A Parent’s Guide to Navigating Wilderness Therapy
Mariah Loftin, MA, LPC | Clinical Director & Senior Clinical Therapist | Young Adults
Senior clinical therapist Mariah Loftin skillfully blends her background as a psychotherapist, behaviorist, and art therapist. Melding a variety of clinical modalities, Mariah helps young adult clients and their families examine and appreciate the many dimensions of themselves, including their mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. In this blog post, Mariah shares helpful guidance and tangible strategies for parents as they navigate wilderness therapy treatment.
The first thing for parents to do once their child is enrolled in wilderness therapy is to settle in. Breathe. This is a big transition for you as much as it is for your child, so allow your Open Sky team to support you and your child, and acknowledge the stress that you’ve undergone in order to get to this point. It’s a really big deal, and it’s a time for you to turn inward and see the ways that you can support yourself now that your child is at Open Sky.
It’s important to acknowledge that both the child and the parents might experience grief. You and your child might feel things like shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger, bargaining, depression, longing, acceptance, and hope. These are things that will naturally come up throughout your child’s stay here. When young adult students first arrive, I’ll frequently hear, “I don’t need to be here. Everyone else is much worse off than I am. My needs can’t be met here. I feel trapped.” Common fears I hear from parents are, “I have abandoned my child. My child will stay angry at me. Being in wilderness won’t work.” These responses are normal and part of the grief process. It doesn’t mean Open Sky isn’t a good fit for your family. It just means you and your child are going through grief.
The initial letters from your child can often be angry or really sad. They might write things like, “I don’t feel connected to anybody here. I need out.” Some of those things may be rooted in reality; others could be manipulation. Be aware of when something your child says strikes a chord with you. Develop a practice of noticing. Being able to be both the expert on yourself and the expert on how your child plays to pulling some of those heartstrings is really helpful because then you can be intentional in how you respond. We want to support both you and your child in responding rather than reacting; being intentional rather than impulsive. When you receive letters from your child that might be angry or express that they are experiencing difficulty, it is an opportunity to actually begin your work with your child. Think about how to slow down, take care of yourself, make sure that you’re calm and collected, and be intentional with your language. Use the skills you are learning at Open Sky. Practice reflective listening and being very clear. The more you have done your own work and the clearer the message is to your child that this is where your family needs to be, the quicker your child will actually settle in.
Using reflective listening doesn’t mean that you’re making a decision or automatically agreeing with your child. It means you are simply reflecting back what you are hearing. It means saying, “I hear that you’re angry. I hear that you don’t feel like you fit in with your team. I hear that you want to leave.” It’s about listening to and trying to understand your child’s experience. Once you reflect and summarize, you can then transition into sharing in your letters, and maybe a phone call if that’s appropriate. “You know what? I’m really committed to going through this process with you. I’m committed to doing my own work, and I’m also committed to having you stay where you are.” If you haven’t successfully set boundaries or had great communication in the past, this is the time to practice. When you are consistent and communicating in a way where you are present and calm and boundaried, it helps your child settle in and do the same.
Your child is feeling a lot of emotions. You are feeling a lot of emotions. That’s okay. What I want parents to think about is, are you comfortable with your child feeling these emotions? And if not, why? We are wired as humans to protect our kids. That’s about survival, and it’s normal. But if we continue to protect our children from their own feelings and from everything that comes up in life, we’re actually preventing them from building resiliency and grit – attributes that will empower them to live their fullest lives. We all know that there are a lot of things that come up in life that are difficult, whether it’s a death or heartbreak or not getting the grade that you want. Parents need to learn to support their children in developing that sense of resilience and the ability to cope.
When parents participate to the fullest and do their own work, the outcomes for their children are better. Doing your own work means being engaged, participating, reading the books and listening to the podcasts that have been recommended, and making sure that you’re taking really good care of yourself so that you can dive into this work fully.
When things are difficult or your child expresses wanting to leave, write down all the reasons why you felt therapy was necessary. A lot has led to getting your child to Open Sky, and I think it’s important to keep that in the forefront of your mind as you commit to your child being here and receiving support. Decisions made from an impulsive or emotional place are not good decisions. At Open Sky, we have a step-by-step process that supports young adults and their families in slowing down, making intentional decisions, and practicing communication, emotional regulation, and coping skills. Practice those skills, not only with your child but also with your other family members and friends.
During a family’s time in treatment, there are key goals that we aim to achieve. One of them is assessing what’s most supportive for your child and family after Open Sky. To help assess that, we look at how your child shows up day in and day out. What is the support that they need on their worst day and on their best day? The way that they’re able to show up here gives us information about how treatment will need to evolve to support what they need after Open Sky. If you’re looking at therapeutic support after your wilderness program, working with an educational consultant can also be incredibly helpful in planning further.
One of the things I love most about wilderness therapy is that it’s experiential. Students and their families learn how to not only practice skills, but also turn them into healthy habits. Putting all these skills into practice allows you, your child, and the family system to be connected, change for the better, and thrive as you head forward from here.
To learn more from Mariah about how to support your child in treatment, listen to her interview on episode 20 of the SKYlights Podcast.