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Adoption, Attachment, and Wilderness Therapy

The Open Sky Clinical Team

Parents considering Open Sky for their adopted child often have a unique set of questions pertaining to their relationships, family dynamics, and clinical concerns. Below, we aim to answer common questions regarding our work with adopted students and their families.

Q: What is Open Sky’s approach to working with adopted students?

A: First and foremost, Open Sky works with each student individually. We do not believe that every student who is adopted is struggling because they were adopted. The information we gather as we get to know the student and family is what ultimately determines our clinical approach.

Adoption can look different depending on the student and the family dynamic. Some students are openly angry about their adoption; others over-identify with their biological parents, and other students simply have never given their adoption the attention it deserves.

At Open Sky, our goal is to help students and families develop the necessary skills to navigate the developmental stages of life. This process provides a framework for students and families to better understand and contextualize the relevance of adoption in their own family system.

Most of our students are working to better understand themselves and their place in the world. Cultivating a sense of identity is a normal developmental task for adolescents and young adults. This is also true, albeit often more complicated, for students who are adopted.

Generally speaking, when adoption is a clinical issue for a student, we use a clinical approach that is relational, trauma-informed, attachment-focused, and family-centered.

At Open Sky, we aim to support parents who have done everything they can to love and care for their child and still feel hopeless and confused about how to get through. Unfortunately, parents cannot love their children to health (or maturation). So, in addition to working directly with students to better understand their identity as an adopted child, we also provide tremendous support to parents who are often confused, exhausted, and feeling powerless.

Q: Do all students who are adopted have attachment issues or reactive attachment disorder (RAD)?

[Reactive attachment disorder (RAD), is a condition in which an infant or child fails to establish healthy attachments with their parents or caregivers during the early stages of development.]

A: Not all students who are adopted have attachment issues or RAD. There are many successfully attached adults in the world who were adopted. However, there is an increased correlation between adoption and adverse early childhood experiences. These adverse experiences in early childhood are linked with an increased likelihood of attachment difficulties.

Many individuals experience attachment difficulties on a sub-clinical level. In fact, many of the common struggles adults face in relationship go back to early attachment patterns. This is not uncommon. RAD is a more significant form of attachment-related challenge. It is a trauma and stressor-related disorder for an individual who meets a defined set of diagnostic criteria.

Q: Will my child feel rejected by being sent to treatment?

A: Not all students who are adopted perceive their adoption as a form of rejection. Any parent considering wilderness therapy for their child clearly loves their child and wants what is best for them. This includes considering the potential unintended consequences of a decision that is meant for their long-term best interest.

Many students, adopted or not, initially perceive the treatment decision as an indication that they are the problem in the family. This can be experienced as subtle or outright rejection. One common challenge many students face upon enrollment is their difficulty accurately making sense of their relationships and the world around them. Each student at Open Sky comes into a peer group that can help make sense of their experience, including their parents’ decision to send them to Open Sky.

A common conversation that occurs between students in the field is how much their parents must love them to provide them with such a unique opportunity to learn and grow. This is especially true when students see that their parents are committed to working alongside their child by participating in Wellness Weekends and the Family Quest™ experience. When students see their parents acknowledge their own need for growth, it shifts the focus away from a dynamic where the child is viewed as the “problem” in the family – what we would clinically term “the identified patient.”

This sort of action by a parent can directly confront the adopted child’s belief that they are the problem and that they are being abandoned by being sent to wilderness therapy. In fact, when a parent is actively engaged in the Open Sky process, it reinforces the notion that the child is an integral part of the family.

Q: Once my child is at Open Sky, how can I help to lessen any feelings of abandonment they may be experiencing?

A: First, it is important to seek clarification. If your child feels abandoned, it is important to manage the natural emotions that might arise for you as a parent. We offer regular Wellness Weekends for parents of students in the program where we teach these skills. Tending to your own needs will then allow you to attune to your child by reflecting and validating their experience. This is the very essence of connection – the opposite of rejection or abandonment.

Of course, the natural tendency for parents is to tell your child they are not abandoned. While the intention is pure, this statement has unintended consequences – it negates your child’s experience and can deepen the belief that you do not understand them, leading to the experience of feeling alone.

