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Strength and Confidence: How Therapist Kirsten Bolt Helps Adolescent Girls Thrive

Kirsten Bolt, MEd, LMFT | Assistant Clinical Director and Senior Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Girls

Featured Team Members: Kirsten Bolt, M.Ed., LMFT

Q: What led you to pursue a career as a wilderness therapist?

A: I fell into wilderness therapy as a field guide during a transitional time in my life. I was drawn to the individual mentorship and intimate, personal conversations with students. I also enjoyed the often dynamic and challenging work with families. My heart was committed to the work of wilderness therapy, so I enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Oregon with the clear intention of returning to this industry as a wilderness therapist.

As I completed my graduate degree in Couples and Family Therapy, I trained across various outpatient office settings. The only therapy sessions that truly felt comfortable for me were the ones in which I could work in more experiential ways with clients—especially when we could be outside. I have found no greater place for exploring and developing one’s identity, creating emotional resiliency, and connecting with wiser versions of ourselves and others than in wilderness therapy.

Q: What is your clinical treatment approach to working with adolescent girls?

A: My formal training is in couples and family therapy, which is the foundation for everything I do. I approach each student through the lens of systems theory. So, when assessing a student and formulating a treatment plan, I consider not only the individual but also her many surrounding layers, such as family, social, and educational factors. We focus beyond the behavioral problems to the underlying issues and the various contributing layers. This allows us to identify how she can change and how parents can support wellness in their child through their own growth. Contrary to some thoughts about therapy, I can’t make people change, but I can help them increase awareness and skills so they can create change.

I incorporate many principles from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) in my practice and emphasize the development of a healthier ability to identify, feel, express, and manage emotions. Because DBT is a widely-used treatment modality today, many girls have done extensive DBT work prior to enrolling here. Some of them feel “over it” while others are invested in DBT. I tailor this modality and adjust its language and delivery to meet each student’s needs based on her experiences.

Mindfulness, one of the core principles of DBT, is a primary focus in my work. A mindfulness tool I frequently utilize with the adolescent girls is interoception, the psychological connection to the body through the nervous system. Interoception as a therapeutic tool can be seen as a two-sided coin: it is beneficial for girls who are historically detached from their emotions and for those who are overwhelmed by emotions. For those who have lost touch emotionally, interoception helps them to increase bodily and emotional awareness. For instance, for someone with trauma who has learned to cope by dissociating or pushing aside her emotions, increasing sensory awareness within the body can help her start to feel emotions again. On the flip side of the coin, some girls become flooded emotionally, have difficulty managing the emotions, and end up projecting them onto others or hurting themselves to cope. Interoception can help them slow down and regulate their emotions. Instead of a chaos of feelings, she experiences a somatic connection of emotions to the body.

I also draw on body-centered practices such as yoga, especially when working with trauma. Incorporating a variety of yoga postures and practices can help girls connect to their bodies, something that is especially powerful for those with sexual trauma.

Recently, I received training in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a best practice for trauma therapy. This modality is an effective way to reach clients and I am particularly excited to bring it into my work. It was developed to treat trauma but has been found effective in addressing a wide variety of clinical issues and the underlying negative core beliefs about oneself. EMDR is a helpful way for people to reprocess experiences and develop adaptive core beliefs, providing relief from frozen neural pathways. This paves the way for students to harness other skills and resources we teach.

With training in a wide variety of treatment modalities, I am able to individualize my assessment and treatment approach to each student. My approach is not “one size fits all.” I know that not all students will respond identically to any given type of intervention. I attune to the needs of each student or family and incorporate these practices according to their individual needs and responses.

Q: Why is wilderness an effective and powerful intervention for adolescent girls?

A: It is common that our adolescent girls enroll at Open Sky with more acute symptoms than their adolescent boy counterparts. Perhaps this data is a result of parents’ view their daughters as too “delicate” to handle wilderness. For boys, it’s more of a social norm to become “outdoorsmen” than it is for girls.

Picture of the “Girls can do anything” sign Kirsten’s mom had placed above her crib when she was a baby.

