Healing PTSD in Teens and Young Adults

Healing PTSD in Teens and Young Adults | Aspiro Adventure Therapy

This article discusses trauma in adolescence related to abuse, unhealthy relationships, violence, bullying, and the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD in teens and young adults. We will then share steps parents can take to help their son or daughter as well as professional treatment options.

This white paper is written for adolescents who have experienced a trauma, their parents or caregivers, counselors, and anyone seeking help for PTSD in teens and young adults.

Find Lasting Recovery for Trauma in Teens and Young Adults

The adolescent years can be a very difficult time for teenagers, young adults, and their parents. These years are filled with high levels of stress due to the demands at school, changing friendships, developing interests, and self-identity. The stress and emotional drain that comes with adolescence are only compounded when a teen or young adult faces a traumatic event or experience.

A traumatic event is considered to be any event that causes physical, emotional, spiritual, or psychological harm to an individual, resulting in the teen feeling threatened or frightened.

Experiencing a traumatic event is often so overwhelming for a teen or young adult that it causes them to shut down completely. Watching their teen become unable to keep up with life’s daily demands is heartbreaking for any parent to see. Because most teens and young adults who experience trauma are emotionally unequipped to handle such trauma, parents must step up and provide the needed help.

With the proper supports in place, teens facing trauma can experience true healing and lasting peace. These teens and young adults can emerge stronger and even more resilient than before.

The Prevalence of Trauma in Today’s Teens and Young Adults

It is not uncommon for teens to face trauma during their adolescent years. Several recent studies show that PTSD in teens is becoming increasingly prevalent in the United States. The National Survey of Children’s Exposure reported that 18.7% of teenage girls have experienced a completed or attempted sexual assault in their lifetime. A second national study asked over 4000 teens aged 12-17 if they had ever experienced sexual or physical assault or if they had witnessed violence. The study found that 47% of these teens had experienced either sexual or physical assault or witnessed violence (Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Ormond, R., & Hamby. S. Violence, abuse, and crime exposure in a national sample of children and youth.)

While many teens today may experience a traumatic incident, the situation and source of trauma is different for every individual. It’s important for parents to learn and examine the different causes, reactions, and treatment options so they can provide their teen with the absolute best help possible.

Sources of Trauma in Adolescence

Defining trauma in teens presents a very wide spectrum of causes and incidents at varying degrees. Every teen has different emotional capacities and will, therefore, respond to challenges and trauma differently. For example, some teens are extremely sensitive and become deeply upset when there is a local or national tragedy. These teens may also experience serious distress when a friend or family member faces trauma.

Other teens and young adults may experience trauma directly due to bullying, unhealthy social or romantic relationships, or changes in their family dynamic. Some more extreme examples of trauma in teens and young adults include situations of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse and the death of a loved one. When a teen or young adult experiences a serious traumatic incident that greatly affects their behavior and day-to-day functioning, that teen could be facing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.

Common Causes of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD emerges when a normal response to stressful situations does not go away or becomes worse. Normal responses of traumatic events can include flashbacks, sleep problems, or increased anxiety. However, with PTSD, these symptoms become worse and do not dissipate over time. Common examples of experiences that could lead to PTSD in teens and young adults include:

  • Sexual abuse or violence
  • Physical abuse or neglect
  • Natural disasters
  • Plane or car accidents
  • Witnessing violence
  • Experiencing Violence
  • Having a friend commit suicide

Again, in some cases where a teen is a more sensitive individual, even learning about one of the above events can trigger some degree of PTSD.

Regardless of the cause or circumstance, any adolescent trauma most often results in the teen becoming avoidant in an attempt to numb their emotions. These individuals may also display more aggressive, rebellious, or impulsive behavior. The degree of PTSD symptoms often depends on the type and intensity of the event experienced. A teen or young adult is also more prone to develop PTSD if they are female, have any pre-existing or co-occurring disorders, had previous exposure to trauma, or if they lack a proper support system (The National Center of PTSD.) In the sections below, we will provide more insight into common risk factors and warning signs that your teen is facing trauma and could be suffering from PTSD.

Common Reactions After a Traumatic Event

Everyone reacts differently to trauma. Some teens and young adults are more resilient while others are more sensitive. Therefore, the spectrum of reactions is rather large and can include anything from anxiety and major depression to withdrawal or anger and hostility. Some young adults and teens with PTSD may shut-down emotionally and numb themselves while others may respond with self-destructive behavior.

In addition, The Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reported a number of mental health disorders can come as a result of trauma including major depression, substance use disorder, anxiety disorders, and conduct disorder such as oppositional defiant disorder.

Other trauma reactions include difficulties in maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships or poor academic performance. This is often due to a lack of motivation caused by depression or because they are choosing to act out. While the above behaviors are common trauma reactions of teens and young adults, there are many additional warning signs that could indicate your child has developed PTSD.

20 PTSD Symptoms & Signs Your Teen or Young Adult Has Experienced Trauma

Regardless of the severity of a teen’s reaction, parents must be sensitive to the high level of stress their teen is facing and respond accordingly. If you think your teen could be facing trauma, here are 20 common signs of teens struggling with PTSD.

  • Change in sleeping habits
  • Socially withdrawn from friends and family
  • Overreacts about small things
  • Depression
  • Emotional numbness
  • Poor academic performance
  • Sudden change in behavior
  • Loss of interest in friends and hobbies
  • Detached from daily routines and activities
  • Difficulties with concentration and focusing
  • Displays signs of constant worrying
  • Becomes rebellious
  • Substance abuse
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Isolates him or herself
  • Overly anxious
  • Displays angry or aggressive behaviors
  • Fatigue or exhaustion
  • Panic attacks
  • Constant fear or worrying
  • Nausea, frequent headaches, or vomiting

Change in your teen’s or young adult’s behavior could indicate that your son or daughter is struggling and needs additional support. The best place to start this process is in the home.

