What Makes Wilderness Therapy so Effective in Providing Help for Troubled Teens?

benefits of wilderness therapy  - Aspiro Adventure Therapy

Wilderness therapy is especially effective in providing help for troubled teens. As discussed in the video below, there are several benefits of wilderness therapy. According to Dr. Mark Widmer, a pioneer in the field of wilderness therapy, parents reported improvements in the attitudes, behavior, academic performance, and interpersonal relationships of their children upon program completion.

There are several benefits that set wilderness therapy apart from other programs for troubled teens. Promoting academic efficacy, identity development, and coping skills help facilitate the changes in attitudes, behavior, academic performance, and interpersonal relationships.

Academic Efficacy

Research indicates that academic efficacy and success is highly related to an individual’s ability to form effective and positive relationships with peers and teachers in the classroom (Patrick, Hicks, Ryan, 1997). Structured group living in the wilderness, with help from mentors, allows adolescent and young adult clients to develop and navigate healthy relationships with peers and adults. This facilitates the development of skills necessary for academic efficacy.

Identity development

Identity development is the formation of values, goals, and self-concept (Rote & Smetana, 2014). The support of therapists and field staff, the environment of wilderness therapy, and the variety of novel activities allows individuals to slow down, identify, explore and evaluate their values, goals and self-concept.

Facilitating identity development is a key factor in providing help for troubled teens. Dr. Widmer’s research states that “Adolescents who experience successful identity development exhibit a variety of positive outcomes, whereas youth who struggle with this process tend to display more deviant behavior.” (Duerden, Taniguchi, & Wildmer 2012)

Coping skills

In a challenging environment, coping styles naturally emerge; however, past patterns of coping will not always be effective in handling difficult situations. In the wilderness therapy setting, coping skills are displayed, and individuals are able to evaluate their effectiveness. This provides the opportunity for in-the-moment instruction and support to develop healthier, effective coping strategies. Having the 24/7 support and the repeated opportunities to test their new ways of coping are benefits that therapy in the home setting does not often afford.

What Sets Wilderness Therapy Apart from Other Programs for Troubled Teens?

So, how does wilderness therapy promote academic efficacy, identity development, and coping skills? There are several attributes that set wilderness therapy apart from other programs for troubled teens. These attributes make wilderness therapy especially effective in providing help for troubled teens by addressing the underlying issues troubled teens face while creating lasting change.

Wilderness Therapy Uses the Wilderness and Unfamiliar Environments to Create a Unique Experience

One aspect that makes wilderness therapy unique from other programs for troubled teens is the use of the wilderness and adventure activities to challenge teens. Living in the wilderness is such an unfamiliar environment and experience for many teenagers, allowing them to leave the pressure and stress of their everyday lives behind them. Research has shown that simply being exposed to the wilderness provides help for troubled teens; exposure to the wilderness has positive effects on individuals’:

  • self-discipline
  • executive functioning
  • attentional functioning
  • ADHD symptoms
  • problem solving
  • critical thinking

Wilderness Therapy Gives Teens an Opportunity to Form New Bonds and Relationships

Wilderness therapy offers teens the opportunity to form both peer bonds with other teens and mentor/mentee relationships with wilderness therapy staff. Since wilderness therapy takes place in a group setting, each troubled teen has the opportunity to bond with other teens who are going through similar struggles and facing the same obstacles through wilderness therapy. The group setting allows group development processes to facilitate learning.

In addition to the close bonds formed with other teens participating in therapy, wilderness therapy provides help for troubled teens to form meaningful relationships with positive role models in the form of wilderness therapy guides and counselors.

Wilderness Therapy Utilizes Natural Consequences to Provide Help for Troubled Teens

Unlike many other programs for troubled teens, wilderness therapy exposes teens to natural consequences. Recognizing and experiencing natural consequences has a great impact on developing intrinsic motivation. Teens must understand how the consequence relates to their actions for this to develop.  An effective wilderness therapy program should help students understand the connection between their choices and consequences; cause and effect.

As such, it is vital for wilderness therapy programs for troubled teens to utilize natural and logical consequences.  These facilitate intrinsic change and greater insight for healthier self-governance.  Programs for troubled teens should allow, as long as it is not a safety risk, the natural consequences of a student’s choice to occur.  A natural consequence is a direct result of a choice, without any imposed consequence. For example, if a student chooses to not build a shelter when the staff tell them it is going to rain, the consequence is they and their belongings get wet.

At times, logical consequences may be necessary to impose, if it makes sense for the behavior which needs to be modified.  For example, a group’s members are dawdling when it is time to pack up camp in the morning, causing them to depart camp late;  a logical consequence is the group wakes up earlier to allow for the group to get out of camp by the set time.


Helping your son or daughter transition into a successful, happy, well-balanced adult means being there for him or her during the difficult teenaged years; sometimes, this means selecting an appropriate treatment program to help him or her through their issues. In order to promote a life-long change in your teen, it is important to select a treatment program that is reputable, credible, and effective in addressing your teen’s individual issues.


Patrick, H., Hicks, L., & Ryan, A. M. (1997). Relations of perceived social efficacy and social goal pursuit to self-efficacy for academic work. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 17(2), 109-128.

Rote, W. M., & Smetana, J. G. (2014). 27 Parenting, Adolescent–Parent Relationships, and Social Domain Theory: Implications for Identity Development. The Oxford Handbook of Identity Development, 437.

Duerden, M. D., Taniguchi, S., & Widmer, M. (2012). Antecedents of Identity Development in a Structured Recreation Setting A Qualitative Inquiry. Journal of Adolescent Research, 27(2), 183-202.

Download our free whitepaper, Boot Camp for Teens: Is There a More Effective Solution?, to learn more about healthy, effective solutions to help teenagers and young adults through their challenges.

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