“Before you make any comments about what they are telling you, practice reflecting what you hear them saying,” suggests Jonathan Mitchell, Senior Clinical Therapist for adolescent boys. “You may even start to practice reflecting what you hear them feeling. Meaning, do your best to put yourself in their shoes. I can’t reiterate enough how powerful it is for a young person struggling with their adoption to think, ‘you get me.'”

During your child’s stay at Open Sky, it is important to utilize the tools of communication we provide as a family-based program:

  • Letters – Your therapist will help you attune to your child and reflect their experience so that you are connected throughout the stay. Remember that pushing parents away is a natural part of adolescence and young adulthood, and while it can be complicated by adoption issues, this pushback is not an abnormal problem in and of itself. What is important is learning how to support your child in gaining a healthy sense of identity and independence. Many young people mistake cut-off for independence. True independence requires connection with others.
  • Phone calls – When the time is right, your therapist will facilitate structured phone calls with your child. This will be an opportunity to demonstrate on the phone what you and your child have been working on individually in a way that moves the relationship forward.
  • Do your work – Work on the Family Pathway, participate in Wellness Weekend, and join weekly parent support group phone calls. By utilizing the resources we provide parents, you will demonstrate effort and show your child that you are committed to growing alongside them during their stay at Open Sky.

Q: How will wilderness be effective for treating adoption issues when other treatments haven’t been effective?

A: “The therapeutic relationship built between the client and their Open Sky therapist is core and foundational to the work that occurs for each individual. It is particularly pertinent for those who come with adoption-related issues,” says Sebastiaan Zuidweg, Clinical Director and Therapist. “The therapist first and foremost builds trust and rapport, creating an emotionally safe environment. This is always necessary for effective therapeutic treatment and particularly helpful for those who don’t want to be there. The therapeutic approach is based on motivation and empowerment rather than confrontation.”

Wilderness provides students with direct intervention in an uninterrupted setting. Students learn tangible skills that empower them to slow down and contemplate the problematic behavior(s) that led to Open Sky. Without external distraction, students in wilderness can use these skills effectively to begin to contemplate how those behaviors may have been emotionally motivated and what the underlying cause may be (adoption, grief, loss, identity confusion, etc.).

Another advantage of wilderness is that it can help students actively explore the grief and loss associated with adoption, which is often overlooked. This happens through individual and group therapy, psycho-education, assigned book readings, journaling assignments, and therapeutic interventions using elements from nature.

Wilderness is rife with opportunities for ceremonies and rites of passage. These are utilized individually and intentionally to honor one’s past, current, and future. Creating a designated space to grieve and honor old wounds is often cited by our adopted students as one of the most powerful interventions they experience while at Open Sky.

Additionally, wilderness provides tangible skills that research shows improve self-efficacy. These increases are directly linked to students’ actions as they begin to take control of their lives and behavior in a way that they have never done healthily before. Experiencing power and control in a healthy, constructive way is extremely important for individuals whose conceptualization of their identity begins with powerlessness or a complete loss of control.

Q: How is Open Sky uniquely positioned to support the needs of adopted students?

A: Open Sky’s program is based on an attachment model. We are a family-centered program designed with the attachment model in mind. For example, we follow the base camp model of wilderness therapy. This means that students have a “home base.” They can go out on expedition and push their comfort zones by trying new things – physically, emotionally, and socially – and then return to a safe place to accommodate and process the gains they made earlier in the week.

Open Sky team at base camp site

Community is a core value of Open Sky. We bring families together for Wellness Weekends, Monday Night Support Calls, Family Quest intensives, Graduation Councils, and in ways that no other programs do. Additionally, we provide similar experiences of community and connection for students: group meditation, talent shows, and specialized therapy groups. We want students to know they are not alone. So, when appropriate, we bring students from different teams together to connect about things they have in common. Adoption and attachment struggles are one such group. Additionally, we want students to know that they are more than their adoption. We create many opportunities to connect with others about the vast number of other things they have in common.


Article updated November 2019

November 5th, 2021

The Open Sky Clinical Team