Tips for Parents of Teens and Young Adults Facing Trauma

Studies have shown that proper support from parents can help lower levels of PTSD in teens. However, many young adult children and teens do not turn to their parents in times of trauma which makes it absolutely essential for parents to be aware of changes in their child’s behavior, recognize the signs of PTSD, and take the first step towards recovery. There are many things parents can do to help their son or daughter suffering from PTSD including encouraging open communication and by being patient with your teen.

1. Communicate with Your Teen or Young Adult

Remember, your teen or young adult may be so upset by the event that they are emotionally unequipped to talk and process the event out loud. They may feel embarrassed, ashamed, or guilty about the event. Other teens feel they need to be “strong” for their parents or do not even want to acknowledge the event by talking about it. Therefore, it’s important for parents to come to their teen with an empathetic and loving attitude. Let your teen know that you love them unconditionally and that their emotions are valid. Many teens do not come to their parents with their problems because they do not want to be lectured or told what to do. In these types of sensitive situations, approach them with a loving heart and listening ear.

2. Be Flexible in Your Expectations for Your Child

During times of trauma, it’s important that you do not expect your teen or young adult to perform and behave to the capacity they have before. Parents must be flexible when it comes to their expectations and also in adapting their daily responsibilities. Parents should not enable their teen or young adult by alleviating all of their responsibilities but should find a reasonable balance that respects the emotions they are facing. If your teen or young adult is struggling to complete tasks and assignments, validate their emotions and let them know it is completely normal and healthy for them to feel an emotional drain after an upsetting or frightening event. When you sense your daughter or son feels exhausted, encourage them to rest. It may also be helpful to inform your child’s school and teachers of the event so they are aware of what happened and the changes in your son or daughter’s behavior.

3. Be Patient with Your Son or Daughter Facing Trauma

It’s key for parents to be patient with the many emotions a teen faces while in a state of trauma. As a result, your teen or young adult may become very withdrawn, tired, and may come across as careless, lazy, or difficult. It is also common for adolescents in crisis to become rebellious as a way to take control of their lives and let out their strong emotions. They may become so angry about what happened to them that they blame you or their friends for the event. While their behavior may seem irrational or unhealthy, it’s important for parents to be patient and try to understand this is their way of coping. The more a parent tries to controls their teen or young adult, the worse their child may respond to the trauma and the more unsafe they may feel. Try to understand they are in the midst of a healing process.

4. Be Proactive and Direct

The worst thing a parent can do for teens and young adults with PTSD is to ignore or avoid the traumatic event. Whether the trauma is big or small, parents should create a safe place for their son or daughter to talk about and process any upsetting event. Parents should not be afraid to even bring up trauma and events start the discussion. Doing so will communicate to your teen or young adult that these topics are safe to talk about.

When parents have laid all of these supports and put these strategies in place and their teen or young adult still continues to show serious symptoms of PTSD, it may be time for parents to be proactive and seek professional help.

PTSD in Teens and Young Adults: When to Seek Professional Help

Sometimes the aftermath of a traumatic event or experience becomes too much for a parent to handle. The following 5 signs indicate it is time to seek help from mental health professionals:

  • Your son or daughter’s behavior is reckless and harmful to themselves or others
  • They’re struggling from severe depression or anxiety
  • They start abusing drugs or alcohol
  • They do not communicate with you at all about their life
  • They don’t show any signs of healing or recovery

These signs and behaviors cannot be ignored. Do not let a traumatic event affect your child’s life and long-term happiness. Getting the proper treatment for your teen today sets them up for a better tomorrow.

Wilderness Therapy for PTSD

A credible wilderness adventure therapy program utilizes a research-based model for treating PTSD that encourages outcomes of increased self-confidence, healthy relationships, identity development, and improved coping skills. A credible wilderness therapy program, such as Aspiro Adventure, gives traumatized teens and young adults a safe and novel environment to heal. Such programs also provide these emerging adults with a loving and caring therapeutic staff, a variety of adventure activities, and a research-backed approach that promotes lasting change.

Wilderness Therapy Provides a Safe and Novel Environment for Teens & Young Adults to Heal

A credible wilderness therapy program provides people with PTSD with a safe and controlled environment that promotes growth and healing. This novel environment takes a teen away from the distractions and complications of adolescent life and allows the teen to reset and recognize their own strength. If a teen or young adult rebels after a traumatic incident, a new and novel setting is especially helpful in encouraging a teen to leave unhealthy patterns behind and develop new behaviors. Additionally, wilderness therapy programs utilize the healing effect of the outdoors to promote recovery and growth.

Wilderness Therapy Builds Confidence in Teens Through Adventure Activities

The adventure activities in a wilderness therapy program are extremely effective when helping teens and young adults with traumatic stress. These adventure activities teach teens that they can overcome hard things through hands-on experience. When a teen is faced with a challenge that is difficult at the start, such as hiking or rock-climbing, they build confidence in their abilities once they complete the task. Overcoming such physical boundaries not only contributes to their physical health but also teaches them they can surmount difficult odds. In turn, their self-esteem and confidence in their own abilities to overcome challenges is greatly improved.

Wilderness Therapy Provides Teens Facing Trauma with Individualized Care

As teens and young adults complete various activities, credible wilderness therapy programs will have trained and experienced therapists on staff who give them verbal encouragement and validation along the way. These program facilitators are always there to guide the healing process as these teens and young adults talk about their traumatic experiences. This process helps teens and young adults with PTSD internalize what they have learned.

A credible wilderness therapy program will also combine both group and individual therapy to provide students with a variety of settings to talk about what they learned and to generalize their skills. The clinical team and field staff of a credible wilderness therapy program will always meet the student where they are and provide them with a personalized treatment and therapy plan.

