Your Teen Is Going To College, Mine Is Going To Wilderness Therapy

“I don’t know what to tell people when they ask how my son is doing.”

“I just tell them that instead of working on his academic intelligence he’s working on his ‘emotional intelligence.’”

The above is an excerpt from a closed Facebook group exchange between parents whose children, instead of having the “normal” high school or college experience, are instead enrolled at or are heading off to therapeutic treatment programs ranging from wilderness therapy, to residential treatment centers to therapeutic boarding schools to “Aftercare.”

At a time of year when parents are hit with a bevy of blog posts on the essential dorm room supplies, college sendoffs and empty nesting, there are a significant number who are preparing for a different kind of sendoff and who would benefit from a community of support.

For our family it seemed to happen overnight. Though years ago, I remember it vividly. While en route to Trader Joe’s, my husband called and said I better come home; that our son was “going through something.”

Teens hiking during wilderness therapy

Early in his sophomore year of high school, our compassionate, funny, polite and sensitive boy became crippled by feelings of anxiety, sadness and rage that turned our household upside down. The ensuing high school years became a maelstrom of capricious emotions ranging from despair to fury; often directed at me and my husband or his younger brother.

That we had a basic understanding of where some of the suppressed feelings may have taken root, (he had survived a life threatening illness as a child and he struggled with learning disabilities) insight, in and of itself, is overrated; unless accompanied by healing it does little to change a very distressing situation.

In hindsight, I would have taken our son out of high school and gotten him into a therapeutic boarding school.

After one’s child turns eighteen, it’s more complicated. But, because in between the turbulent episodes he was seeking help, going to therapy, maintaining decent grades and remaining active in the community, he remained at home. We kept waiting for the moment when everything would change. Maybe this doctor, that therapist, this adventure trip, EMDR, Neurofeedback, meditation, the right medication…one of these, would get him over the hump; would restore the boy we knew and loved so deeply.

There was also a healthy dose of denial; “Not my child; we are too tight-knit a family for such problems.” In senior year, the light in the distance became college. We offered alternatives but he wanted to go. And we felt strongly about giving him a voice.

Though the college he chose was perfect for him, it was no match for his anxiety. Within three weeks he was home. And so began a year of more doctors and more negotiating. By the time we realized he was slipping further and that we could no longer allow him a voice in his treatment, he was twenty years old.

That’s when we became one of the growing numbers of families who have a child or young adult child in wilderness therapy. Wilderness therapy is a form of treatment that uses expeditions into the wilderness or other unfamiliar surroundings as a means of addressing behavioral and mental health issues.

As my son’s wilderness therapist told me, she left her long-standing office practice because what she could learn about or accomplish with a child in a few weeks of round the clock observation within a rustic setting far exceeded what she could learn or accomplish within the confines of an office environment.

On the weekly moderated conference calls offered for the program’s families, I was struck by how many parents regularly phoned in (over 40 many nights).  Parents whose children had graduated years ago from the program were consistently on each week’s call. I know I never missed one and months later I still try to join.

Hailing from across the U.S. and abroad, (one night there was a woman from China) parents bared their hearts and souls. Though circumstances were unique to each family, there was a common denominator: we all seem to have been blindsided by how our once happy child got to the point of needing this degree of emotional and behavioral support.

A number of families were quite distraught when they found themselves in the predicament of needing to utilize a “transporter” – someone who arrives unannounced to physically remove their unsuspecting teen from the home environment and transports them to the therapeutic environment. As harsh as this may seem, it’s essential to understand that parents literally see this as “saving their kids” life.”

Aside from the weekly calls and a smattering of carefully chosen friends and family, no one knew what was going on in our family. My son, well aware of the judgment frequently projected when a kid is not traversing the “normal” path, did not want me sharing. So, I rode the “everything is fine” train, carefully editing information such as telling others he was “taking classes” in a distant city when he was in one program (that did actually offer classes) and telling others he was on extended camping trip in the wild (“Yes, like NOLS!”) when he was at wilderness therapy.

