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Early Adolescents - Our Approach

Early Adolescent Profile

Open Sky Wilderness Therapy treats early adolescent boys and girls, ages 13 and 14 (12 year olds accepted on a case-by-case basis; contact Admissions for more information). Using an individualized, strengths-based approach, Open Sky can effectively treat early adolescents struggling with a wide range of mental health issues. Learn more

Program Approach and Philosophy

All early adolescents have unique needs, especially when struggling with issues such as anxiety, depression, emotional dysregulation, ADHD, anger, self-esteem, peer problems, or defiance. At Open Sky, we take a strengths-based approach to each child’s treatment, employing a series of guiding principles. We combine this innovative philosophy with the most comprehensive clinical treatment available to assist our students in becoming resilient, confident, and capable young individuals. Our university-led empirical research demonstrates that students who attend Open Sky make significant behavioral, interpersonal, and mental health gains that they maintain well beyond graduation.

Guiding Principles

Creating Authentic Connections

The Open Sky team believes in being genuine and openly sharing what we are feeling and thinking with one another. This authenticity is a fundamental aspect of our community: we are people relating with other 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 responsibilities to our students and each other are to be real, show up, and be present with one another at all times, to the best of our abilities. In a genuine community environment with authentic interactions, early adolescent students are encouraged to discover their true nature as worthy, honorable, and capable.

A group of early adolescents enrolled in Open Sky Wilderness Therapy sitting outside and talking with therapists.Learning through Nature

Early adolescence is a unique stage of growth. It is often a time when children are beginning to crave two seemingly opposing needs: independence and support. Developmental needs of early adolescents are unique in that they are starting to grow up in some ways, yet are still children in others. For many, their bodies and behaviors are starting to mature, but their brains’ development is still a few years behind. As they transition from childhood to adolescence, hormones emerge, body chemistry changes, and social and academic pressures increase. They experience uncertainty about who they are and what they value and feel a natural desire to differentiate from their parents. Combine these things with the stresses of modern life and a lack of skills and healthy habits, and it is no wonder that so many early adolescents struggle at this stage in their lives.

At Open Sky, we support our early adolescent students by listening with empathy and treating each of them as an individual with unique gifts, life experiences, and struggles. We provide a contained environment in which their greatest attributes are encouraged, and maladaptive behaviors and self-destructive thinking are not accepted or reinforced. Through firm and clear boundaries and appropriate consequences, our early adolescents learn an important life lesson: that for every action, there is a subsequent reaction, for every cause, an effect.

At Open Sky, we aim to help each of our early adolescents learn that they have the ability to make choices about what they do and how they respond to circumstances. We provide a wilderness experience in which many of these choices and subsequent lessons come from nature, not from an opposing force of authority. If a student sleeps poorly because the wind whipped their shelter all night, they may feel irritable the next day. We help them connect the dots between their shelter-building effort and how they slept and now feel. Did they build their shelter with attention to detail, prioritizing quality and craftsmanship? Or did they settle for just good enough?

With these types of simple connections, early adolescents being to understand that all behaviors have consequences and what we put into life, we get out of life. The early adolescent might want to blame the wind for their poor sleep or their parents for sending them to Open Sky. This type of thinking is disempowering, as it places the responsibility for their current circumstance or experience on others. With the freedom to make a choice (how you build your shelter), early adolescents take responsibility for the consequences of that choice (sleeping poorly and being irritable). Understanding the connection between behavior and consequence empowers early adolescents to begin to make intelligent choices, but the learning doesn’t end there. Learning takes place when the behavior changes, when the early 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

Most of our early adolescents at Open Sky struggle from emotional wounds of some kind. Those wounds have often been internalized, and the hurt is deep. The source of pain could be any number of events or life moments: the loss of a loved one, a challenging or unexpected change, constant trouble at school or home, regret of a past behavior, or a feeling of not being accepted or appreciated. At Open Sky, we provide an emotionally safe and supportive community where students can be heard and acknowledged as they work toward healing.

Early adolescents at Open Sky share their stories with their therapists, field guides, and other students. In so doing, they have the opportunity to heal and receive support for growing and learning. Students also use art, drawing, and other creative means to explore and transform their hurt and pain. Through the day-to-day time spent in the nurturing presence of the treatment team and peers, early adolescents have the chance to discover the strength and courage that emerge from overcoming challenges. Students begin to see how these experiences enable them to expand their compassion for themselves and others.

An early adolescent enrolled in Open Sky Wilderness Therapy talking with a therapist while sitting in a forest

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, on the other hand, requires work. Adapting to changing weather, walking everywhere, and living without furniture means that early adolescents learn how to take care of themselves in ways that are normally taken for granted. There are no showers, beds, toilets, microwaves, televisions, computers, or electric lighting. Students learn how to not only function but thrive without the modern conveniences that typically prop up their lives. This engenders a sense of empowerment, of being capable of keeping themselves physically comfortable and safe. They learn how to stay warm when it is cold, dry when it is wet, and nourished when they are hungry. At Open Sky, early adolescents become successful students of life, confident in themselves and their abilities.

Harnessing Nature’s Healing Capacity

Being outside provides a space in which everything is free to be felt and expressed without judgment or limit. Nature can handle an early adolescent’s barrage of angry outbursts or their depths of grief and sorrow. Nature is receptive to everyone’s presence; it provides a space that isn’t available in the busy-ness and materialism that surrounds modern civilization. The pure beauty of vistas, mountains, and desert landscapes generates a reverence and appreciation for life and our surroundings. With Mother Nature embracing them as a part of this spectacular planet, our early adolescents heal and rebalance themselves.

Providing Real Life Skills

Unlike most wilderness programs, Open Sky aims to provide transferable skills and practices that can help our students better succeed in their lives outside of wilderness. Each day, students prepare and eat healthy, whole-foods meals. They participate in yoga, meditation, and exercise, all healthy resources for managing anxiety, depression, grief, and anger. They learn to effectively communicate with others, which is essential to creating and sustaining genuine relationships. Our guides and therapists specialize in helping teach early adolescents how to become more self-aware, manage emotions effectively, and successfully and authentically relate to others. At Open Sky, students begin to develop a set of healthy skills that they can use both during and after their time with us. As a result, they are better prepared to respond when the stresses of life are upon them.

Finding Direction

We value our early adolescent students’ playful, curious, and energetic natures and make space to cultivate these qualities. Students are immersed in several new experiences. They have the opportunity to explore a beautiful and diverse landscape, learn a variety of primitive skills, and receive cultural education from Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. We incorporate fun and thoughtful games into the daily routine, along with yoga, meditation, healthy meal preparation, hiking, backpacking, and simply gathering around the campfire to play music and connect with one another. The skills and experiences early adolescents are introduced to at Open Sky often become interests or hobbies they want to share with their families and friends.

Before Open Sky, many of our students were stuck in unhealthy habits and avoided the difficult, but also fulfilling, parts of life. We offer early adolescents a safe space to explore themselves, what they value, and who they want to become as people. Since success often comes from facing and overcoming challenges, we encourage our early adolescent students to be courageous and take healthy risks by learning how to speak up, try new experiences, practice honesty and authenticity, and ultimately step out of their comfort zones. Our guides and therapists support each student in this important journey, and in the end, students discover how resourceful, resilient, and capable they are.

Alt-text: An arrangement of rocks on a plateau created by Open Sky Wilderness Therapy students.

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