Wilderness Therapy Focuses on Lasting Recovery for Teens Facing Trauma

A credible wilderness therapy program will focus on creating lasting peace for teens and young adults recovering from trauma. By combining traditional therapy methods like Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) with adventure activities, wilderness therapy focuses on building teens’ strengths and building their positive attributes. Aspiro Adventure’s researched-backed approach is based on Martin Seligman’s work in the field of positive psychology that is based on doing what makes people happy and healthy, as opposed to what makes them anxious or depressed. Aspiro focuses on skill-building, personal strengths, and self-efficacy to promote long-term outcomes rather than just talking out and processing the traumatic event.

No matter what kind of PTSD treatment program you select for your traumatized child, doing your research is vital in selecting the best treatment center for your son or daughter. A reputable treatment program will help provide resources, client testimonials, and research. Whether you choose a more traditional form of therapy or an individualized form of therapy like wilderness therapy, it’s important you are making an informed decision.


A traumatic event can cause a teen or young adult to experience extreme amounts of emotional, physical, and psychological stress. Teens and young adults who have experienced trauma may struggle to open up as they process and come to terms with the event. They may worry about how and why the event happened, their involvement in the event, and how it changed them. Parents of teens and young adults facing trauma can help by being patient and understanding with their son or daughter.

While there are many steps parents can take to help their teen or young adult heal from trauma, some circumstances require more intensive treatment for PTSD. A credible wilderness adventure therapy program, such as Aspiro Adventure, offers teens an individualized and evidence-based treatment plan in a safe environment. With the proper support and care, teens facing trauma can heal and develop greater confidence in themselves and in the future.

About Aspiro Adventure Therapy

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Aspiro Wilderness Adventure Therapy program was uniquely crafted to assist students and their families in creating lasting, life-long emotional changes through compassionate, intentional, research-backed, and safe outdoor adventure therapy programs. The professionals at Aspiro Adventure understand individuals don’t come with instructions, and every student is unique, capable, and amazing in their own right.

Aspiro Adventure focuses on helping adolescents, young adults, and their families through difficulties that occur when various behavioral, cognitive, or developmental issues are present. Research shows that engaging individuals on a personal level with strategic and intentional activities will aid in developing the tools and skills necessary to engage life in a healthy and positive way.

By Josh Watson, LCSW, CMO at Aspiro Adventure Therapy Program
  • Josh Watson, LCSW
    Josh Watson, LCSW

The Best ADHD Treatment Programs for Teens & Young Adults

The best adhd treatment Programs for Teenagers and Young Adults | Aspiro Adventure Therapy Program

ADHD is not an uncommon struggle in today’s society; approximately 11% of children 4-17 years of age (6.4 million) have a diagnosis of ADHD as of 2011. While many people associate ADHD as a childhood disorder, many individuals struggle through their teenage years, well into, or throughout, adulthood. Today, about 4 percent of American adults over the age of 18 deal with ADHD on a daily basis.

The neurodevelopmental disorder presents individuals with significant hurdles in life, such as executive functioning deficits, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness. That being said, a psychological diagnosis does not have to define the course of someone’s life. ADHD has particularly manageable symptoms, and when treated properly, does not have to get in the way of your child’s success.

Nevertheless, it is crucial to address mental health and developmental issues as they arise. We have seen the cost of delaying treatment or avoiding one’s issues; it is vastly wiser to handle problems head-on, as early as possible.

ADHD Symptoms in Teens and Young Adults

Some kids with ADHD are diagnosed as very young children; symptoms such as impulsiveness, hyperactivity, and inattention are usually symptoms parents and teachers pick up on quickly. However, ADHD goes overlooked and undiagnosed in many children, as not everyone displays these symptoms in a disruptive way. For example, some children who sit back, quietly daydreaming in class are overlooked.

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The DSM-V now classifies Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder into predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive ADHD and predominantly Inattentive ADHD; some individuals display traits of both, known as ADHD Combined Type. According to the DSM-V, the individual’s symptoms must be “present in multiple settings (e.g., school and home), that can result in performance issues in social, educational, or work settings.”

Hyperactive-Impulsive ADHD Symptoms:

  • Often fidgets, squirms, taps feet or hands, etc.
  • Running or climbing in inappropriate situations
  • Difficulties performing quiet tasks/activities
  • Difficulty waiting in lines
  • Interrupting others
  • Restless feeling
  • Excessive talking
  • Blurting out answers before hearing the entire question

Inattentive ADHD Symptoms:

  • Not paying close attention to schoolwork or making careless mistakes
  • Difficulties sustaining attention for tasks
  • Does not seem to listen when spoken to
  • Trouble with organization
  • Skipping from one uncompleted task to another
  • Missing deadlines
  • Disorganized schoolwork
  • Easily distracted by stimuli
  • Loses or forgets things necessary for completing school work (books, assignments, pencils, etc.)

This is often referred to as “ADD” by many laymen, including parents and teachers. The term “ADD” was used by professionals until the early 1990’s, when it was changed to ADHD. Although “ADD” it is not used in the DSM-V, the term is still widely used outside of the mental health and healthcare communities. These can often be the “daydreamers” whose symptoms are overlooked.

The Facts About ADHD in Teenagers and Young Adults | Aspiro Adventure Therapy

ADHD Combined Type:

Individuals who display symptoms of both predominantly inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive are diagnosed with combined type ADHD. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, this is the most common type of ADHD.

If you notice these symptoms of ADHD, speak to his or her teachers, counselors, and/or coaches to see if they have noticed any similar symptoms. If you suspect your child has ADHD, talking to his or her physician to confirm the ADHD diagnosis is a logical next step to ensuring your child’s long-term recovery.

