Managing Expectations in Next Levels of Care: Wilderness Therapy Programs to Residential Treatment Programs

Online assessment family | Aspiro Adventure Therapy


Case Study: Adam was an outdoor wilderness therapy superstar. In two short months, he became less anxious, didn’t feel depressed, was motivated, excited to be sober, respectful and loving towards his parents, and willing to work within a highly structured environment. He loved his wilderness therapist, felt confident, and was accepting of his next step — a residential treatment center or a therapeutic boarding school.

Adam quietly began to have reservations about this new residential program after only a couple of weeks. He missed the freedoms he had (demanded) at home. He missed his friends who he felt were “cooler” than these “treatment kids”. He missed home and his parents, which made him more convinced that this program was not the place for him, and believed that he had already done all the work that he needed to do while in wilderness therapy. He decided, although not consciously, to push back.

As Adam began his regression, his parents held the boundary for a couple of months. Afterall, they had carefully chosen this program after touring, meeting staff members, and talking with their educational consultant. But eventually, Adam’s regression seemed to coincide with some of their frustrations with the program. Their frustrations were normal, understandable, and part of an expectations gap in our system of care.

Dear parent,
This is written for you. Please keep these following things in mind:

Speed of Progress/Regression

Even though you are told to expect this regression in residential treatment and to brace yourself, it’s hard not to shift responsibility from the student to the program. Parents are desperate for their child to find the stability they need in order to be healthy. Keep reading, keep working, and continue asking about regression. Be patient.

Access to Information

In residential treatment versus wilderness treatment, you will hear about all the things your child is doing more frequently and from many more sources. In wilderness treatment, you hear from your therapist. In residential treatment, you are hearing from the therapist, program staff, and your student. What does this mean? It means you will hear more about your child’s successes and a lot more about his/her struggles. You have two challenges: 1) Absorb the constant stream of information without coming to quick conclusions (“Why is she suddenly doing so poorly?” “He is ready to come home!” ) 2) Don’t become reactive and mired down by the small details, thus missing the big picture.

Wilderness students are generally in crisis and working on short-term goals for stability and an intricate array of emotional and behavioral issues. In order to stay focused on the big picture in this short-term setting, your wilderness therapist prioritizes the information you receive. When progress is made, that is the focus, rather than the variety of problems that will be fuel for therapy at their next level of care. An example could be a problem area such as disrespectful comments. This is a common struggle for students and is addressed in the wilderness treatment setting, but generally isn’t the prioritized area of concern in wilderness because timelines are short and working toward overall stabilization is the priority.  At a residential program, these ultimately maladaptive and intolerable behaviors get addressed and brought up constantly while working on longer-term goals. Plan to hear about them and understand they will help drive the therapeutic process and help the staff and student to know what needs to be worked on and addressed.

In residential treatment, you will now hear every passing complaint about the staff and the program from your student, whereas in wilderness you just hear what they hang onto over the course of the week and what they choose to write in a letter. Hearing about more concerns doesn’t mean the residential program is not effective or that the wilderness program was better, it is just a different model that allows more freedoms, as well as more access to your student in order for him/her to be preparing to return home.

More Autonomy   

Wilderness therapy is a small and protected community without much, if any, integration with the outside world. In residential treatment, opportunities to make poor choices are greater. With autonomy comes opportunity for mistakes. Parents too frequently hold the residential programs or schools accountable for the mistakes their child makes. It doesn’t mean it is the fault of the program if your child makes a mistake. If your child finds the means to smoke pot, have sex, get into a fight, cheat, or whatever it may be, he/she has sought that opportunity and made that choice. Allow your student to learn from the mistake by holding him/her accountable rather than blaming the staff or program, and allow the student’s choice to inform the therapist and treatment team as to where he or she is at in his or her treatment journey and the process towards making better choices.

In every progress-based transition, e.g. hospital to home-based care, high school to college, t-ball to the big leagues; helpers pull back and the receivers of help are invited to do things for themselves. This is no different in the treatment world. Expect a delay in response time from staff as your son/daughter struggles to work through distress on his or her own. Expect staff to have clearer boundaries between work and personal life as your child is given time to find solutions on his or her own and to grow and learn in a less restrictive environment. Be aware this environment will allow more and more freedoms as the student progresses through the program. Expect less intense and less frequent therapeutic interventions as a greater balance between academics, social life, sports, etc is introduced to your child’s life.

A Long-Term Relationship

We’ve all been there. A few months into an intense relationship, there is a glow. So much has changed, so many new and positive things enter our lives and we focus on these. Eventually, the glow wears off, and we are able to see the flaws, drawbacks, and realities of our partner. In this case, the partners are treatment programs (and their staff) and parents, and you have, in fact, entered a long-term relationship. There will be differences in opinion, conflict, and tough conversations. You will become “real” with them, and they with you.

