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How to Talk with Your Young Adult About Wilderness Therapy

Mariah Loftin, MA, LPC | Clinical Director & Senior Clinical Therapist | Young Adults

When our children are hurting, struggling, and making poor decisions, there is an impulse as parents to swoop in and fix things for them. This is normal. However, it is important to identify when that hurting, struggling, and those poor decisions become a pattern. That is when parents NEED to step in and accept help. If you don’t, there is a high likelihood that those patterns will become a way of life. 


Put your oxygen mask on first

Notice your own emotions. Notice your own impulses. Do you want to fix the problem yourself? Do the work for your child? Take their pain away? This is the hard part: Your young adult child has to face their choices and struggles. Life will continue to present challenges and your child needs to develop the skills to deal with them. If they don’t, they will remain dependent on others (or you), and ultimately stay in a place of more suffering. That is where wilderness therapy comes in. We don’t ask parents to be the clinicians for their children. Parents must not expect that of themselves. What we hope is that parents are able to ask for the support their family needs. 

In order to support your child, you must first recognize your own fears, sadness, instinct to protect, or do-it-yourself mentality. Then, take a step back from those emotions and see the big picture. The things we (and our children) are doing today impact the things we do tomorrow, next year, in five years, and so on. If we are not practicing healthy life skills now, we are perpetuating the negative patterns and setting ourselves up for failure in the future.  

Parenting tip: Take slow, deep breaths and come to a centered place of calm. From there, write down what you are feeling and why you need help.  


Identify what is wrong or why you are concerned

As a parent, part of how you can support your child is to bring yourself and them into the bigger-picture perspective. Recall what has been happening in the last year, two years, five years. Write the story of what has happened, what you have experienced, what you have witnessed, and why you are worried. What are the goals that have not been achieved and excuses that have been made? The next step is action: Come to a place of resolve that Open Sky is the right step in supporting your child and your entire family moving forward. From this place, you are ready to have a conversation with your child about wilderness therapy treatment.  

Parenting tip: Write down what you have observed, what has scared you, what concerns you have. These can be general and specific; future and present. Write down why you are resolved that this is the best option for your child. 


Starting the Conversation

The important thing to keep in mind is, you are not “selling” this to your son or daughter. It’s a matter of conviction on your part; not a matter of convincing or persuading. Begin with a dialogue. 

Start with your own emotions: “I have been scared and worried about you because______.” 

Ask your child questions: “Have you been worried about yourself? What have you been feeling? What has been hard?” 

Start talking about wilderness: “I think it is time to have more help. I know this is a path we need to pursue. This is how we are going to move forward.”  

If you think your child can hear it, talk about why YOU, as the parent, need help as well 

This conversation is about your child’s health and well-being. At some point, you will have to hold that boundary of, “I am the parent. This is what I will and will not support.” This may seem more straightforward in a conversation with an adolescent child as opposed to a young adult. Parent-young adult relationships are more nuanced. However, by phrasing what you will and won’t support as their parent, you can still be clear and resolute with your young adult child. 

Parenting Tip: Throughout the conversation, continue to take breaths and stay calm.  

Young adult therapy session with Mariah Loftin at Open Sky


Addressing the Fears and Objections

You will likely hear a wide array of reasons from your son or daughter why wilderness therapy is not the right option or why the timing isn’t right.  

Parenting Tip: Prior to your discussion, write down all the reasons you think your child will not want to go to wilderness therapy. What are the excuses, rationale, and fears you might hear? From your place of resolve, write down your responses prior to the conversation. It may also be helpful to enlist the support of your Admissions Counselor, Educational Consultant, or other professionals working with your family as you contemplate how to address specific concerns and objections.  

Here are just a few of the objections parents frequently hear, along with some guidance on how to address them: 


“I can’t go to wilderness because I have a job.

Let’s look at life as a wheel of general health and happiness. What actually supports that wheel turning? Eating well, sleeping well, time connected to others, working, relationships, exercise, etc. Highlight to your child that their job is one spoke of that wheel. By approaching the conversation like this, you are reflecting and acknowledging that yes, your job is important. And, to be healthy long-term, so are these other areas of your life.  

I had a student recently who was not able to manage emotions, he was isolating, he was coping by smoking Cannabis, and he did not eat well. These areas of his life were falling apart. But he had an amazing job! At Open Sky, we were able to help this student and his parents understand the roots of these struggles. With the right diagnosis, medication, treatment plan, and a toolbox of coping skills, he moved forward on a path that would actually support him. 


“I won’t leave my boyfriend/girlfriend.”