ADHD and Anxiety/Depression

It is not uncommon for teens and young adults who have been diagnosed with ADHD to struggle with anxiety or depression. In fact, up to 30% of children and 25%-40% of adults with ADHD have a coexisting anxiety disorder.

Another common coexisting condition for individuals with ADHD is depression; according to the National Resource Center on ADHD, “up to 70 percent of those with ADHD will be treated for depression at some point in their lives.” The incidence of ADHD and depression in children is attributed to the fact that, individuals with ADHD can become frustrated and overwhelmed by their symptoms, and “may develop feelings of a lack of control over what happens in their environment or become depressed as they experience repeated failures or negative interactions in school, at home, and in other settings. As these negative experiences accumulate, the child with ADHD may begin to feel discouraged.”

"up to 30% of children and 53% of adults with ADHD have a coexisting anxiety disorder."

National Resource Center on ADHD Tweet

"up to 70% of those with ADHD will be treated for depression at some point in their lives."

National Resource Center on ADHD Tweet

Since ADHD symptoms are sometimes congruent with symptoms of depression and anxiety, many young people’s depression or anxiety gets overlooked. For example, strained peer relationships, decreased school performance/motivation, and an inability to focus can be symptoms of ADHD, anxiety, or depression.

When a young person has two coexisting conditions, their treatment path becomes a bit more complicated. For example, children with anxiety and ADHD appear to be less responsive to traditional ADHD medication treatments; in addition, there are some anti-depressants that are not approved for children under 18.

While not every adolescent or young adult with ADHD will experience emotional turmoil, disregarding their symptoms as being part of their ADHD will allow anxiety and/or depression to go unresolved. Knowing that your child is at-risk for a coexisting condition makes it easier to watch out for signs of anxiety or depression in your child.

Early intervention is critical in helping teens and young adults learn to cope with their symptoms. If you notice symptoms of depression or anxiety in your child who has ADHD, don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s physician or mental healthcare provider. If you suspect that your child has a coexisting condition with their ADHD, it is vital to find a mental healthcare provider who is well versed in treating not only ADHD but anxiety and/or depression to ensure that your son or daughter receives safe and effective treatment.

ADHD and Family Conflict

Having a child with ADHD can be stressful for the entire family, and can strain relationships, as these families often experience a more behavioral and emotional strain. Living with ADHD symptoms can be extremely difficult; impulsivity, difficulties with their social skills and interactions, in addition to a difficulty managing anger; this can cause an additional strain on the family dynamic. In fact, teens with ADHD report having more parent-teen conflict that teens who do not have ADHD.

Parents of kids with ADHD are three times as likely to separate or divorce as parents of non- ADHD children. There are many contributing factors: parents may disagree on treatment routes/ plans, medications, therapists, etc. In addition, the added stress of parenting a child struggling with ADHD can be overwhelming for parents.

In addition to creating parent-child conflict in the family dynamic, it may cause resentment, jealousy, or tension between siblings as well. Because parents spend extra time managing medications, doctors appointments, school meetings, and/or behavioral therapy sessions, some siblings may resent extra time/attention their sibling with ADHD receives.

The best way for parents to help is to implement a routine and clear rules for all individuals living in the household. In addition, staying positive and focusing on your child’s strengths will encourage more positive behavior. When you do need to give your child a correction, remember to reprimand the child’s behavior– not the child. For example: instead of “You make me so mad when you interrupt me!” try, “It makes me unhappy when you interrupt me, please wait your turn.”

ADHD and School Troubles

While some people with ADHD also struggle with depression and/or anxiety, other individuals may have an undiagnosed learning disability. Learning disabilities often coincide with ADHD; in fact, an estimated 20 to 30 percent of children with ADHD are diagnosed with a learning disability.

While ADHD is not considered a learning disability, one of the symptoms of ADHD is having academic difficulties, due to an inability to focus. Due to the assumption that it is their ADHD causing the school challenges, some children who have a learning disability coinciding with ADHD will never have their learning disability diagnosed.

When children are having difficulties at school, parents are often the first to notice. If you suspect your child’s academic struggles may be stemming from a learning disability, it is important to notify his or her teacher and your family physician.

A learning disability is a lifelong obstacle; while children don’t “grow out of it,” they can learn skills to compensate for their learning differences. Early recognition, diagnosis, and getting proper help early on is key to your son or daughter’s academic success.

If your child is diagnosed with a learning disability, he or she may be eligible for special education services under one of three federal statutes. It is vital that, as a parent, you are an advocate for your son or daughter. In order to become an effective advocate for your son or daughter, you should become informed about their rights under the law and ways to help him or her succeed in school.

Even if your son or daughter is not diagnosed with a learning disability, your child may still be eligible for special services (like ADHD coaching and tutoring), accommodations or modifications to the curriculum or coursework, depending on the severity of his or her ADHD symptoms. If your son or daughter is still struggling in school, talk to his or her teacher about ways you can help at home.

Untreated ADHD and At-Risk Teens

As teens get older and make their first forays into more adult privileges and responsibilities, there is also a higher (2x-4x) risk for car accidents among teens with ADHD. This, in addition to the increased propensity for substance abuse, waning academic performance, and the difficulty maintaining relationships can make adolescence much more of a struggle than it needs to be.

Part of the higher risk of risky behavior, according to ADDitude Mag, is the fact that “The rate of emotional development for children with ADHD is 30% slower than their non-ADD peers. For example, a 10-year-old with ADHD operates at the maturity level of about a 7-year-old; a 16-year-old beginning driver is using the decision-making skills of an 11-year-old.” The good news is that teen drivers with ADHD who take their medication are less likely to have an accident

These problematic behavioral patterns can result from the exacerbation of the fact that individuals with ADHD may be more:

  • Impulsive
  • Risk-taking
  • Immature in judgment
  • Thrill-seeking
  • Distracted

Fortunately, these symptoms – and the increased risk for car accidents and substance abuse – can be mitigated by early intervention and by ensuring that individuals receive effective treatment based on their individual needs, strengths, and challenges. Addressing these issues is critical not only because it will make the journey through adolescence easier for your teen with ADHD, but because the treatment that an individual receives in childhood and adolescence is often predictive of their success as an adult.

