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Family Matters: Family Programming in Wilderness Therapy

The Open Sky Team

CEO and Founder Aaron Fernandes laughs with a student at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy.

Since its founding in 2006, Open Sky has transcended traditional wilderness therapy by emphasizing treatment for the whole family (not just the adolescent or young adult), and the application of evidence-based clinical modalities. Our family systems therapy approach also includes innovative, well-researched, holistic healing practices such as yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. When a family partners with Open Sky, each family member embarks on a rewarding adventure of self-discovery and learns a range of strategies that promote lasting success.

Burg (2001) made the following observation:

“Over time many programs have realized that for long-term change to occur, the family system must adapt so that the adolescent’s problem behavior is no longer supported. But instead of redesigning the intervention program from the beginning, based on family therapy principles, the family intervention component is merely added to the existing program. There may be some efficacy in this type of program, but it is not designed or implemented with the guidance of theory.” (p. 121)Therapy session in the woods at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy.

Throughout the last 11 years, Open Sky has offered programming driven by clinical research and theory to meet the needs of the families we’ve served and continue to serve. We don’t do it for the sake of marketing, but rather as a result of a deep understanding of our vision: “To be the premier family-centered wilderness therapy experience.”

Program development based on vision translates directly to the participant experience. This occurs isomorphically: when Open Sky leaders model values-driven behavior and decision-making on an organizational level, that behavior trickles down through those delivering services to the parents and students engaged in the program. When parents understand on a deep level why their own growth and change are vital to the success of the family, they are more engaged, see a greater change in their child, and sustain the growth long after their Open Sky experience  (Issenmann & Smith, 2016).

There are two main stages of change:

  • First-order change deals with the altering the existing structure: doing more or less of something and restoring balance. It is characterized by being incremental; a linear progression to do something better, faster, or with greater accuracy. “It consists of those minor improvements and adjustments that do not change the system’s core, and that occur as the system naturally grows and develops” (Levy 1986).
  • Second-order change is creating a completely new way of seeing things. It requires new learning and involves a nonlinear progression; a transformation from one state to another. The aim would be to enable the individual to behave, think, or feel differently.

Parents join their child at a graduation ceremony at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy.For Open Sky’s Clinical and Family Services Teams, it is our top priority to create a clear, comprehensive program with a family systems therapy approach clinically and theoretically driven to support second-order change.

The Open Sky Family Services Team offers a comprehensive range of services to parents and other family members. These services are each designed to help parents and students develop and utilize tools to better care for themselves (Taren, Creswell & Gianaros, 2013), to understand and take steps toward differentiating (Kerr & Bowen, 1988), to restructure their family in a healthy way (Minuchin, 1967), and to re-write unhealthy individual and family narratives (White & Epston, 1989). Open Sky’s Family Services include: Parent Coaching sessions, Wellness Weekends, the Family Quests experience, Parent Support Calls, Transition Support, and Graduation.

  • Parent Coaching: a weekly point of contact with a Family Services Therapist whose purpose is to facilitate the growth of the family system. Research has shown that coaching is extremely effective when striving to reach a personal or familial goal. Through weekly calls and assignments, Family Services Therapists engage parents in their own personal work. Throughout this work, the therapist names previously unspoken family rules, confronts the underlying fear(s) that fuel unhealthy parenting styles, restructures unhealthy alliances, and provides supportive alternatives that align with the family’s values.
  • Wellness Weekends: a weekend spent with other parents and Open Sky staff, driven by mindfulness neuroscience data and narrative therapy principles. The intention is to raise parents’ awareness about the individual role they play in the family system and the choice they have about how they respond to situations. Parents learn and practice self-regulation, healthy expression of feelings, appropriate validation techniques, and narrative exploration. In short, when parents demonstrate through action that they are willing to explore and rewrite their unhealthy narratives, learn healthy strategies to manage their emotions, and express themselves and attune effectively to others, their children take notice and grow more as well.

  • The Family Quest™ experience: a multi-day family therapy intervention in the wilderness for the family and student together. The purpose is to support and strengthen second-order changes. The Family Quest™ Therapists and Guides help families practice new ways of being together and confront relapses into old individual and relational patterns. It is an opportunity for each family member to move from the preparation stage of change into action. The Family Therapists guide the intervention to support long-term, systemic change.
  • Parent Support Group Calls: Weekly calls that begin with mindfulness and offer an open forum for parents to ask questions and receive support.
  • Graduation: A rite of passage ceremony that honors the student and supports the family in the transition.

Open Sky research shows that parents who participate in a Wellness Weekend, a Family Quest and Parent Coaching have children who make the most gains and sustain them long after Open Sky. In addition to the individual gains by the students, research shows that their families also experience the most growth (Issenmann & Smith, 2016).

Why is this? Open Sky has heeded Burg’s advice quoted near the beginning of this article. We have introduced theoretically driven programming that provides families the opportunity to change the structure and organization of their family system. The common thread in each of these Open Sky services is their design based on clinical theory (Family Systems Theory, Structural Family Therapy, Narrative Therapy, Internal Family Systems Theory, Reality Therapy). Like Burg, Open Sky’s Clinical Team believes that services added without true clinical and theoretical intention, while perhaps helpful initially, are rarely creating experiences for the family to go beyond first-order change. Our family systems therapy approach at Open Sky helps families and students achieve and sustain their long-term goals.


Burg, J. E. (2001). Emerging issues in therapeutic adventure with families. Journal of Experiential Education, 24(2), 118-122.

Issenmann, T., Smith, K. (April, 2016). Expediting growth: Therapeutic change through intensive, experiential family interactions. Paper presented at the International Family Therapy Association World Family Therapy Congress, Kona, HI, USA.

Kerr, M. E., & Bowen, M. (1988). Family evaluation: An approach based on Bowen        NewNew  York: Norton.

Levy, A. (1986) Second-order planned change: Definition and conceptualization, Organisational Dynamics, 15, (1), 5, 19-17, 23.

Minuchin, S., Montalvo, B., Guerney, B.G., Jr., Rosman, B. L., and Schumer, F. (1968). Families of the Slums: An Exploration of Their Structure and Treatment. New York: Basic Books.

Schwartz, R. C. (1995). Internal family systems therapy. New York: Guilford Press.

Taren AA, Creswell JD, Gianaros PJ (2013) Dispositional Mindfulness Co-Varies with Smaller Amygdala and Caudate Volumes in Community Adults. PLoS ONE 8(5): e64574.

White, M., & Epston, D. (1989). Literate means to therapeutic ends. Adelaide, South Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications. (Republished in 1990 as Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York: Norton.)

March 2nd, 2018

The Open Sky Team