An Alternative to Wilderness Therapy Programs

Considering a wilderness therapy program?

Jeff Levin provides an effective wilderness therapy alternative  that has an excellent success rate of helping families heal together.

Families with teens or 20-somethings who are struggling with addiction, anxiety, or other types of behavioral issues or mental health challenges often turn to wilderness therapy programs, which typically involve outdoor activities in a natural environment that supplement traditional psychotherapy for several months, which are then often followed by several months in a therapeutic boarding school. While the popularity of these kinds of treatment centers has increased in recent years, so have questions about their cost and effectiveness, which is relatively speculative and controversial. Fortunately, wilderness programs are not the only option. 

We offer a wilderness program alternative where the family works to heal together.

Children in crisis—whether from drugs/alcohol, anger, school refusal, screen addiction, acting out, failure-to-launch, etc.— rarely have problems in a vacuum. Wilderness programs can be helpful but often result in the child returning to their old behaviors when they are back at home because the underlying family and community issues that caused the behaviors were not thoroughly addressed.

We offer a flexible, in-home program where the entire family can work together to get at the root causes of the child’s challenges and be part of the healing process. While this option is not for everyone, it can be remarkably effective for many children if parents are motivated and willing to work at the problem. 

Our wilderness program alternative uses many aspects of Multisystemic Therapy (MST), which is a home-based program that “Through intense involvement and contact with the family, [MST] aims to uncover and assess the functional origins of adolescent behavioral problems. It works to alter the youth’s ecology in a manner that promotes prosocial conduct while decreasing problem and delinquent behavior.” 

So, unlike a wilderness therapy program, where the child is sent away, often for months (because most children who go to wilderness programs go to therapeutic boarding schools for several months when the wilderness program is completed), with our program, the child stays with the family. Like MST, we offer support 24/7 to families and work not only with the child but with the entire family in the home to change behaviors at the source—the family. MST has been around for decades and has been proven to be effective by multiple independent studies.

However, our program differs from traditional MST in that we use a life-coaching paradigm instead of therapy. In Jeff’s 40 years of experience working with kids, a therapeutic approach is often ineffective. Children don’t like working within the 50-minute hour. They don’t like sitting in an office. They don’t like the emotional detachment that is the hallmark of traditional therapy. They don’t care about psychological theory. They don’t like examining their past. 

This is one reason why wilderness therapy programs, which describe themselves as “the integration of standard clinical and group therapy techniques with an outdoor or wilderness setting,” are not always effective. It may be in a wilderness setting, but it’s still regular therapy.

Kids want feedback. They want to change their lives so they feel better as soon as possible and can move forward to achieve their hopes and dreams. And, contrary to what so many young people say and how they act, they want to improve their relationships with their families. No one likes to be miserable! Like MST, our program works in the child’s home, with the child’s entire family, including extended family and family friends, to discover and uncover the causes and roots of the child’s negative behaviors. We create a plan everyone, particularly the young person, can get behind. And then we work with the child and the family to follow that plan in order to change those behavior patterns. Jeff also collaborates with schools, athletic coaches, or other extra-curricular staff—whoever is appropriate to best give the child consistent messages and support.

How Our Wilderness Program Alternative Works

Our wilderness program alternative usually starts with the Family Intensive program, where Jeff works with the family (including extended family and close family friends, where appropriate) for a couple of long days to understand the problem from everyone’s perspective, evaluate the issue, and develop a plan for moving forward. The goal is to build trust and buy-in from all participants so the family can move forward together. Depending on logistics and COVID protocols, Jeff can come to you, the family can come to him, or Zoom, although not ideal, can be used. 

After the intensive, Jeff shares with both parents and child his sense of what the issues are and whether or not he can help the child and family. If Jeff feels he can help, then a plan is built around his, the child’s, and the parents’ shared sense of the needs and challenges they are all facing and what improvement would look like for all parties. If Jeff feels his program is not a good match, he is happy to discuss the kinds of help he thinks the child and, sometimes, parents need. Even if it is determined that the child needs to go away, the insight gained by the evaluation process will still be invaluable.

If everyone agrees that Jeff can help, then a customized master plan is developed where Jeff regularly meets (in-person, Zoom, phone) with the child and the parents to implement the plan. Of course, every child is different, but here are some things that are commonly addressed in a plan for a child:

  • Where does Outcome Fever and the Overwhelming Tragedy List come from, and how does it affect me?  Included here, of course, is a full discussion of COVID and its psychological and emotional effects.
  • How and why did I begin making negative choices, begin to feel lousy about myself, experience anxiety, sadness, alienation, etc.  How did my troubles begin, how did I contribute to it, AND HOW CAN I FEEL BETTER?
  • How do social media and screen time affect me, my focus, my confidence, my resilience, my nascent sense of self?  Learning to manage screen time and enjoy being in the moment: recovering the joy of playing!
  • What are the true origins of family conflict?  What role do I play?
  • Why the Six I’s–imagination, independence, intestinal fortitude, integrity, intimacy, and identity—matter so much to me.
  • The effects of trauma–how trauma affects learning and identity—and what to do about it.  What happened to me that hurts?
  • Why did I turn to substances, gaming, isolation and other maladaptive behaviors, and what do I have to do to stop?
  • Managing my gremlins (negative self-talk—see Rick Carson’s great book, Taming Your Gremlin).
  • Failure: the only way to learn. Why might I be afraid of it?
  • How can I connect with my creative urges?
  • Understanding how I am in control of my life and destiny: I begin to learn the gift of authority, responsibility, and consequences.
  • Connection with myself: I learn about how confidence, belonging, and intimacy work.
  • I learn about how self-judgement can destroy confidence and identity.

