May 5, 2005, 01:02

A Winning Combination
Scott Bandoroff, PhD

[Dr. Scott Bandoroff is a psychologist specializing in the treatment of challenging teens and families through adventure therapy. His dissertation (Wilderness family therapy: An innovative treatment approach for problem youth, 1992) is the only published research on wilderness family therapy. He offers Family Adventures and also consults with and trains youth care programs in implementing family programming. For more information, visit]

This is the first of a two part series on wilderness family therapy and wilderness therapy. Everyone reading this publication knows about wilderness therapy but how many have heard of wilderness family therapy? Although the name is self evident, I would imagine that few readers are actually familiar with this form of programming. Wilderness family therapy consists of taking families into a wilderness environment for a multi-day (usually 3-5) treatment experience, either alone or with other families. Wilderness family therapy is a direct outgrowth of wilderness therapy and boasts many of the same benefits. Just like wilderness therapy, it is short-term, intensive and highly impactful. It taps the "magical" healing properties of nature, as well as the challenges inherent in wilderness living. It offers an environment free from distractions, provides a milieu ideal for family bonding and emotional reattachment and affords many teachable moments for skill development. Based on the needs and desires of the family, wilderness family therapy can take a variety of forms, like a primitive skills program with matchless fires and shelter-building, or with exciting challenges such as rock-climbing or whitewater rafting. The critical elements are the natural environment and a therapist skilled in family systems work and adventure therapy.

The intervention is designed to provide families with the opportunity to harness their resources and rediscover their sense of family. The premise being that families have a vast arsenal of resources that they use to solve countless problems every week. Often these strengths get overlooked or lost in the cycle of conflict that brings many families to treatment. The challenges of wilderness living in and of themselves require families to tap those strengths. In addition, a standard program would incorporate initiative activities that present families with engaging, problem solving exercises designed to access resources the family needs to overcome their problems. Such initiative activities invite families to rebuild their relationships and discover their strengths while having fun.

The healing properties of nature are another critical aspect of the intervention. Besides being free from daily distractions that divert attention and drain energy, the wilderness has restorative powers that bring a sense of calm and order to the family. Sitting around a fire under a star-filled sky with the song of the coyotes in the distance creates an atmosphere for healing that no therapy office could match. Moreover, the sheer magnitude of the natural world can help the family see their issues in a new, seemingly more manageable perspective. Above all, getting back to basics reminds family members of their connection and caring for one another at a core level and allows them to find new motivation to work through seemingly insurmountable issues. During their time in the wilderness, the family is everyone's number one priority, and this in itself will help promote healing.

Living together in the wilderness provides many teachable moments. Unlike the therapy hour where the therapist must deal with what is presented in that short window of time, the wilderness family therapist has ample opportunity to observe the family under a variety of circumstances, and to create desired conditions. This allows the therapist to intervene at critical moments to help families become more aware of their patterns, whether they are useful or destructive. New skills can be taught where opportunity for application is immediate and the therapist can coach the family. This open-ended therapy format also allows issues to be worked through to resolution rather than left hanging until the next appointment.

Wilderness family therapy is an ideal intervention following a residential treatment placement, whether it is a boarding school or wilderness program. Anyone in the field can attest that the biggest challenge for residential treatment is transitioning home. Residential programs by definition place the onus of change on the student, not the family. The dilemma this creates is that the transformed student returns to a family that is not adequately prepared to support the change. Through an intensive intervention that focuses on reintegrating the student into the family, wilderness family therapy increases the likelihood of a successful transition home. Wilderness family therapy is a perfect supplement to a wilderness treatment program because the teen goes from being a source of pain and frustration for the family to serving as a valued asset in the outdoors. Providing the family an opportunity to experience the youth in a new light of competence is a good place to start in rebuilding the family structure. The intervention can be equally impactful for a student transitioning from a therapeutic boarding school in that it allows the family to emotionally reconnect and gain the skills they will need to be successful in a short time frame. Of course, wilderness family therapy can also help a struggling family avoid placement completely by creating a catalyst for change and providing an opportunity to work intensively on their issues.

Wilderness family therapy is a powerful intervention that could help many teens and families. However, like wilderness therapy, wilderness family therapy is not the solution for every family or every family problem. There are limits to what can be realistically accomplished in such a short time period. Longstanding issues may not be resolved. However, in such an environment, issues that have never been adequately addressed tend to find their way to the surface. This is enhanced through direct work on critical resources like repair, trust, communication and negotiation. Families learn the skills needed to continue working on their issues after the program. Family therapy back in the community will take on new life as bridges are started and families gain the confidence and trust needed to resolve difficult issues. Wilderness family therapy is an exciting intervention that can help families to achieve health and ensure that the hard-earned accomplishments of students graduating from wilderness and residential treatment are supported and maintained.

In the June issue of the Woodbury Reports Newsletter, Dr. Scott Bandoroff will discuss the process of transitioning from a wilderness treatment program and back into the family utilizing the wilderness family therapy process.

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