Hallows, the wilderness programs get a number of phone calls from parents immediately after the holidays because their children have spent winter break abusing drugs or alcohol, breaking all of the rules, and ruining what should have been a time of joy and family togetherness. Because emotions are running high for everyone around the holidays, some families end up enrolling their child in a wilderness therapy program on Christmas Eve or Christmas day.

“When a young person needs treatment, it doesn’t pay to wait just because it’s a holiday,” said Hallows. “The risk-taking and acting out will likely continue – and, in fact, worsen – because school is out of session, which means they have more time on their hands and more access to dangerous situations.”

Parents often are reluctant to enroll their child in a wilderness program around the holidays because they don’t want their child to miss out on the festivities at home. Although feelings of guilt are both natural and common, Hallows encourages parents to keep the big picture in perspective.

“Sometimes the safety and well-being of the child outweighs the experience of what will likely be yet another failed holiday,” he said. “Even students who are angry and resentful at first come to realize over the course of the program that their parents acted out of love to ensure a better future for them and their family.”

Talking with former students years later, many say that the winter they spent at Aspen Achievement Academy or Passages To Recovery was the most memorable and meaningful holiday they’ve ever had.

“Decades from now, our students will talk to their grandchildren on Christmas day about the winter they spent in the Utah desert,” said Hallows. “It’s the kind of experience that will stay with them forever.”