You can’t have a healthy way of relating to someone else if you’re not helping yourself. As the parent of a young adult, it is not your job to tell your child to end the relationship. That conversation will initiate a power struggle and it isn’t actually a relevant response to their excuse. Instead, point out to them that their work at Open Sky is going to have a positive impact on all relationships, including partnerships 

This is also a good opportunity to validate their emotions and come back to the “spokes on a wheel” metaphor. What are the other spokes on their wheel of life that are not present or are concerning? This is the focus of the conversation—what are you concerned about 

Open Sky young adult therapy session.


“I know I play a lot of video games, but I’m not hurting anyone. At least I’m safe and not out on the streets.”

The rationale in the objection above implies that they are in survival mode: At least I’m not suicidal. Or, At least I’m not on drugs. Meanwhile, they are spending hours isolating, not thriving, and not truly living. What are the ways you can support your son or daughter to thrive, rather than merely survive? Is this the child you want to see in five years? Ask them, is this the person they want to be in five years? That is the reality of the path they are on. As a parent, you can’t expect different results without a change occurring. Examine what might be compromised by staying on this path instead of seeking an effective change.  

Wilderness therapy is a way of regaining perspective of where one is at and where one is going. We often talk about the concept of “Hard-easy, easy-hard.” It applies to so many areas of life and wilderness therapy. We can choose to do the “hard” thing now (i.e. pursue treatment at Open Sky) to make our challenges easier to face in the future. Or, according to this young adult’s rationale, we can do the easy thing now (continue isolating and playing video games), which will make life harder in the future by perpetuating these negative patterns and dynamics. 


“I just got into my dream university. I can’t leave now—that will mess up my whole academic plan and future career.”

I disagree! There are resources and support within school systems (whether high school or college-level) that emphasize and prioritize mental health. You can take a medical leave by going through the proper channels. If a student is not equipped with tools and skills to support their own mental and emotional health, they could spiral into issues that become even more detrimental to their academic and career goals.  

My advice to parents is to explore where your son or daughter is coming from with this rationale. Continue the dialogue. Tell me more. What has it been like to live with anxiety? How has that traumatic experience impacted you? What is your fear about leaving school? How might staying in school actually enhance these struggles? What step do we need to take? 

A key component of becoming an adult, which we work on at Open Sky, is helping students to know when to ask for help and know when to approach something independently. Our students learn to identify: Is this an opportunity to invite support? Or, is this an opportunity to challenge myself?  

You are likely reading this because you find yourself and your family in a situation which calls for outside support. Role model how to push against the negative social and cultural pressures that emphasize1) I have to do this on my own in order to be successful, and 2) I should feel ashamed that I can’t manage my own depression / substance use / (insert struggle here). Encourage your child to establish a new and healthy normal by recognizing they are struggling and seeking support in order to move forward. I firmly believe that a break from school—even if it is a dream school—could support this individual’s long-term goals.   


How am I supposed to give up technology and social media for that long? How do you expect me to stay in touch with my friends?

Our kids are inundated with social pressures, bullying, “fear of missing out,” etc. through technology and social media. The brilliant thing about wilderness therapy is being removed from all of this and focusing on health. Guides, therapists, peers, and the natural world help the students reconnect to themselves rather than these external pressures and expectations. Removing technology allows a person to be truly connected to themselves and each other. This is definitely a shift. Ultimately, it is incredibly healthy and an opportunity to learn from and gain face-to-face, technology-free interaction.  


“Why can’t I bring my own clothes? Why can’t I maintain at least that much of my identity?

There are a few reasons Open Sky provides clothing and gear. First and foremost, it allows us to equip students with the proper attire for the type of weather conditions and outdoor activities they will experience. We have the most amazing gear, selected and tested by our Operations and Field Teams. The proper clothing and gear will really set students up for success on hikes, around the fire, sleeping, and everything in-between.  

Additionally, some people attempt to meet (or defy) social expectations through clothing, rather than primarily focusing on who they are internally. By wearing clothing we issue, students can more easily connect with their own authenticity. 

By issuing the same clothing to all students, it also lessens the opportunity for someone to make judgments or assumptions about a person based on their attire. This creates a stronger sense of community, belonging, emotional safety, and authenticity in the field.  

I would also note that students are able to express their identity in other ways than through their clothing. I see students get creative with hat decorations, for instance. Identity is important here, and we want to make sure it is being explored and appreciated internally first and foremost. 


“I’m definitely not as bad as other people who go to programs like this. Being around them will make me worse.”

If your son or daughter objects by saying, “I’m not like those people,” they are likely correct! We support each student with customized treatment plans and interventions. There are so many ways we individualize a student’s experience based on their needs.  