ADHD Treatment Options

While some individuals may “outgrow” or be able to overcome their symptoms, others may need counseling, neurofeedback, medication, or wellness and lifestyle changes to help treat ADHD. Depending on the individual’s age, diagnosis, and response to treatment, the treatment plan may include any combination of the following:

ADHD Medication

Stimulants are the most popular form of medication prescribed for ADD/ADHD. Stimulants like methylphenidate can alleviate symptoms such as inability to focus, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Some individuals may not be helped by stimulants and may be treated with non-stimulant medication to help mitigate symptoms. These non-stimulant drugs come without many of the side effects of stimulants, including anxiety, irritability, high blood pressure, and insomnia.

Behavioral Therapy

It is helpful for individuals with ADHD to set up a structured schedule and routine. Behavior therapy can also help teens and young adults address any academic, social, or emotional struggles they may be facing. While talk therapy and behavioral interventions can address these challenges, they are only truly effective if:

    1. your child is invested 100% and
    2. you coordinate with your child’s therapists and teachers to help keep your child on track.

Parent Education

Parental support and participation plays a pivotal role in the success of treatment for ADHD. Taking the time to understand what your child is going through, and work with your child’s therapist to help establish a structure and routine for your child, can show your child you care, and are supportive of his or her treatment path.

ADHD Treatment Programs

Sometimes, even with all the talk therapy, medication and parental support in the world, it just isn’t enough. This is especially true when young people are battling ADHD along with depression, anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder, or a family conflict. Although it may not be the easy choice, sometimes sending your child to an evidence-based treatment program can be the best choice to help him or her learn to cope with their symptoms.

While there are many options to help individuals cope with their symptoms, there is no magic “cure” for ADHD; however, with the proper treatment and support team, children with ADHD can grow into successful and well adjusted young adults.

4 Ways to Support Your ADHD Child at Home

Struggling with the symptoms of ADHD while going through adolescence or the transition to adulthood can be tough. Knowing you are there for them can help. While no one ever wants to send their child off to treatment, sometimes doing the right thing isn’t always easy. Helping your child feel loved, supported, and respected during their treatment is vital to his or her success.

Knowing how to support your loved one in a helpful way during their treatment for ADHD can be difficult, but as they feel your encouragement and faith in their ability to overcome their challenges and your trust in their treatment team, your child’s hope for a different life can be strengthened. Learning as much as you can from your child about what the struggle has been like for them can help them feel your support.

1. Learn More about ADHD

Find out as much as you can about ADHD and any other diagnoses your child receives. Research, read, and learn from the many resources available on ADHD, from blog posts, podcasts and videos, to eBooks. Attend a class or support group for caregivers of children with ADHD.

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Understanding his or her struggle is the first step in helping them overcome their obstacles. Learn about what kinds of tasks will be difficult for your son or daughter, and what resources are available to aid him or her in overcoming those obstacles.

2. Foster a Healthy Lifestyle

Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and maintaining healthy sleep hygiene are all part of maintaining your children’s health.

  • Diet/Nutrition: Some researchers argue that a restricted diet can actually help improve ADHD symptoms. Others argue that all children can benefit from a healthy, well- balanced diet. Encourage your child to make healthy food choices. Eating several smaller meals throughout the day can minimize blood sugar & blood pressure spikes and keep his or her energy up.
  • Healthy Sleep Hygiene: Many individuals with ADHD have difficulties sleeping due to the medication(s) they are taking; however, maintaining healthy sleep hygiene is critical to feeling balanced and well-rested. Teenagers need at least 8 1/2 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Helping your son or daughter maintain a sleep schedule, discouraging tv or electronics in bed, and restricting sugar and caffeine in the evenings can all help.
  • Exercise: Since some of the major symptoms of ADHD are restless behavior, fidgeting, and impulsivity, regular exercise can be helpful in coping with or minimizing symptoms. Encourage your son or daughter to live an active lifestyle; better yet, make it a family affair. It can be as simple as walking the dog each day after dinner or playing basketball in the driveway.
  • Set a Schedule for Medication Management: Some medications for ADHD need to be taken on a schedule, some should be taken with food, and some on an empty stomach. Make sure your son or daughter is being diligent about sticking to their schedule and taking their medications at the appropriate times.

3. Encourage a Positive Peer Environment

Encourage your son or daughter to hang out with uplifting and encouraging friends who are positive influences. Many individuals with ADHD struggle with social skills, relating to others, forming meaningful relationships, and making friends. If he or she has difficulties making friends who are positive, uplifting people, offer to enroll him or her is a social activity that he or she would enjoy, such as an art class, sports team, or after school club. It is also vital to watch out for negative influences or a sudden change in peer groups, as these could be detrimental to his or her progress.

4. Get Involved with the Treatment Process

As a parent and caregiver, you are a part of the treatment team, along with your child and professionals. Meet with treatment professionals to understand their recommendations, ways you can help and openly discuss any concerns. Encourage the collaboration of professionals by giving permission for each to speak and requesting they do so. If appropriate, join your child’s therapy session or have a family therapy session to learn how you can support your child. Monitor his or her medication and ensure that he or she attends therapy. Be sure to notify your child’s healthcare provider or mental health professional if his or her ADHD symptoms do not improve or if they increase.