Programs aren’t perfect. Over the course of a year, staff members will make mistakes, balls will be dropped, and your therapist will become a person rather than a savior, which is all a normal part of life and a healthy part of learning to grow despite frustrations or imperfections.

Parents Regress, Too

In a residential treatment setting, your child is able to push you hard, via phone calls and face to face, and it becomes harder to live the boundaries, emotional regulation, validation, and anything else you were determined to do and began to do a few months ago.

It is also common for defensiveness (or other reactive behaviors) to arise in parents when flaws/ emotional moments, etc. are visible to your child’s therapist or team. It’s easy to be your best self when your child is progressing and you aren’t dealing with their frustrating, even maddening, behaviors and attitudes face to face. If you’re unsure what your reactive behaviors are, consult The Parallel Process by Krissy Pozatek.

Your Role

Have appropriate expectations.

Keep working alongside your student. Students get treatment fatigue and want to give up. You doing your work will role model grit and demonstrate value in what the program has to offer.

Communicate openly and patiently with the program when frustrations arise.

Stay the course. Hold the boundaries the program asks you to, all of them, every time. Picking and choosing sends the message that it is ok for your child to pick and chose which rules to follow. Young people, and even more so young people in treatment, don’t have the judgment or maturity to do this yet. Being unified with the program is as important as being unified with your co-parent.

When your child inevitably complains about the program, validate him/her without rescuing or escalating. This is a tricky skill, so ask your therapist about it and consult the literature.  Encourage your child to solve problems. You can validate his or her concerns and say something like “You seem so frustrated, that must really suck. Tell me more.” or “It sounds like you would just throw in the towel if you could. I know this has been an exhausting few months.”

Final Thoughts

You may put your wilderness program on a pedestal because it was short and the time was fast and intense. You may feel like the long-term residential program is not measuring up. Programs aren’t perfect and that’s ok. If they were perfect it wouldn’t set kids up for success in an imperfect world anyway. Learning to manage mistakes, handle anxiety, trust and let go is all part of the process for you and your student.

Wilderness and residential programs are different. They are a different type of therapy, so we can’t expect the same process, but we can certainly find incredible growth, change and value in both.

Sarah Rothstein, LCSW

Learn more about Sarah below.

Summer at Aspiro Wilderness Therapy – Our Locations and Activities

la sal Mountains | Summer at Aspiro Wilderness Therapy 

It’s no mistake that we have chosen the beautiful state of Utah for our wilderness therapy program. The many locations in which we operate, engaging in a multitude of adventure activities year round, gives our clients the best experiences possible. These novel environments in our outdoor wilderness program allow students to be immersed in the many incredible landscapes that Utah has to offer.  At each of the 15 areas we visit, students will engage in an adventure itinerary such as rock climbing, mountain biking canyoneering, backpacking, and more.  These activities challenge students to push beyond their perceived boundaries and accomplish more than they ever thought possible. These adventure therapy itineraries show them that, in a very practical way, they can do hard things.

Here are a few of our many favorite summer areas!

next level of care | Aspiro Wilderness Adventure TherapyLa Sal Mountains

Stretching to upwards of 12,000 feet, the La Sal mountains are a cool paradise surrounded by miles and miles of slick rock and sandy desert. The La Sals were named by the Spanish, meaning “The Salt Mountains” due to the snow on the peaks which lasts all year long, despite the up to 100-degree temperatures in the nearby desert below. Thankfully, the La Sals remain about 20 degrees cooler than the surrounding Moab area and thus are perfect for our students to experience high alpine, backcountry hiking during the summer months. Students practice navigation skills as they bushwhack through large pine and aspen forests and hike up to the mountain peaks. They also utilize mindfulness and meditation while stopping for quiet moments of reflection while enjoying the views of the endless vistas before them.