 

With parents, we like to explain the cultural changes that not only affect children differently, but have caused parents to parent differently, which often negatively affects the child. Here are some of the things we discuss:

 

Parenting Skills

  • Develop a felt sense of the granular difference between our childhoods and the child’s.
  • The importance of working with the truth: develop a full understanding of the Digital Age and what we call “Outcome Fever,” with its many distractions and confidence drains. A discussion of the iceberg of student anxiety. 
  • Why acknowledging the truth is so important.
  • Why what we call the New Parenting Playbook doesn’t work.
  • What are the true sources of family conflict?
  • The importance of building working collaborative relationships between parents and teachers, coaches, and administrators. 
  • Finding a balance between preparing children for adulthood and protecting them from harm. 
  • The critical importance of modeling and enforcing disconnecting from devices. 
  • Curing Outcome Fever—changing focus from what children accomplish to who they are. 
  • The concrete skills of building stronger process-focused connections between parents and children. 
  • Specific skills for parents to positively respond when their kids test them. 
  • Techniques to respond to a child’s struggles without “rescuing” or enabling.
  • How to let go of parenting from fear.

 

Emotional Baggage

During these discussions, so many parents are surprised at how much their own emotional baggage affects their relationships with their children and can be contributing to their child’s problems. If there were issues in a parent’s childhood such as lousy parenting, alcohol, drugs, emotional/physical/sexual violence or other trauma, more subtle emotional abuse, blurred boundaries, bullying, etc., whether they are aware of it or not, these negative experiences have shaped who they are and, in many cases, are shaping who their kids are, too. 

 

Part of Jeff’s work with families is to uncover these issues, explain how they are negatively impacting the child, marriage, and family and help the parent(s) learn to recognize when an issue is rearing its ugly head. This is an example of when traditional therapy can be extremely helpful, and Jeff often recommends to parents that they find a therapist with whom they can work through these issues. The result of all this work are often parents and children who ALL feel much better and who have a much stronger relationship.

 

Other Advantages

Cost-effectiveness: Our program is often cost-effective compared to wilderness programs.  (See below for sample numbers)

Buy-in: Our program is designed to get buy-in from the child. We want the child to be a willing and active participant in the family healing process. In fact, although the child (and the rest of the family) are often in a lot of pain when we start, many end up finding our program to be a positive, even enjoyable experience. The child increases their confidence, reduces stress and anxiety levels, and learns something about themselves. The goal of our program is to begin to develop in children basic emotional skills we used to learn by osmosis—what we call the Six I’s: Imagination, Independence, Intestinal Fortitude, Intimacy, and Integrity, which all lead to Identity. Children start to feel better as soon as they start to learn these skills. We plant the seeds of empathy and, most importantly, connection (something they all crave, no matter how they act), in children. 

Children love staying home so they can be with family and friends and continue to go to school. They may not say it, but they want harmony in the home. They love the authentic, face-to-face interaction. They love the focus on the journey, not results. They love learning what makes them tick and overcoming internal obstacles. And by having a more constructive, autonomous (yet connected) role in the family, they start to relax and feel like they are in control of their lives, no matter where they are at the moment.

Family intensive work isn’t for everyone—parents must be motivated to change and willing to work at it—but it can be remarkably effective and has a real chance to result in permanent improvement for the entire family.

 

How Our Wilderness Therapy Alternative Program Works

We offer a personalized service that does not involve sending your child away to a wilderness program or other facility. By actively participating with our interactive coaching program, families quickly learn how to adjust their thought patterns and behaviors to improve their overall family interactions and dynamics, improve communication, and move forward together.

Although every family is different, intensive work is usually done over several months followed by periodic check-ins so everyone stays on track. Here is an example of a typical family program:

Discussion with parents on phone/Zoom to prepare for Family Intensive: 2-3 hours @ NC

Family Intensive with all family members (including extended family and close family friends) important to child: 2 days @ $1500/day = $3000 + travel

Twice-weekly 2-hour sessions in-person or on Zoom with child: $225/hour x 4 = $900/week x 12 weeks = $10,800

Twice weekly 1-hour phone/Zoom conversations with parents: $225/hour x 2 = $450/week x 12 weeks = $5,400.

Often a second intensive is needed: $3000 + Jeff’s travel

Check-ins with child or parent via text, email, or quick phone calls: NC

Access to Jeff: 24/7, except when he’s working with another client

So the total for 13 weeks of work is $19,200–22,200 + travel for intensives.

Some families don’t need 13 weeks of work; others need more. Some children need to spend some full days with Jeff, and some parents need more (or less) than an hour a week. If necessary, one or two more Intensives might be needed, depending on the progress of the child and the family. Typically, the hourly sessions are phased out gradually once everyone is feeling better. Whatever your family’s needs, our flexible program can accommodate them.

Feel free to contact us to discuss your family’s situation.