Knowing When to Seek ADHD Treatment

ADHD can affect individuals in a variety of ways; some people with ADHD grow out of the disorder in adolescence. Many will continue to struggle with the condition throughout adulthood. While the symptoms of ADHD in adolescents are similar to the symptoms in children, they often worsen during teenage years due to the hormonal shifts of puberty. Impulsive, irritable, overactive children who have difficulty focusing can evolve into teens who may display a number of issues.

Sometimes talk therapy and medication is not enough to help teens and young adults cope with their symptoms, especially when there are other diagnoses, including: anxiety, depression, a learning disorder, or a behavioral disorder. If your teen’s symptoms go beyond typical struggles with ADHD and borders on risky or violent behavior, it is time to consider seeking more intensive treatment.

The following are red flag signs of that your child needs treatment:

    • Not taking/refusing their medications
    • Reckless driving
    • Drug or Alcohol abuse
    • Aggressive behavior
    • Risky sexual behavior
    • Depression/moodiness
    • Anxiety symptoms

If you do decide to seek treatment for your son or daughter, make sure that an effective course of treatment is pursued. Everyone has different needs, and each individual with ADHD will respond differently to a variety of treatments. One way to address these issues is through wilderness therapy; allowing for engagement in various experiential activities to learn to manage their ADHD and while receiving clinical treatment. For many individuals, ADHD programs are the right choice.

How Wilderness Therapy Helps with ADHD

A psychological diagnosis does not have to define the course of someone’s life. ADHD has particularly manageable symptoms, and when treated properly, does not have to get in the way of an individual’s success. That said, it is crucial to address behavioral health, mental health, and developmental issues as they arise. We have seen the cost of delaying treatment of ADHD or avoiding one’s issues; it is vastly wiser to handle problems head-on, as early as possible.

There are a variety of treatment options available for individuals who have ADHD. Every individual is different; depending on your child’s age and severity of their symptoms, you may be considering medication alone, medication and behavior therapy, or in more severe cases, an ADHD treatment program. One type of treatment program that has proven extremely effective in helping individuals with ADHD is wilderness therapy. The effectiveness of wilderness therapy in helping these individuals is due to the therapeutic wilderness setting, adventure activities, and positive peer relationships.

Wilderness Setting

Living in the wilderness is an unfamiliar environment and experience for many individuals with ADHD. This allows them to leave the pressure and stress of their everyday lives behind and practice new ways of handling the ADHD. Wilderness therapy programs move with the rhythms of the natural world, which is soothing to humans. According to Taniguchi, Widmer, Duerden, & Draper (2009): the mere presence of nature and vegetation has significant positive effects on children’s:

    • Self-discipline
    • Attentional functioning
    • Stress resilience
    • Engagement in creative play

The wilderness setting also exposes teens to natural consequences. Recognizing and experiencing natural consequences has a great impact on developing intrinsic motivation. Teens and young adults with ADD/ADHD must understand how the consequence relates to their actions for this to develop. For example, if a student chooses to not build a shelter when the staff tells them it is going to rain, the consequence is they, and their belongings, get wet.

Adventure Activities

Some wilderness therapy programs incorporate adventure therapy activities. This allows for a more comprehensive assessment in multiple settings and with different challenges, of each student’s needs, deficits, and challenges. Adventure therapy utilizes a variety of novel environments to push teens and young adults to learn more effective coping skills, problem-solving skills, executive function skills, and social skills; these are skills that many individuals with ADHD need to improve.

Incorporating adventure therapy activities allows for In Vivo therapy. In Vivo therapy offers the ability for students with ADHD to operate and process what they are learning “in the moment.” The In Vivo method allows them to learn more experientially. This helps to teach individuals with attention and executive functioning deficits what they do not typically understand in a way that makes it more “normal,” and less like therapy.

Aside from an increased buy-in to participate in therapy due to the variety of appealing activities, the adventure therapy activities provide ADHD students with opportunities to confront their challenges. This also helps individuals with ADHD by utilizing overwhelming mastery experiences to increase self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief in oneself to overcome adversity/difficulties in life. This is vital, as research has shown self-efficacy as one of the most influential predictors of behavioral change. (Wells, Widmer, & McCoy 2004)

The more repetitive a treatment program can be with overwhelming mastery experiences, the better. Teens and young adults with ADD/ADHD are more likely to generalize the belief that they can achieve difficult things, and can incorporate this belief into different domains of life: classroom, peers, family, etc.

Positive Peer Relationships

Since many with ADHD have trouble forming meaningful peer relationships and struggle with their social skill deficits, the therapeutic group setting of wilderness therapy is extremely critical for treatment and social skills training.

Wilderness therapy offers individuals with ADHD the opportunity to form both peer bonds with others and mentor/mentee relationships with wilderness therapy staff. Since wilderness therapy takes place in a group setting, students have the opportunity to learn from others who are overcoming the same obstacles through wilderness therapy. The group setting allows group development processes to facilitate learning.

Aspiro Alumn Shares What the Wilderness Taught Him About ADHD

In this ten-minute TED Talk, Aspiro alumnus, David Rosen, talks about battling his monster: living with ADHD. In the video, he is brave, open and honest, discussing ADHD symptoms in teens and how to help a child with ADHD. He encourages compassion and acceptance when interacting with others– no matter what their particular monster is.

David also discusses his time in the wilderness at a program that is geared specifically to address the challenges of teens with ADHD. He describes his experience at Aspiro as the “greatest transformation of my life.” While he still lives with his monster on a daily basis, David knows how to deal with his ADHD symptoms and has a positive outlook on life.


Young people who receive treatment early are more responsive to treatment. Some individuals with ADHD will grow out of their symptoms, others will continue to grapple with the disorder throughout adulthood. While no parent ever wants to send their child away, it may be worth exploring wilderness therapy as a treatment option for ADHD. The disadvantages – absence from school, separation from family and friends – are short-term, but the benefits hold the potential to last a lifetime.

