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Adolescents - Our Approach

Adolescent Profile

Open Sky Wilderness Therapy treats adolescent boys and girls, ages 14 to 17. Using an individualized, strengths-based approach, Open Sky can effectively treat adolescents struggling with a wide range of mental-health issues. Learn more

Program Approach and Philosophy

All adolescents have unique needs, especially when struggling with such issues as depression, anger, self-esteem, substance abuse, or anxiety. At Open Sky, we take a strengths-based approach to each teen’s treatment, employing six guiding principles. We combine this innovative philosophy with the most comprehensive clinical treatment available to assist our students in becoming healthy, high-functioning, and vibrant young men and women. Our university-led empirical research results demonstrate this.

The Six Guiding Principles

  1. Creating Authentic Connections
  2. Learning Through Nature
  3. Providing a Genuine Healing Community
  4. Inspiring Self-Confidence through Real Successes
  5. Harnessing Nature’s Healing Capacity
  6. Celebration and Ceremony

Creating Authentic Connections

The Open Sky team believes in being genuine and sharing openly with one another what we are feeling and thinking. This authenticity is a fundamental aspect of our community: people relating with people on the most basic level as humans, sharing an experience in this world. In that sense, we are not a “program,” but a collection of dedicated professionals providing a life-affirming rite of passage. We believe our responsibility to our students, and each other is to be real, show up, and be present with one another at all times, to the best of our ability. In a genuine community environment with authentic interactions, students are encouraged to discover their true nature as worthy, honorable, and capable.

Learning through Nature

Adolescence is a unique stage of growth. It is often a time when teens crave two seemingly opposing needs: independence and support. Developmental needs of adolescents are unique in that they have “grown up” in many ways and yet in other ways; they are still children. For many, they have the body of an adult, but the brain’s development is still a few years behind. Along with being in between childhood and adulthood, there is the emergence of hormones and changing body chemistry, intense social pressures, and the natural desire to individuate from parents, combined with the stresses of modern life. It is no wonder that so many adolescents have trouble making this shift.

At Open Sky, we support our adolescent students by listening with empathy and treating each of them as individuals with unique attributes and gifts, life experiences, and struggles. We provide a holding environment in which their greatest attributes are encouraged, and maladaptive behaviors and self-destructive thinking are not accepted or reinforced. With firm and clear (not controlling or disempowering) boundaries, a sense of what is acceptable and unacceptable, and appropriate consequences (both positive and constructive), our adolescents learn one of the first lessons of adulthood: that for every action, there is a subsequent reaction; for every cause, and an effect.

Moving out of childhood is moving into a conscious awareness in which we are no longer a function of our trauma or our family and personal history and its accompanying impulsive reactivity. At Open Sky, we aim to help each of our adolescents learn that they have the ability to make choices with what they do and how they respond to circumstances.

We believe that to motivate teens to make this step, they must make choices and that these choices become their greatest lessons. We provide a wilderness experience in which many of these lessons come from nature, not from the opposing force of authority. If a student sleeps poorly and then is irritable the next day because the wind whipped his shelter all night, we help him to connect the dots between his shelter-building effort and how he slept; and feels. Did he build his shelter with attention to detail, prioritizing quality and craftsmanship? Was he persistent or did he settle for just good enough?

With these types of simple connections, adolescents make massive leaps toward understanding that what we put into life, we get out of life and that all behavior has consequences. The adolescent might tend to want to blame the wind for the poor night’s sleep or to blame his parents for sending him to Open Sky. While these may be realities, they are disempowering: as they place the responsibility for one’s current circumstance or experience on others. With the freedom to make a choice (how you build your shelter), you take responsibility for the consequences of that choice (sleeping poorly and being irritable).

Connecting the dots between behavior and consequence empowers adolescents to make intelligent choices, but the learning doesn’t end there. Learning has taken place when the behavior has changed and when the adolescent no longer accepts an inadequately built shelter but instead works hard to ensure the shelter will withstand the wind throughout the night.

Providing a Genuine Healing Community

In one way or another, most of our adolescents at Open Sky are suffering from a wound of some kind. That wound has often been internalized, and the hurt is deep. It might be the loss of a loved one; a violation of a personal boundary; regret of a past behavior; or a feeling of not being accepted or appreciated, the source of which could be any number of events or life moments. Each of us, at one point or another, experiences this kind of hurt. At Open Sky, we provide an emotionally safe and supportive community where students can be heard and acknowledged as they work toward healing.

Adolescents at Open Sky will share their stories with the other students, their therapists, and field guides, and in so doing will have the opportunity to heal and be given support for growing and learning. Through the day-to-day time spent in the nurturing presence of the treatment team and peers, there is a chance to discover the source of strength and courage that emerges from overcoming challenges. Students begin to see how these experiences enable us to expand our compassion for ourselves and others.

Inspiring Self-Confidence through Real Successes

The modern age has taken away much of the challenge of our physical existence, arguably creating an unhealthy culture. Material abundance has brought the highest rates of obesity and apathy ever known. Living in the outdoors requires work: demands of the weather, of walking everywhere you go, or living without furniture means that you learn how to take care of yourself in ways that are easily taken for granted. There is no shower, bed, toilet, microwave, television, computer, or electric lighting; all of these basic amenities are missing. Students learn to make do with what they can do for themselves. They learn how to take care of themselves completely, without the modern conveniences that prop up their lives. This engenders a sense of empowerment, of being capable of keeping themselves physically comfortable and safe, warm when it is cold, dry when it is wet, and fed when they are hungry. At Open Sky, adolescents become successful students of life, confident in themselves and what they are capable of accomplishing.

Harnessing Nature’s Healing Capacity

Being outside provides a space in which everything is free to be felt and expressed without judgment, without limit, and without consequence. Nature can handle an adolescent’s barrage of angry outbursts or depths of grief and sorrow. Nature is receptive to everyone’s presence and allows for a space that isn’t present in the busy-ness and materialism that surrounds normal, everyday civilized existence. The pure beauty of vistas, of mountains, of desert landscapes, of plants and animals, generates a reverence and appreciation for life and our surroundings. For many people, their greatest personal solace is found in the wilderness. With Mother Nature embracing them as a part of this spectacular planet, our adolescents heal and re-balance themselves.

Celebration and Ceremony

Lastly and perhaps most importantly at Open Sky, we genuinely enjoy working with young people. There is nothing quite like the excitement and enjoyment of working with youth; of being immersed in the innocence and freshness of young people, their creative and expressive energy; and being in the presence of growth and healing. Our team is comprised of people who genuinely enjoy the essential aspects of youth and find that being with adolescents and young adults is invigorating and inspiring. Our guides are role models for living a healthy and vibrant life.

It is a tremendous honor and inspiration to each of us to witness the adolescent experience: one of the most significant and challenging stages of human development. For centuries before the arrival of the modern world, adolescence was honored with some life-affirming rites of passage. Adolescents had guides to lead them through the journey to their emerging adulthood. As each adolescent accomplishes a set of objectives in the student pathway, we honor this growth with a ceremony utilizing the symbolism of the four directions in a rite of passage experience.

People of all ages seek acknowledgment in their growth and learning, and we believe a successful experience with Open Sky is the very acknowledgment that young people need to make the healthy shift to adulthood.

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