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Wilderness and the Core Self: A Conversation with Clinical Therapist Jeni Allton

The Open Sky Team

Featured Team Members: Jeni Allton, MS, MFTC

Jeni Allton, MS, MFTC is a Clinical Therapist for adolescent boys at Open Sky. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. Jeni believes in the fundamental ability of every human to reach their full potential and finds profound meaning in helping students and families achieve greater understanding of themselves and their relationships. Get to know Jeni in the Q&A below! 

Describe your clinical background and experience. How did you develop a passion for the outdoors, mental health, and family therapy?

I grew up in Missouri, and as a kid, I spent a lot of time outside riding horses, climbing trees, and playing in the creek. Nature was my sanctuary. After I finished my bachelor’s degree in psychology, I worked as a field guide at a wilderness therapy program. That was my first exposure to wilderness therapy, and I witnessed firsthand how effective the modality is. I was struck by how creating an environment where distractions such as substance use, risky sexual behavior, and technology are removed allows teenagers who are otherwise not thriving in their lives to explore healthy relationships with their peers and come back to their core, true selves. 

I knew becoming a therapist was my path, so after guiding, I went back to Missouri to pursue my master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. I chose marriage and family therapy because I was interested in the systemic family perspective and the ways in which our family of origin, whatever kind of constellation that is, plays into our development as a whole person. The patterns that unfold in our families as we come into the world and grow into adolescence and adulthood shape how we live our lives. Including the family system during treatment sets the entire family up for more success. At Open Sky, the student may be the identified patient, but we recognize that the entire family system has participated in the creation of certain dynamics or issues and is vital to growth and wellness continuing post-treatment.  

What do you like about working with adolescents?

My first internship in undergrad was at an adolescent treatment facility and I have worked extensively with adolescents in residential and wilderness settings. This population is fun. They’re engaging. They’re insightful. They’re standing on the precipice of becoming young adults. It’s a transformative time inherently, which makes it a powerful time to intervene in a meaningful way so we can help them identify the direction they want to go in their lives.  

How has your experience as a field guide informed your current role as a therapist?

I have lived experience of what both the students and guides are going through. I’m able to relate to and collaborate with the field guides from a place of mutual respect and admiration, knowing that they’re executing the therapeutic plan daily.  

Each student has a guide mentor, and ideally that guide mentor will sit in on the student’s sessions, which provides another window into the student’s journey. The student might report that they had a bad week, and the guide is able to provide an alternative perspective. They might point out, “It seems like you struggled this week in certain ways, but here’s actually what you did really well: you used coping skills when you were dysregulated and you advocated for your needs and shared ‘I feel’ statements to stay connected with the team.” And then the student might realize, “Oh yeah, it was a hard week, but I actually had some successes.” We can lean on that relationship the student has with the guide.  

What is your treatment approach? How do you build therapeutic relationships with students and families?

First and foremost, my approach is person centered and solution oriented. I approach every student or family with unconditional positive regard, empathy, attunement, and validation. I seek to meet each person or family where they are and identify their strengths. I look at what’s going well and the tools they already have that they can lean on. Then with their collaboration, we explore the areas in which they need to and are willing to grow. 

I ask questions like, what do you want to see happen in the future? What do you need to do to get there? Then we can break it down into more tangible action steps. For example, if a guide has given feedback or a directive the student is resistant to, we can use that as material to help the student process what’s coming up for them. They can practice identifying their feelings and needs in that relationship in the moment. Rather than making a face or a passive aggressive side comment, the student can directly tell the guide, “Ah, I feel frustrated about that.” From there I explore with them, how does that feel different? What did you notice in your relationship with this person when you were assertive rather than passive aggressive? 

Why is wilderness therapy a powerful treatment modality?

Wilderness therapy is very relational. It helps students identify what it takes to have the relationships they want with others. We all have the basic human need to experience love and belonging, and ideally, we try to meet this need in healthy and productive ways. A lot of our students have found that they can meet that need through things like unhealthy relationships or substance use or excessive time on social media. However, when they’re meeting their need for love and belonging through routes that don’t uphold their values, they feel worse about themselves and are more likely to engage in those negative behaviors. 

In the wilderness, we’re taking away those distractions. What students are left with is their core self in relation to other people in their team who are being their core selves. They’re able to achieve love and belonging in an inherently authentic way. If they’re fearful of being vulnerable or have trouble trusting another person, they are given opportunities to confront that in real time and share openly and honestly about what they’re experience is. They begin to realize that they can have love and belonging in ways that are more sustainable and real. 

Additionally, I think the container that Open Sky and the guides hold lends itself to rising to that occasion. Everyone is in it together. Everyone is facing similar challenges, physically, logistically, and emotionally, so they develop this camaraderie as they’re engaging in their work. Before coming to Open Sky, a lot of our students and families felt isolated in their experiences. When they get here, whether it’s through the team experience in the field or meeting other families on Wellness Weekend, they are reassured and affirmed that they are not alone.  

What are you most excited about within the realm of wilderness therapy?

I am excited by the vulnerability and resilience students show while going to the hard places. I’m inspired by their courage to look at the stuff in their lives that is kind of ugly and identify not only what they’re doing well, but where they need to grow. I love watching them learn skills they can transfer to the rest of their lives. Because of the real-time, experiential nature of wilderness therapy, there are these lightbulb moments where a student might think they can’t do something, whether its hiking with a pack or sharing an “I feel” statement with the team, and then they do. They suddenly are filled with their own excitement and sense of capability. They realize they do have control in their own lives. Getting to be alongside them through that discovery process is incredibly exciting.  

I am also awed by the work the families do and their willingness to have difficult conversations, be uncomfortable, let go of ideas of one another they hold from past experiences, and meet each other where they are now and see the potential in their relationships. Each family’s commitment to their own growth and to the growth of their child throughout this process is incredibly inspiring. 


June 28th, 2022

The Open Sky Team