Escalante is located in South Central Utah and is a rugged and breathtaking landscape that is made up of large slick rock domes, canyons, and pinnacles carved out by the Escalante River. Smooth and twisting sandstone slot canyons lead out into sandy washes that are dabbled with cottonwood trees and tamarisk. Students backpack through the dunes, slick rock ridges and slot canyons, enjoy the cooling waters of the Escalate River. Here our students participate in adventure therapy while learning how to precisely navigate through desert landscapes and discover the natural processes of wind and water erosion which create their unique surroundings. Students also see petroglyphs and other rock carvings which have been preserved for thousands of years as they hike through these slot canyons and rappel down the canyon walls. Rappelling allows students to build trust in themselves as well as to overcome fears. This helps them to build self-confidence, gain self-efficacy and to become empowered.

next level of care | Aspiro Wilderness Adventure Therapy


next level of care | Aspiro Wilderness Adventure TherapyThe Book Cliffs of Eastern Utah are some of the most remote mountains in the lower 48. As sandstone cliffs climb up from the dry and sandy desert, Ouray presents itself in wide box canyons full of lush green meadows, pristine rivers, and beautiful pine forests. Students backpack through these canyons, utilizing landmark recognition and concise communication in order to accomplish their “thru-hike” goal. A thru-hike is when two groups start at opposite ends of an operating area and meet in the middle to switch van keys, thus leaving from a completely different location than where they started. This is one of Aspiro’s most challenging and rewarding backpacking itineraries due to the natural structure that requires groups to keep moving forward. Students gain strength and stamina, and practice various camping and survival skills during this time, leaving them with a great sense of accomplishment.

Park City

next level of care | Aspiro Wilderness Adventure Therapy Park City, Utah is a favorite destination for people around the world year round. In the summer it is home to some of the best mountain biking trails in the country. Our students experience these breathtaking high desert mountains while learning technical riding and bike maintenance. Our wilderness guides teach foundational skills and work each day with students in order to build confidence on their bikes by challenging them with more difficult and longer trails each day. For many of our students, who are working through various difficulties such as anxiety, inattention, substance abuse, and more, mountain biking is a healthy and rewarding experience as they seek what we call “flow,” or an optimal experience of challenge and ability. When cruising down a switchback trail on a bike, all a rider thinks about is what is in front of him or her. Immediate feedback is received from both the bike and the earth, as well as a mix of a rush of adrenaline and a feeling of contentment, as a student learns to truly focus and be present in the moment. These mindful experiences help decrease anxiety and lead to overall well-being.

My Story – Sofia and her Wilderness Experience

Sofia and Caitlin | Aspiro Adventure Therapy

People can grow from a multitude of different obstacles they overcame, but the growth I experienced called for a unique journey. About six years ago, my parents announced they were getting a divorce. Being the youngest out of 3 girls, I was the one most affected. The following years were, without a doubt, not how I would have imagined my life ending up. Although some people may fear to talk about their past, I am proud of the Sofia I was then and the Sofia I am now. I refuse to push aside who I truly was just because I had not been the accomplished women I am today. Due to the strength I have received from my past experiences, I am able to acknowledge my feelings and emotions to convey my story.

So here is my life-altering journey. I was extremely rebellious, belligerent towards every person in my life, treated everybody as if they were my enemy, and began abusing substances. I was not allowed back to my high school to start my senior year unless I attended Aspiro, a wilderness therapeutic program. I was 18 at the time, so legally it was necessary that I signed myself into the program to begin my journey. I constantly resisted in the beginning, but I had no other choice because the alternative was to see myself go down a road of failure. It took me 24 hours of being curled up under my blankets with tears streaming down my face to realize this. Everything in my life had taken a toll on my mental health. Everything was just miserable. I thought it over, through constant headaches and tears, until finally I had answer, “Dad, I will go.” It was not easy for me to say this, and once I had, my father called my mom, and before I knew it I was on a plane to Utah.

I would never be where I am today if it was not for Aspiro. My life is different in every aspect. The wilderness teaches you that life does not always provide you with everything you want. Fortunately, my parents were able to hand me anything I asked for, but I became too dependent on them. Everybody has hard times in life, but the hardest moments for me were in the wilderness. These are the times that change you as an individual, make you think, and help you realize why you ended up there. I had to learn to cope with things that were challenging, and encounter activities that were unprecedented in my life. Almost everyday of the week for two and half months, I carried a 45-pound pack on my back, and some days hiked for miles. I constantly reminded myself to persevere, knowing that when I came back home things there would also be challenging. If I refused to continue in the wilderness, then I would bring back home that same mentality, so I had to just get through it, and it would all be worth it. I had to continue pushing through, get right back up and keep working just like everybody else. It was not easy rock climbing on high mountains. However, I had to conquer my fears and doubts. I needed to push through activities like mountain biking, climbing, backpacking, or miles of walking, to learn that I was capable of being independent and expressing myself in front of others without the help of my family.

Also, allowing myself to open up to others including my therapist and group members, helped me to grow as an individual. Hearing other group members and their stories, allowed me to understand and take into account others hardships and added to my empathy and personal growth. There was a time when I was reading an impact letter from my parents outloud to my therapist. While reading it, there were certain points where I didn’t want to continue because I knew that the truth was finally hitting me. I could not call home, but I could talk to her about how I felt and work through those emotions. Her advice, support, and commitment to helping me along was an eye opening experience and was life changing. All of these experiences combined, helped me maneuver and figure out who I was, and who I have become as an individual.