Statistically, adults with ADHD experience higher incidence of divorce, substance abuse, and unemployment. While this diagnosis does not have to be a life sentence, it is important to give adolescents affected by ADHD the tools to overcome their differences. If someone you care about has been diagnosed with ADHD, don’t let them become a statistic.

Additional Resources

About Aspiro Adventure Therapy Program

Play Video

Aspiro Adventure offers safe, effective, and clinically-sophisticated options to treat ADHD in young adults and teenagers.

Aspiro Adventure’s Wilderness Adventure Therapy program was uniquely crafted to assist students and their families in creating lasting, life-long emotional changes through compassionate, intentional, research-backed, and safe outdoor adventure therapy programs. The professionals at Aspiro Adventure understand individuals don’t come with instructions, and every student is unique, capable, and amazing in their own right.

Aspiro Adventure focuses on helping adolescents, young adults, and their families through difficulties that occur when various behavioral, cognitive, or developmental issues are present. Research shows that engaging individuals on a personal level with strategic and intentional activities will aid in developing the tools and skills necessary to engage life in a healthy and positive way.

By Josh Watson, LCSW, CMO at Aspiro Adventure Therapy Program
  • Josh Watson, LCSW
    Josh Watson, LCSW

Gender is a Spectrum: How to Support Students and Parents in Understanding the Complexity of Gender Expression and Identity.

Gender is a Spectrum | Aspiro Adventure Therapy

Our world has historically been built for those who identify as cisgender (a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex). A cisgender person knows what soccer team to join, what section of a store to shop in, what toys or decorations to buy, and especially what bathroom to use. In our society, to question your gender identity is to suddenly be left stranded and confused. Clothes that outwardly appear to fit, make you feel like an imposter, signs that signal belonging no longer include you, and with all of these societal displacements come incredible amounts of fear and anxiety about not fitting in, about maintaining relationships with loved ones, and about how to stay safe in a world that may not understand or welcome you.

Parents and professionals, you have seen this struggle. You know these students are hurting and often wonder what the best course of action is to provide them with some support and understanding. Aspiro Adventure Therapy Program can help these adolescents and young adults on their journey toward self-acceptance and recognizes the importance of treatment that is specific to the needs of this population. Students are validated and supported by staff, therapists, and fellow students, wherever they may be in their process. Aspiro’s therapist Leigh Uhlenkott, is trained and certified in working with transgender youth, and her first-hand experience of guiding her own child through a gender identity journey provides Leigh with additional perspective, insight, and empathy, as she works with families and students.

Below, Leigh shares some helpful information for both parents and professionals.

What do we need to know about gender?

Often, we talk about “gender” in binary terms: you are either a boy or girl, depending on what sex organs you have. However, the term “gender” is more complicated than this. When we pick it apart, we begin to see the different ways in which we express who we are, rather than simply relying on our genitalia to do it for us.

We can break gender down into 4 key components:

  1. Gender Identity – an internal sense of our own gender, which may or may not be the same as our biological sex
  2. Gender Expression – how we dress, talk, or behave in order to show our gender
  3. Sexual Orientation – our sexual identity in relation to the gender to which we are attracted
  4. Biological Sex – the anatomy of an individual’s reproductive system

For example, two people could identify as a homosexual and identify as female, but one of these people could express their gender as more feminine, while the other could express themselves as more masculine, cutting their hair short and wearing traditionally male clothing.

Our students also fit in various places on this spectrum. For example, some of our students identify as males, while some who identify as females are more comfortable presenting as more masculine on the outside. Some students may be set in their identities and expressions while others may still be trying to figure out what their brains and bodies are telling them feels right.

While it can be clear from an outsider’s perspective that someone aligns more along the feminine or masculine spectrum, it is the person’s choice whether to disclose their gender identity. Some students may be “out and proud”, while others may be existing in “stealth”, where they don’t disclose any information about their sexual orientation or gender identity. As allies, we should not jump to conclusions about someone’s gender expression based solely off of looks or our assumptions.

We also need to be careful about who we disclose someone’s gender status to. According to GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), coming out as a transgender person is different from coming out as someone who is expressing their sexual orientation; for the transgender population, they are transitioning into their true selves, and having to tell someone they are transgender can feel disempowering. Thus, when we have conversations with people about gender, we need to remember how sensitive this information is and respect the person’s right to privacy.

How can a parent support a student on their journey through gender exploration?

First and foremost, students have the right to expect unconditional love, kindness, and support. No matter your understanding or feelings about gender, putting a child’s mental and emotional well-being before your own judgments will help you repair and maintain a relationship with your child. Rather than coming at children with solutions or questions or anger, try to listen and understand what they are saying. Maybe we haven’t questioned our own gender identities, but certainly, we have all known what it feels like not to belong, to be misunderstood, or to feel alone. Start from a place of empathy and remember, supportive parenting is effective parenting.

Creating a home that is safe for discussions about gender is a great place to start when it comes to demonstrating the unconditional support that our students need. An exploration into our own experiences with gender and examining where our beliefs on gender came from can un-earth some wonderful insights that can fuel real change in our relationships with our children. Being aware of our pronoun use and using the pronouns our students use to identify themselves is another way to help bridge divides. Ultimately, however, be gentle with yourselves. We all make mistakes when it comes to talking with our kids about important truths; all we can do is educate ourselves as much as possible, own up when we slip up, and look to grow from these moments.

How can I process through my own misunderstanding / confusion about what my student is going through?

We all have a gender history. From the moment our parents knew we were boys or girls, our identities were molded by these labels. When we have discussions with our children about their changing identities, we bring our own gender stories with us into the conversation, for better or for worse. What do we do to understand and process through our own thoughts about gender, or through a conversation that may not have gone so well?

