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Social Resilience in Early Adolescence: How Wilderness Builds Communication and Relationship Skills

The Open Sky Team

Featured Team Members: Julia Lehr, MSSW, LCSW, AMFT

In this blog, Julia Lehr, Clinical Therapist for Early Adolescent Girls, outlines common social challenges early adolescents face, how parents can recognize when their child is struggling, and the ways wilderness can help students develop resilience in their peer and family relationships.   

What are common social challenges early adolescents face?

 Some of the most common challenges early adolescents face center around identity development. They’re going through a process of individualization yet still rely heavily on their parents and seek validation for their personalities through their peer and family relationships.  

 A lot of students I work with struggle with low self-esteem, low self-confidence, and communicating their emotions and needs. In their peer relationships, they’re testing out different cues, concepts, and ways of connecting with one another. Sometimes, these aren’t effective or appropriate ways to build relationships. That’s where we see friendship and peer relationship struggles emerge. When an early adolescent is trying to say, “This is who I am,” and it’s not validated by others, they feel rejected, which can increase ineffective methods for getting their needs met.  

Clinical Therapist Julia Lehr and a pre-teen student at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy discuss resilience during a Student Pathway session.

How can parents recognize their child is struggling with peer relationships? What signs should they look out for?

 Parents might see their child self-isolate, either through spending a lot of time in their room or withdrawing socially within the family system. Their child might use forms of unhealthy communication, like passive or aggressive communication.  

 Parents might also see more experimentation and risky behaviors. Many students I work with have different expressions of depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, popular media often portrays these expressions as concrete and validated if they’re also associated with self-harming behaviors and suicidal gestures. Consequently, when early adolescents are struggling to manage complex emotions, they may believe the only avenue for expressing themselves is through harmful behaviors. Maladaptive forms of managing complex emotions are clear indicators that early adolescents may need additional support.   

We talk about resilience a lot at Open Sky? What does being resilient look like for early adolescents?

 When students feel emotions that are hard to sit with, they often want to try to escape those feelings. In the field, this might look like seeking support from guides and peers in unhealthy ways instead of learning to use grounding techniques to cope with these emotions or communicate assertively. 

Resilience looks like taking action when things are difficult, rather than being a bystander to the experience. It’s feeling complex emotions and learning how to navigate them instead of avoiding them. It’s continuing to move through a challenging hike instead of giving up. It’s experiencing a difficult emotion with a peer and naming and addressing it rather than holding onto resentments.  

Two pre-teen girls walk and talk in the field while wearing backpacks.

How does the concept of resilience apply to early adolescents’ social interactions, and why is it important?

Early adolescents are so motivated to connect with one another that oftentimes, they tiptoe around each other rather than addressing conflict. But the goal isn’t to be in total agreement with everyone around you all the time. It’s important for early adolescents to be able to have disagreements and communicate their perspectives while also compassionately holding space for other people’s points of view. This helps them learn to problem solve and move forward in ways that maintain connection and relationship.  

If we can support students early on in their development, then they have access to valuable skills as they transition into adolescence. By the time they’re in high school or an adult, they’re able to set and respect boundaries and speak to their wants and needs within relationships, rather than being compliant, passive, or avoidant.  

A family holds hands at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy.

How do these skills apply to students’ family relationships?

Before Open Sky, a lot of students withdrew or hid how they felt when their parents wanted to know more or be involved. They might have responded to difficult questions with, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.” By using communication and relationship skills with their peers first, students practice them in the moment and throughout their entire stay at Open Sky. They also see the people around them – peers, guides, and therapists – model, practice, and invest in these skills. They can then transfer these skills into their relationships with their families. During family phone calls, they’re better equipped to step into the topics that have traditionally been difficult and speak to them with a higher level of awareness and understanding.  

How can parents help their children build resilience?

I think early adolescence can be a difficult time for parents because they love their children so much and are trying to make life feel the most comfortable for them. Finding discomfort in life and relationships, however, isn’t a bad thing. Discomfort is an important indicator of where and how we need to grow. 

Sometimes, the best thing parents can do is simply support their children in sitting with complex emotions rather than try to rescue their children from those feelings. Parents can provide guidance as their children meet and overcome obstacles, but it’s crucial that they allow their children the opportunity to develop the skills and awareness necessary to face challenges. 

A student in a yellow shirt at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy builds resilience by learning how to bow drill a fire.

Why is wilderness an effective tool for helping adolescents build resilience?

When students need to build a fire, cook for the group, or respond to the weather, they’re stepping into problem solving and action rather than sitting passively and not participating. In wilderness, you can’t go into your room and close the door when things are tough. Even if that was an option, students typically don’t want to choose it anymore. They get excited about and invested in bow drilling, cooking, hiking, collecting wood, tying knots, and securing shelters.  

 In wilderness, students are consistently finding small, incremental forms of success. There’s never really a time when the therapy ends. Even if students are playing games and having fun, every day is packed with examples of solving problems, working together, and experiencing those successes. By the time they graduate, they’re leaving feeling really proud of themselves. They have weeks of concrete evidence that they are valued, worthy, and can succeed if they commit to their work. Many students arrive at Open Sky with low self-esteem, and wilderness helps them develop the innate knowledge that they can do difficult things and overcome odds, a key ingredient to resilience.

November 16th, 2021

The Open Sky Team