I love challenging these gender stereotypes. The truth is, girls are strong and capable. My mom placed a sign over my crib as an infant that said: “Girls can do anything.” I was raised with that idea and am passionate about helping young girls know this in their heads and their hearts.

Adolescent girls can grow significantly through wilderness and it can be so powerful for them. It is especially fun to see the girls who perceive themselves as “city girls” learn that they can start a fire, sleep on the ground, and live in the woods. The unfamiliarity and initial discomfort create incredible opportunity for growth. I love to help girls realize that they are capable of more than they ever thought possible. This increased self-efficacy and self-confidence is a powerful part of the wilderness experience. It will benefit them throughout the rest of their lives.

The relational coaching, training, and guidance the students receive here are invaluable. Without fail, the unhealthy relational patterns that occur in family or social systems at home emerge in the wilderness setting. I highlight a student’s relational patterns at home using her relationships with field guides, peers, and myself. Living each day in a team of other girls and adult field guides creates inherent opportunities to observe and practice healthy interpersonal skills that will help with her family and social relationship dynamics. I love to see how the girls grow in their connections here and often form a sisterhood within their peer group.

Wilderness is also an incredible opportunity for identity development as one connects with nature and a sense of something larger than oneself. As a family therapist, I rely on the concept of differentiation, the normal adolescent process of individuating from one’s family. It’s a process of creating oneself and balancing that newfound autonomy with connection, which is often not easy. In fact, in my team, we focus on how to protect connections with others without losing oneself, as well as how to assert one’s autonomy without breaking connection to do so. So many girls grow up thinking they are responsible for others’ emotions and behaviors, while others are defiant to get their needs met. Strengthening their sense of self helps girls make healthier choices in relationships. The other core element of differentiation is balancing emotional feeling with rational thinking. Adolescent girls here learn how to accept their emotions without playing the “tough girl” to avoid stereotypes of girls being emotional, and they learn how to manage emotions so they can think rationally through them. Wilderness therapy positions students to learn this balance in a safe setting, with the supportive attention and guidance of field guides and therapists along the way.

Q: What are your strengths as a therapist for adolescent girls?

A: In my work, I strive to be both relational and transparent. I have a strong ability to attune to what people need, from direct confrontation to soft and compassionate coaching. I meet each person where they are and am always straightforward in my communication. These strengths also allow me to support parents well.

In addition, one of my strengths is helping girls dispel the shame they so frequently feel about themselves and their experiences. Shame often interferes with the change process and can lead girls to believe they are not worthy or capable of achieving success. By using playfulness and humor to help a student laugh at herself, normalizing the unhealthy ways in which we try to meet our needs, I often witness girls feel the weight of their shame lift. This leaves them more willing and able to access the deeper work.

Q: What aspects of Open Sky programming, culture, and community do you value the most?

A: I highly value working with our Clinical Team. It is truly inspiring to connect with such clinically sophisticated, yet humble, intelligent, loving, and hilarious group of people on a personal and professional level. Those bonds are important when seeking consultation on our cases, learning from each other’s strengths and backgrounds, providing the best service possible to our clients and families, and simply enjoying each other in and out of work.

It is greatly important to me to work for an organization that aligns with my own values. Before I even began working at Open Sky, I knew it was such a place. It was values-driven since its inception, and the team has intentionally defined and refined the organization’s core values and vision throughout the years. We continue to hold each other accountable to those values daily.

Open Sky’s holistic vision is what drew me here initially. Our strong focus on healthy relationships, wellness, and mindfulness fits well with my clinical and personal approach. I resonate deeply with our core purpose to activate the potential of the human spirit, believing all people have the capacity to thrive. And our central focus on family healing aligns completely with my graduate training.

Q: What are your personal interests and passions outside of work?

A: Family first. My greatest love lies in my son, stepson, husband, and our animals. Beyond that, my passions outside of work are in outdoor recreation such as mountain biking, climbing, and whitewater rafting. Hard to believe for a wilderness therapist, right? I also enjoy creating music with guitar, piano, and singing. And, in those rarest moments that I have spare time beyond all of that, I enjoying creating art.

December 2nd, 2018

Kirsten Bolt, MEd, LMFT | Assistant Clinical Director and Senior Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Girls