Everyone who comes to Open Sky is here to heal. Each person has unique backgrounds, struggles, skills, challenges, and strengths. That is what makes this setting beautiful and beneficial. Take a look at our adolescent and young adult client profiles and you’ll notice the wide range of issues and severity that we treat: anxiety, depression, personality disorders, family dynamics, substance use, and grief, for instance. 

The variety and diversity of issues and backgrounds is actually an effective part of the process. In their teams at Open Sky, students learn how to communicate, relate to one another, and connect despite differences. Even if your child’s issues don’t seem as “extreme” as others, they can learn from each other. A student who comes in with depression might open up in a group session about something from their past, and in turn, inspire a student struggling with identity issues to open up about something from their own past. The common thread is courage and connection.  


“I’m not outdoorsy and know nothing about living in the wilderness. I’m also nervous about the bathroom, showering, and personal hygiene situation out there…”

Your son or daughter will not be “unusual” by knowing nothing about life in the outdoors. The majority of young people who come to Open Sky have little to no experience in the wilderness. We teach each student all of the skills needed to thrive out here. The wilderness skills we teach encompass cooking, personal hygiene, making fire, feminine hygiene, building shelters, cleaning dishes, showering, proper hydration, healthy nutrition, first aid, organization, and restful sleep.  

Focus on self-care is a very important part of treatment. By starting with these skills upon arrival, students are better positioned to do the deeper emotional and mental health work. By taking care of the basics, we naturally begin to feel better. It sets the foundation to head forward in life.  

Self care is a part of adolescent and young adult therapy at Open SKy


Why ten weeksI’ll only go for four.”

Remember, you are not bargaining with your son and daughter. Respond from a place of care and conviction. I’m invested in your growth and health. I’m curious how long this process will take. 

The reality is, the adolescents and young adults who come to Open Sky have spent years establishing negative habits, coping mechanisms, behaviors, and relational patterns. The expectation that only a month is needed to shift out of those habits is not realistic. A month of work will not set them up for long-term success. It takes time to truly rewire the brain. Through the holistic therapeutic work at Open Sky, there are actual physiological changes occurring in the brain. In order to compete with the current neural pathways formed by negative and unhealthy patterns, we must repeat habits in order to form new neural pathways for healthier patterns. 

Open Sky outcomes research shows that it tends to take 9-12 weeks for our students to begin forming these neural pathways and integrating new patterns of healthy living, structure, mental health, physical health, and so on.  


“I don’t like mindfulness or yoga. This isn’t the right option for me.”

This is a great opportunity to talk about your child learning to stop impulsive and reactive behavior. A consistent mindfulness practice enables the trigger-reaction” pattern to stop. The goal is that when one has a trigger, we notice we are triggered, PAUSE, then have a response. When we look at research, mindfulness supports this pause.  Research shows that mindfulness practice can actually rewire those neural pathways that we talked about above, impacting thoughts, actions, and life as a whole. What we practice at Open Sky is scientifically based and research proven.   

As a Young Adults Therapist, I’ve witnessed students feel the changes in their mind, body, and emotions, brought about through a consistent mindfulness practice. This goes for the ones who were initially resistant, too. Many are surprised by how much it helps! Once they experience the results of this work, it becomes a non-issue. When they realize that they can take back control of their minds, rather than be controlled by their minds, a whole new level of healing and change can take place. Plus, these are all tools they can take with them when they leave Open Sky. 

Yoga is a part of adolescent and young adult therapy at Open Sky.


A few final thoughts…

When our children are hurting, we want to protect them. That is our instinctual mama and papa bear showing up. However, sometimes protecting our children now will impair them in the future. Identifying what you are feeling, what you are concerned about, and why you are resolved that this is the next step for your family will support you starting the conversation. Your ability to follow through can prevent your child’s patterns from becoming a way of life.  

If you have questions about young adult wilderness therapy treatment at Open Sky, please contact our expert Admissions Team at: 970-759-8324.

As a Licensed Professional Counselor, Mariah Loftin, MA, LPC skillfully blends her background as a psychotherapist, behaviorist and art therapist. She is quickly able to assess and appropriately treat students, masterfully illuminating the issues that are difficult for them to face. She then pushes them to their edges to start working on those core issues. In her work, she melds a variety of modalities such as Art Therapy, Behavior Analysis, Relational Psychotherapy for Trauma, DBT, Family Systems Therapy, MI, and Acceptance & Commitment Therapy to best meet the individual therapeutic needs. To learn more about Mariah and her treatment approach, visit her bio page

February 10th, 2020

Mariah Loftin, MA, LPC | Clinical Director & Senior Clinical Therapist | Young Adults