When I came back to school, my teachers got the chills and cried when they heard my story. Nobody recognized me and they were surprised by the immense amount of progress I made in such a short time. I ended up being valedictorian and was able to speak at my high school graduation. Currently, I am a sophomore at Muhlenberg college and on the dean’s list. When you put in hard work, the outcome can be substantial!

It starts with the one person who can make the most difference in your life. You. You have the power to tell yourself YOU CAN DO IT!  I now make it a priority to offer my guidance and support for other families, helping them to figure out positive next steps in life, just like Aspiro did for me.

I end with lyrics that are a favorite message of both me and my mother.

“There’s always gonna be another mountain.
I’m always gonna wanna make it move.
Always gonna be an uphill battle
And sometimes I’m gonna have to lose.
It ain’t about how fast I get there,
Ain’t about whats waiting on the other side.
It’s the climb.”

-Miley Cyrus, The Climb

Thank you to my parents for giving me this once in a lifetime opportunity, and allowing me to see this potential. If it was not for Aspiro, I am not sure where I would be currently. Family, friends, teachers, and last but not least, Aspiro – I cannot thank you enough for the constant support I have received throughout these last three years. You all are a blessing and hold a special spot in my heart.

– Sofia E.

Trauma Therapy in the Wilderness

Grace Larson, LCSW, Therapist | Aspiro Adventure Therapy 

by Grace Larson, Clinical Wilderness Therapist Specializing in Trauma Therapy

It’s a hard time to be a teenage girl, and the pressures only seem to be accumulating. The drowning buzz of social media and nasty social interactions, the unrealistic expectations our society puts on girls for thinness and beauty, and an increasingly competitive academic environment; combine that with the normative difficulties of adolescence, and you’ve got a crockpot full of struggle.

While struggle, at times, can be motivating and the path to growth, for many teenagers, it is simply too much. This competitive, demanding, and at times, very unsafe environment our girls live in, breed the most dangerous thing of all; a mentality of disempowerment. A mentality where women feel valued for only their physical attributes and accomplishments, rather than their genuine self, their values, their quirks, strengths and passions. They feel afraid and insecure of not being good enough, valued, capable, and safe.

It becomes easy for these girls to want to quit; to give up on the struggle, to succumb to self-destructive behaviors; be it substance abuse, sex, self-harming, isolating, or living in a tortured perfectionism. These are the girls I work with every day in wilderness therapy.

Parents seem to struggle just as much in watching their daughters; wanting nothing more than for their daughters to be safe, to live up to their potential, and to see the beauty in themselves that they, as parents, see in them every day. It is hard for parents not knowing the right combination of boundaries, warmth, restrictions, and asking for outside help to guide their daughters through this complex and at times traumatic phase of life. It is difficult for them and for their daughters to see a light through the tunnel of mental health struggles.

What is most beautiful about my work as a wilderness therapist though, is that I get to see this light at the end of the tunnel, and parents and their daughters have this opportunity, too. I see girls come in, dejected, afraid, and lacking a sense of themselves, often simply overwhelmed and shut down from the pain of the world and the confusion inside of them. Many of them don’t know they were in a ‘tunnel’ to begin with- they just know they felt sad or lonely. This is always the first step of our work in the wilderness: insight and understanding… understanding how and why life had become so stressed and dark.

Often the girls know how to label it, “I have depression, I have PTSD, I have anxiety, I have trauma”. But they lack a deeper understanding of the pains that source these symptoms and issues, they lack the skill to cope, and they lack an environment that can slow down the buzz and distraction around them to help them tune into themselves and find their own capacity.

Parents need that break and that insight too, to reduce their own anxiety, which had often resulted in frustration and over-control. While there is never a perfect cure-all to these struggles, to the society that forges them, or to the complex and long-standing work it takes to heal, I am grateful to work in a setting gives these girls and parents a chance to break the regular paradigm to find new strength inside.

Today I will share and discuss some of my own insights, learnings, and methods for treating the trauma and anxiety of teenage girls and young adult women through a wilderness therapy outlet.

Wilderness therapy seems nothing short of ‘bizarre’ for many of the teenagers and parents that we work with. It involves 8-12 weeks living completely in the outdoors, living out of a backpack of outdoor gear, surrounded by a group of other struggling teens and caring guides, mentors, and therapists.

