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How We Show Up in the World: Fostering Kindness, Respect, and Consideration in Early Adolescents

Liz Lucarelli, MS, NCC, LCMHC, RPT | Early Adolescent Clinical Program Director

It’s challenging to be an early adolescent in today’s society. Peers, social media, and pop culture bombard young people with conflicting messages about how to treat others and themselves, while the Covid-19 pandemic and uptick of technology use have impeded the development of social awareness and skills. At an age and stage where kids want to be liked and fit in, it’s hard for pre-teens to figure out who they are and who they want to be. At Open Sky, we help early adolescent students better understand themselves, each other, and how they want to show up in the world.  

A group of early adolescent students at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy do yoga together in a field.

Many students come to Open Sky because they are struggling with their peer and family relationships; they don’t know how to build meaningful connections, deal with conflict, communicate effectively, or consider others. They may alienate peers with their outlandish ways of trying to be noticed or frustrate others when they are bossy, controlling, or focused on meeting their own needs. Others might avoid speaking up and stuff away their feelings and needs. Still, despite their lack of social awareness, early adolescents usually have the drive to want to connect and get along with others. 

Cultivating Awareness

At Open Sky, we help early adolescent students develop the skills to build the connections they desire and learn how to navigate complex social challenges. We also encourage them to begin exploring who they are and what values drive their actions. Ultimately, understanding themselves better and experiencing meaningful connection in relationships lays a solid foundation for our students entering adolescence.  

Some of the values we hope to instill in students are empathy, honesty, and respect for other people’s perspectives and experiences. We also want to help our early adolescent students develop the skills to cooperate and work together with others, problem solve, read social cues, and learn how to communicate effectively. Here’s how Open Sky actively works to teach and reinforce these skills and values in the field daily.  

Early adolescent program director Liz Lucarelli sits with a group of early adolescent students in the field at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy.

Identifying Values

At Open Sky, we help students identify their values and model what it looks like to live in alignment with them. Values are the beliefs and qualities we strive to live by. They represent our highest priorities and most deeply held beliefs. In general, when students behave in ways that are consistent with their values, they feel more content, satisfied, happy, and confident. Not having a clear set of values to live by can cause students to feel uncomfortable, dissatisfied, depressed, and frustrated. By consciously prioritizing their values, students are able to rely on them as a guide for making important decisions, both now and into the future.  

Students also learn to recognize that not everyone has the same values as them. Sometimes that can be frustrating, but understanding their own values can help students determine how to approach those challenging moments. The Student Pathway provides many exercises, questions, and examples for students to consider as they begin to explore their emerging value systems. Guides, who are in the field with students 24/7, are also great role models for showing students how our thoughts, words, and actions reflect what is most important to us.  

Feedback and Communication

At Open Sky, we respond to students with patience and curiosity, provide feedback to bring greater awareness to actions, and teach skills for more effective communication. It can be easy to react and jump to conclusions when we see poor behavior. We strive to respond to students with patience and curiosity and seek to understand behavior rather than judge it. We all have blind spots and aren’t always aware of how our actions affect other people. In the field, we foster a team culture that focuses both on reinforcing positive behaviors and offering constructive feedback.  

One of the central tools students learn at Open Sky is how to share “I feel” statements, a style of communication that focuses on the thoughts and beliefs of the speaker rather than placing blame on the listener. Learning how to share “I feel” statements can empower students to take ownership of their experience, practice assertive communication without making accusations, and strengthen relationships. Receiving “I feel” statements helps students better understand the impact their behavior has on others in a way that is open, honest, and constructive. 

A group of students stand in a field.

Building Connection

Therapists and guides help students cultivate greater self and social awareness and build skills to help them form fulfilling connections with others. Research shows that technology use is impeding social awareness and skills development. The more time early adolescents spend socializing instead of being on their devices, the more they will develop important social and conversation skills. Wilderness provides the ideal setting for forming and practicing these skills. 

Students live in groups made up of eight students, where the success of the team depends on each individual’s contributions. Led and supported by their therapists and field guides, students learn how to work together, solve problems, build social awareness, and strengthen relationships with others. The small team size also allows for a greater individualized approach for each student. 

Living in wilderness also gives students the opportunity to move away from unhealthy distractions and habits that may have been keeping them stuck or limited in their growth potential. By practicing their newfound skills daily, students build and strengthen new ways of thinking and behaving. As a result, they become more likely to discover the truest, proudest versions of themselves and connect with others moving forward. 

Tips for Parents:

Early adolescent students are at a unique developmental stage in their lives. While they are starting to look at outside influences for examples on how to show up in the world, they still rely heavily on adult support and guidance. Here are a few ways parents can help model and encourage respectful behavior. 

  • If you want to encourage appropriate behavior in your child, be sure you are modeling that to them so they can see how it’s done. For example, if you are frustrated with your child’s lack of respect, take a moment to reflect on how you yourself are modeling respectful behavior.
  • Tell your child you noticed when they were kind or respectful or that you appreciate how they took the time to express gratitude. Go beyond simply telling them they did a good job and give specific examples of what you noticed and why
  • Sometimes children forget what to do or don’t know what to do, so giving prompts like, “Hey, let’s be sure to say thank you before we go” can gently nudge them in the right direction. Afterwards, you can reinforce the moment with positive attention and encouragement. You can also point out the positive outcome of the situation because sometimes the child might not notice it. Try to keep the prompts lighthearted rather than stern or demanding
  • If your child is behaving poorly, seek to understand the behavior, be honest about how it impacts you or others, and see how you can address the problem together
  • Stay with it and don’t give up! Many parents have tried teaching, role modeling, and encouraging values, social skills, and manners. Despite all their efforts, their child is still struggling in those areas. Please don’t give up or get discouraged. Part of emerging adolescence is about pushing away, questioning what you’ve been taught, and trying to find your own way in the world. Many times, young people will return to the values they were taught when they get older. The seeds are planted within. 
A group of early adolescent girls at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy participate in a group therapy session.

The Family Experience

At Open Sky, we actively engage the entire family in the therapeutic process. Parents have access to a variety of supports to help them develop their own awareness, values, and communication skills alongside their child in the field. Parents may choose to participate in Monday night support calls, weekly Family Pathway Classes led by the clinical team, and six sessions of parent coaching (included in tuition for early adolescent parents). We understand the challenges families at Open Sky face and strive to equip students and families with the skills necessary to honor values and strengthen relationships.  

August 18th, 2021

Liz Lucarelli, MS, NCC, LCMHC, RPT | Early Adolescent Clinical Program Director