Carolyn, who I met through the program’s closed Facebook group, has two children who have been in treatment. Anxiety and depression caused her son, at fourteen, to completely withdraw from the world. He attended a Residential Treatment Center and a Therapeutic Boarding School.  At 15, Carolyn’s daughter became so depressed that she was engaging in unsafe behaviors, shoplifting, smoking marijuana and ultimately became suicidal.  She attended a residential treatment center, a wilderness program and is presently enrolled in a transitional boarding school. I am learning that stories such as mine and Carolyn’s are anything but uncommon; they are just frequently unspoken.

Parenting blogs are popular because whether one has a struggling child or not, we gain volumes in this job from sharing perspective and support with fellow parents.  Those of us with troubled teens, however, are more reluctant to reach outside our small circle of support because we are all too aware that society has yet to evolve when it comes to its perceptions of illnesses such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse; not to mention the judgment often placed on the parents of kids labeled as “out of control.”

I confess, there was a time when I, too, would have blamed the problem on poor parenting.

If only it were that easy.

What I’ve learned is this: These kids come from ALL kinds of families: permissive families, strict families, fractured families, intact families, divorced families, religious and non-religious families, upper, middle and lower class families, gay, straight…and so on. The families I’ve encountered have been different in many regards, but alike in one: filled with love and concern for their child.

Reflexively judging a parent for their child’s emotional and behavioral struggles is about as productive as judging a parent for their child’s cancer diagnosis. Emotions and behaviors hail from our brain and our brain is as complex and physical an organ as any other bodily organ.

A child’s unique mix of genetics, environment, personal history, and inborn temperament will determine how they cope with life’s stressors. A divorce to one child can be a mere bump in the road while to a sibling it’s a devastating blow. I’ve had to remember this when I enter that rabbit hole of, “What could I have done to prevent this…”

That’s not to say we parents don’t have our own work to do. A child does not get better in a vacuum. Most parents in this boat do not simply hand their kids over to the experts to be “fixed.”  We have learned that a family is a system and to heal it’s not just the child that needs to work and to grow-it’s each member of the family. This is true in every family’s evolution, but especially so in families whose kids are troubled.

Feeling free to reach out – not just to families in the same boat – but to a wide circle of support can hasten that growth. If my child had diabetes I would not limit my communication about his illness to parents of other diabetic kids. Through feeling less guarded, I might gain the gift of different perspectives and possibly help from unexpected sources.  Parents need to feel safe enough to express their vulnerability in a world that typically has a narrow view of what constitutes “success” or “normal.”

We need to be able to unabashedly say to Aunt Betty or to the parents at school or to our boss, “Oh, my daughter is working on getting on top of her depression or her substance use” rather than spinning a modified version of what she’s doing with her life.

I have two other kids who have had the “normal” college experience and the many blog posts on the journey have been quite valuable. If the numbers are correct however, there is a growing population of families whose kids are not traversing this “typical” path. It would be helpful to see more support on popular blogging sites rather than having to seek out information through educational consultants, private Facebook groups or sites devoted exclusively to mental health issues.

When I asked my Facebook friend, Carolyn, how parents with kids in treatment could feel more supported she offered this: “Resources in schools to help identify and support students struggling with depression and anxiety, lifting of the stigma surrounding mental illness so that parents can feel comfortable talking about what’s happening for their family, local support groups of parents experiencing similar challenges, assistance working with insurance companies to obtain reimbursement for the enormous cost of treatment and, greater transition support when children move from treatment settings back home or to traditional schools.”

Now in “Aftercare,” my son has made significant strides forward. I have gradually become a bit more open with those outside my circle who inquire about his whereabouts, (“He’s working on overcoming his struggles with anxiety”) while still respecting his wish for privacy. I’m struck, though, by how there is rarely a time when the person with whom I share this tidbit of info does not have a story of their own or a loved one’s similar struggle. We need to be sharing our stories.

The irony of keeping this post anonymous does not escape me. But the story of my journey on this path also includes part of my son’s journey and until he’s ready to openly share his path, I will honor his feelings. Open and widespread dialogue will help parents – and especially their kids – feel less isolated, less judged and perhaps most critically, more connected to the world at large.

The author has asked to remain anonymous


Mom, Can We Talk?

When Your College Student Suffers From Anxiety and Depression

About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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