Each day, these girls are responsible for cooking their own meals, setting up and breaking down their camp, hiking, climbing or biking in a new area, and most importantly: to look deeply and introspect into some of the deepest and most meaningful areas of life. Most of our students are scared out of their mind when they get here; their parents, too. But incredibly, in all this foreign and barebones outdoor living, comes a feeling of peace, and a space for true perspective and insight that is hard to match elsewhere.

The Goal of Trauma-Informed Wilderness Therapy

Treating trauma in the wilderness, whether it is a discreet traumatic event such as physical or sexual abuse, rape, or the more daily accumulated traumatic stress of failure and rejection, is a complex process. The goals of short-term intensive intervention therapy such as wilderness therapy tend to center around behavioral/emotional stabilization, psychological assessment, and building insight and motivation toward change (intervention work).

Complex trauma treatment, on the other hand, is often looked at in the therapy world through a longer-term lens of processing and attachment- more than the typical 8-12 weeks a girl may stay in a wilderness therapy program. However, after seeing many girls come and go through their stay in the woods, I know that the processing of their trauma is inevitable, as their healing in such a supportive and empowering environment comes so naturally.

As a trauma therapist for child protective services before coming to Aspiro Adventure Wilderness Therapy, I have worked intensely with trauma-focused evidenced based treatment modalities such as Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), identity disorders, and anxiety issues. In wilderness therapy, healing from post-traumatic stress happens through a combination of intensive individual and group clinical therapy sessions (where I use TF-CBT and EMDR) plus what I like to call the ‘built-in benefits’ of the wilderness and group living situation.

While living outdoors can be challenging and harsh at times, the tribal living and natural escape from daily pressures create a perfect environment for these girls to develop a sense of safety, and a cleanse from the people, behaviors, and expectations that may have bound them to a certain way of thinking beforehand. The moment they get a complete change of pace and a release from regular pressure and expectations; the floodgates of emotion open. The brain wants to heal itself when it has the opportunity to, and these girls find this out here in their wilderness ‘tribes’. The complete change of environment and perspective gives these girls (and their families) a chance to step outside the ‘tunnel’ and understand what was happening in their lives: to me, this is the first natural step of the trauma and anxiety work done in the wilderness (and I would argue it is often the necessary component missing from many regular outpatient modalities of trauma care). Imagine the force of an entire group (what we call the ‘tribe’) of young women working together on their personal issues. A backbone of the great work these girls can do is the connection and strength they have together. This sense of ‘togetherness’ and ‘acceptance’ is key to making any of the other pieces of trauma work possible. We call it ‘emotional safety’, something the everyday world seems to put little effort in. The camaraderie these girls develop through such a challenging, empowering and vulnerable experience is healing in and of itself. On top of that, healthy regularity of their daily schedule: eating good food three times a day, regular exercise, and a bunch of sunshine only further lends to creating an environment of growth and balance, and space for these girls to do their hard emotional work.

Affect Regulation – The First Step to Trauma-Informed Care

One of the first teaching steps of all evidence-based trauma therapies involves ‘affect regulation’- which means helping a person to express and understand their feelings, and have skills to cope with their emotion so it does not overwhelm or hi-jack their lives. Before delving into in-depth trauma work, a person needs to be able to keep their ‘life together’, and deal with the difficult emotions that come up in trauma work. Coping-skill development and emotional communication is one of the 24/7 components of wilderness therapy- as ubiquitous as these kids learning to cook their beans and rice or layer their clothing properly. As you can imagine, the regular difficulties and discomforts of living outside with a group of angsty teens creates quite the outlet for expressing emotion and practicing skills. The Aspiro girls group practices daily Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Skills (an emotional-regulation evidence-based treatment) to learn how to tolerate their distress, modulate emotion, relate to others effectively, and practice mindfulness. Many students come to wilderness with some background in skills training (having been to previous outpatient and IOP programs). However, wilderness therapy gives them the space to practice these skills out loud and intentionally with one another, as well as in the moment feedback on how the girls are doing with their skills. Seeing the difference in the way a girl expresses her frustration or pain her first week (throwing down her pack, crying, shutting down) in wilderness as it compares to her last week (sharing a vulnerable “I feel” statement and creating solutions to her problem) is pretty incredible. These are skills they bring home, and skills we capitalize on in the therapy world to then access some of the deeper roots/cores of the issues; now that the girls can handle their big emotions more effectively.

Introducing “Exposure Therapy”

The next major step of trauma work, as we employ it in the wilderness is ‘exposure’ component. ‘Exposure’ means finding calculated and specific ways to have a student explore a past painful experience through writing, speaking about it, or facing it head-on. Most people with trauma or difficult experiences avoid triggers to their pain, whether that means they do not want to talk about the rape, the bullying, or whatever other invalidating and painful experience they may have had. As a therapist in the wilderness setting, I tailor the way I have each girl look at their pain based on what is likely to be the most effective way for them to express themselves. For some, it is a trauma narrative, where they write down the specific account of the trauma or they describe the pains they have experienced. I have had students do letter writing ceremonies with their group, where they write letters of their trauma, and then may ‘release’ their pain into a campfire, or they may ‘put it to rest’ symbolically in the ground.

For some students, we may explore and process trauma through EMDR therapy, a memory based therapy where a person talks about their traumatic memories and is guided towards seeing the times they were safer and stronger, to come to a resolution. These girls learn to see that their trauma narrative (as painful as they can be) have meaning, but do not need to define them, own them, or limit them. And their outlet to share these narratives in the group provides a space for mutual understanding and support that seems to only further the girls’ willingness to explore their painful issues. Once a student has explored and shared their trauma it becomes less scary and more accessible for others to support them. The next major step is ‘cognitive reprocessing’, where the therapists and guides help challenge a student on some of the ‘distorted, irrational or unhelpful’ ways she may have begun to see herself through the lens of trauma. For instance; a girl who has been raped may believe she ‘deserved it’ that she is ‘unworthy’ or ‘damaged goods’. A student who has been bullied may believe he/she is ‘incapable’, or ‘unacceptable’. We teach our students to ‘rethink’ the ways they began to see themselves using techniques in cognitive behavioral therapy and cognitive reprocessing.

Changing Negative Thinking Patterns Related to Trauma

Perhaps the most unique part of wilderness therapy, and particularly adventure wilderness therapy (where a student experiences a different adventure skill such as rock climbing, skiing or backpacking each week) is that a student gets to ‘challenge their negative ways of thinking about themselves’ and build self-efficacy and positive self-regard through having successes with totally novel experiences.

Whether it be learning to ride a bike, reaching to the top of a climbing wall, starting their first fire with a bow drill, or being vulnerable and shedding tears in front of their group; these students take on challenges day in and day out that build their sense of self and identity. With novel physical and emotional activities, students cannot as easily pull out their ‘measuring stick of comparison’. Some of the negative thoughts and core beliefs they may harbor from failure or trauma; “I am not good enough, I am not capable, I am not worthy” are not challenged through talking (or through hearing it from Mom and Dad), but rather through doing.

Seeing that little girl who came in broken and pained from the world, 3 weeks later proudly put on her harness and climb to the top of a wall with confident skills and bravery is something that keeps me coming back to my job every day. Student’s need to find their own sense of mastery to then really fill themselves with the belief that they can overcome and they can succeed. When they see themselves as capable and empowered, it gives them every bit more strength to face and overcome the struggles from the past.

Parent’s Role in the Trauma-Informed Therapeutic Process

Parents have an integral role in the processing of trauma as well, and while their feet may not be in the dirt each day, they take on leg-work every week to better understand and respond to their child’s needs. The space they from parenting and managing problems while their child is safe and in treatment, give parents the space to see their children in a different light. Parents get to practice seeing their child’s behaviors as a form of communication, and not a representation of their child’s self or character. As a therapist, I teach about trauma (whether it be major trauma or the small painful invalidations of life) as they accumulate to form the symptoms we see (the depression, anxiety, avoidance, identity confusion, etc).

Through weekly education & instruction, parents learn empathic and effective ways to communicate with their kids and how to balance loving emotionality with boundaries. Often parents need to learn how to actually take a step back from over-involvement and over-control of their daughter’s emotions and pain, because for so long they were responsible for protecting and consoling their daughter’s emotions. But through the wilderness therapy process, with some space from the daily work of parenting and with specific training and skills work; parents learn to respond effectively to their daughter and to her pain. They learn to support her empowerment and processing so her good work can continue past her time in the wilderness.

Why a Wilderness Therapy Program for Young Women with Trauma?

Nature has a beautiful ability to heal, as does the human mind. We all have innate strength, love and resilience deep inside; but at times we need to dig deep and use some ‘heavy duty excavation tools’ to source that strength. I am grateful to work in an environment that so naturally lends to parents and children having the time, space and support to find peace and hope. Is wilderness therapy the end all be all of the trauma therapies? Of course not. It is time limited, it is a highly novel environment that can make the generalization to the ‘real world’ difficult at times, and unfortunately, it can be financially costly and difficult for many families to access. Most girls who do have the privilege to come and do this empowering and uplifting work, still need a great deal of support following their time in the wilderness in a structured and therapeutic environment.

That said, there is no denying that there is a very special healing space created out here through natural immersion, a supportive tribe, specific trauma-focused therapy and skill building, and an opportunity for self-confidence and mastery. It is an experience that truly generates hope and helps a girl define herself apart from her difficult experiences and struggles. This ‘force of nature’ in wilderness therapy sets a stage for continued growth, healing and true connection with self and others…arguably the most beautiful gift a person can have. Personally, I look forward to many more years of serving young women and their families in this mission towards empowerment and am ever-grateful for having the best allies possible; mother nature and the resilience of the human spirit. Whichever therapeutic setting you work in or seek out; seeking challenging and novel experiences, being vulnerable and connected with others, immersing ourselves in the natural world (as opposed to the competitive and technological one) and honing in on our unbridled capacity are the keys to true healing and growth.

Aspiro’s Girls Group: Mindfulness, Food Attitudes, and Expressive Therapy

Wellness Wednesday | Aspiro Adventure Therapy

The Adventure Therapy Model at Aspiro creates a space for girls to develop self-efficacy and find confidence in their ability to do hard things. In addition to the many gains made through wilderness adventure therapy, a holistic approach in their treatment is crucial. Therefore, at Aspiro we incorporate therapeutic elements such as mindfulness and yoga, food attitudes and nutrition groups, and various forms of expressive therapy.


Mindfulness can be defined as, “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” Mindfulness helps provide our adolescent girls with a sacred foundation to develop healthy coping skills. Our girls practice yoga, meditation, body scans, and breathing exercises, allowing them to focus on current physical sensations and emotions. Our girls are able to work through any challenge, such as a snowstorm in the backcountry or a difficult climb up a sandstone slab, because mindfulness allows them to remain in their rational mind and make effective and honest choices, therefore influencing positive behavior. The girls enjoy their mindfulness practice and find that incorporating it into their daily routine helps them feel calm, centered and in control.


Groups are held every week focusing on food attitudes and nutrition, how food can be good fuel or bad fuel for our bodies, and on body image and perception. The way our general culture and society speaks to adolescence regarding food and body image seems to support self-criticism, competition, gluttony or extremism, and imbalance. Our girls are often beaten down, overwhelmed, and can have a very negative view of themselves. By introducing some mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation; plus learning about food and how it can fuel the body, mind and soul; and getting moderate exercise and finding success through our various adventure activities, the girls at Aspiro begin to feel a real sense of accomplishment and start to see themselves in a different light. When this happens, they are much more likely to open up about the stresses of food, eating, and body image, and start to see their bodies and themselves as strong, capable, and deserving of a good and healthy life.

We all know that food and nutrition are the vital fuel for our brain and our bodies, and is a huge part of our social and cultural life. In our groups we discuss ideas around “food attitudes,” big and small, social messages about food, body image, individual perceptions, and struggles with food and control. We begin to learn how to reinvent our perception of our bodies as women. We don’t just talk about healthy food choices, though, we also teach the girls to prepare and enjoy a healthy and delicious meal as a group, which has quickly become a highlight of their week.


To help our girls enhance their emotional growth and to facilitate deeper transformation, the expressive arts are also an important part of treatment. The expressive arts help our girls to create deeper meaning out of their experiences, to tell their stories, and to dig further into their emotions in a safe way.  Leigh Uhlenkott, one of our clinical wilderness therapists, says:

next level of care | Aspiro Wilderness Adventure Therapy
Leigh Uhlenkott

“I have always been drawn to experiential interventions, which is why I am passionate about wilderness therapy.  I can be creative in my groups and when working with my clients individually.  I want each of my clients to feel empowered and to get back on the healthy and successful path.  Expressive arts and psychodrama can help create a corrective experience, bringing life to the unconscious and also grounding my clients to prevent further trauma.  I want each of my clients to trust the process and do a deep dive into action and purpose.  I want to help my clients explore past hurts and traumas in a safe place.  Through psychodrama they can recreate the past and have a voice to express vulnerability and feelings.  They can practice healthy boundaries and setting limits.  Clients can gain greater insight and awareness through psychodrama and through expressive arts.  When clients don’t yet have a voice that’s when the expressive arts are especially helpful.  Through sculpting, painting, or drawing one can create images and metaphors symbolic of their past hurts or traumas.  The goal is to get it out and learn to let it go.  I believe all my students come to the woods with a bag full of past trauma or pain, and my hope is when they leave, it will be lighter and they will be full of accomplishments.”

Our vision at Aspiro is to empower these young women with a true and experiential understanding of the mind-body connection, to see their bodies as strong and capable, and to understand their relationship with food, finding the motivation to fuel their bodies with nutritious food choices. Through adventure therapy, individual and group therapy, mindfulness, yoga, and expressive arts, our girls have numerous ways in which they can work on their emotional growth, and are presented with opportunities to find what best resonates with them individually.  We are excited about the great work is done by these young ladies and the incredible changes they are making!

Ryan Coley Promoted to Executive Director

Ryan Coley, Executive Director at Aspiro Adventure Therapy

Aspiro is very excited to announce the promotion of Ryan Coley to Executive Director.

Ryan has been a part of the Aspiro team since 2009 and throughout his tenure has had the opportunity to work in the areas of Admissions, Program Development, Primary Therapist, and Clinical Director.  Ryan has also helped to define and carry out the vision of Aspiro through a passionate dedication to innovation, client care, and customer service. He will continue to lead the Clinical Team in partnership with Associate Clinical Director, Dr. Carl Smoot.

Ryan states, “My focus and commitment is to influence and restore the families that come to the Aspiro Wilderness program. The last nine years have been an inspiration and I look forward to helping Aspiro continue delivering the highest quality service.”  Ryan’s impact on the clinical team has been profound and as the Executive Director, all departments will benefit from his dedication and leadership.

The Aspiro team is enthusiastic about Ryan’s transition into the role of Executive Director and looks forward to serving under his leadership for many years to come!

Best regards and many well wishes throughout 2018,

next level of care | Aspiro Wilderness Adventure Therapy  next level of care | Aspiro Wilderness Adventure Therapy
Josh Watson, LCSW
Rick Meeves, PhD

Winter at Aspiro

Joe Nagle | Aspiro Adventure Therapy 

People are often intimidated by the idea of cold weather camping, but it can actually be the most powerful time of year to work with students at the Aspiro Adventure Therapy program and provides a great platform for therapeutic experiences.  I want to highlight some of the little-known upsides of cold weather camping and how we keep our kids comfortable. I also want to prove that despite the cold, winter camping is profoundly impactful, highlighting the simple pleasures of field life. Below are the best tricks I’ve learned to get the most out of winter while at a wilderness therapy program.


I imagine you are thinking that this isn’t the case, but the fact is that if you know how to use snow to your advantage, it can turn a cold night outside into a warm, cozy den. Our guides practice working with snow to their advantage, and often even prefer having snow around to help build elaborate shelters when the nights get cold. One can be as creative as possible and a snow shelter can rival a small palace.  The possibilities are endless.  Snow shelters and a high quality, – 40-degree sleeping bag, make for a warm night, no matter what is happening outside the shelter walls.


You will never appreciate warm tea like you do in a shelter after a big day in the snow. Students and staff learn to make it the way they like best, then repeat this, every chance they get. Tea also doubles as a jacket warmer: a warm water bottle, also called a “hottie”, becomes your own little portable space heater. Tuck it into your jacket, other layers, or even your sleeping bag to sleep warm all night.


Yes, even in the wilderness style counts – just not how you think. Our students and guides are equipped with the right clothing for their adventures and also taught how to use it properly.  Learning how to appropriately dress for cold is crucial for winter camping comfort. The right layers, in the right order, make a blustery day a literal walk in the park. First, field staff teach the students to use a wicking layer next to the skin to help move moisture and keep everyone dry. Next, layer on an insulating layer to keep that heat trapped in – think of a cozy fleece. Finally, a waterproof shell helps protect against the elements. Adding more layers to stay warm is always an option, and allows for warmth despite the weather.


You won’t see anyone just huddled up and stationery at Aspiro, because activity is key for winter warmth. Our students stay active during the day by participating in adventures such as hiking, skiing, climbing or biking. When back at camp, our groups all practice warm-up routines throughout chilly days in order to keep moving and stay warm and safe. They stretch, do exercises, or go for brisk walks to get moving.  But the really savvy groups will dance. That’s right.  When you are getting cold, the best solution is to jump around and have an impromptu dance party! Music optional.


As I said before, winter adventuring can be intimidating for some. While many people stay inside during these months, at the Aspiro wilderness therapy program, we know we can skillfully create warmth and get out to the beautiful places Utah has to offer all year long. We are lucky to move through vastly different landscapes, and winter presents its own beautiful twist on the scenery. During winter we are able to access incredible places in the state that might be overpopulated in the spring or summer, but that are largely abandoned during the colder season.  Often, we get the most popular spots in the state all to ourselves. Our groups take full advantage of the solitude and peace that comes from the lack of other visitors.

Winter is an incredible season that our students learn to truly appreciate. They relish in the quiet,  find moments to reflect and practice mindfulness, discover gratitude for the beautiful landscapes, and learn what it takes to stay warm and enjoy it all!

By Joe Nagle, our Field Director