Journaling is a simple and effective tool for any parent to use when beginning to understand and support a child’s gender journey. Having a place to write down your fears and your learnings about gender can help make sense of the new information you are taking in. Journaling can also give you as a parent the space you need to review your judgments and preconceptions in a neutral space, without the emotional attachments a face-to-face conversation can carry.

In addition, there are many parents who are asking and struggling with the same questions you are. Find your community through local Pride chapters or PFLAG groups; there are also conferences you can attend to get more information to bring back to your family. These organizations can give you the support you need to begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

What resources exist for me to gain better insight into gender?

We grew up in a time when gender was about whether you were a boy or a girl. Since our definitions of gender are evolving, there is a whole host of information out there to help support your conversations with your child about gender. For a comprehensive list of resources, please see the lists below:




  • Camp Aranu’tiq-Transgender Youth Located: New Hampshire and California Founded 2009
    (Summer Camps for youth, teens, and families)
  • Gender Odyssey –  a summer camp for 14-18 


About Aspiro Adventure Therapy Program​

Aspiro Adventure offers safe, effective, and clinically-sophisticated treatment options for adolescents and young adults with struggles related to gender expression and gender identity struggles.

Aspiro Adventure’s Wilderness Adventure Therapy program was uniquely crafted to assist students and their families in creating lasting, life-long emotional changes through compassionate, intentional, research-backed, and safe outdoor adventure therapy programs. The professionals at Aspiro Adventure understand individuals don’t come with instructions, and every student is unique, capable, and amazing in their own right.

Aspiro Adventure focuses on helping adolescents, young adults, and their families through difficulties that occur when various behavioral, cognitive, or developmental issues are present. Research shows that engaging individuals on a personal level with strategic and intentional activities will aid in developing the tools and skills necessary to engage life in a healthy and positive way.

By Leigh Uhlenkott, NCC, LMHC
  • Leigh Uhlenkott, NCC, LMHC
    Leigh Uhlenkott, NCC, LMHC
    Clinical Wilderness Therapist, Adolescent Males & Females, Ages 13-17

How to Navigate Learning Disabilities in Teenagers & Young Adults

Learning Disability in Teenager and Young Adults | Aspiro Wilderness Therapy Program

This article is written for parents, teachers, school counselors, or anyone needing advice or help navigating learning disabilities in teenagers and young adults.

In this article, we discuss:

We focus on helping adolescents and young adults through a variety of struggles, including, but not limited to learning disorders and any mental health or self-esteem issues that may arise from them.

Helping You Help Your Child

​When children are having difficulties in school, parents are often the first to notice; however, knowing what to do, where to start, and where to find help can be confusing and overwhelming for many parents. If you suspect that your son or daughter has a learning disability, early recognition and diagnosis is key to getting your child the help he or she needs.

Learning disabilities are more prevalent than many think. According to the U.S. Survey of Income and Program Participation, an estimated 4.67 million Americans ages six and older have a learning disability. However, only 2.4 million students are diagnosed with specific learning disabilities, and receive services, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This means there are millions of students with undiagnosed learning disabilities.

As your child’s advocate, it is vital that your son or daughter receives help early-on to develop the skills needed to learn based on their strengths and way of learning. Recognizing, accepting, and understanding your son or daughter’s learning disability are the first steps to ensuring your child’s success.

Learning Disabilities in Teenagers and Young Adults Infographic | Aspiro Wilderness Therapy Program

What Is a Learning Disability?

A learning disability is a neurologically-based processing problem that may impair an individual’s ability to listen, think, speak, write, read, spell, and do math. In addition to interfering with basic learning skills, a learning disability may also interfere with higher level learning skills, including organization, long or short-term memory, attention, impulsivity and time management.

A learning disability is not a learning problem stemming from visual, hearing, or motor deficits. Learning disabilities however often coincide with other neurological disorders, such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Learning disabilities often run in families, as they can have a genetic component. A learning disability is a lifelong obstacle; while children don’t “grow out of it,” they can learn skills to compensate for their learning disability. Early recognition, diagnosis, and getting proper help early on is key to your son or daughter’s academic success.

Types of Learning Disabilities:

Dyslexia – dyslexia is a learning disability that impacts a person’s ability to learn to read and interpret words, letters and other symbols. Because dyslexia affects reading comprehension, it is colloquially called a reading disability or reading disorder. Dyslexia is by far the most common type of learning disability affecting between 5% – 17% of students in the United States.

Dyscalculia – dyscalculia is a learning disability that affects a person’s ability to learn math facts, understand numbers, make calculations, and solve math problems. It is estimated that dyscalculia affects between 5% – 7% of students in the U.S.

Dysgraphia – dysgraphia is a learning disability that impacts a person’s fine motor skills and affects writing skills like handwriting, typing, and spelling. It is estimated that dysgraphia affects between 7% – 15% of students.

Processing Disorder – a processing disorder occurs when a person isn’t able to use all of the data collected by the senses.

Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) – students with auditory processing struggles can’t process what they hear the same way other people do. This can affect how they recognize and interpret sounds.

Language Processing Disorder (LPD) – Language Processing Disorder is a specific type of Auditory Processing Disorder. Students with a language disorder have extreme difficulty understanding and processing the speech and language they hear and have trouble expressing what they want to say.

Visual Processing Disorder – someone with a visual processing disorder struggles to interpret the visual information coming through their eyes. It is different from needing glasses since the eyes can work perfectly. The difficulty is how the brain processes the information coming through the eye.

Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities (NLD or NVLD) – Students with NVLD have trouble interpreting nonverbal cues like facial expressions or body language and may have poor coordination. This can happen when a person has strong verbal/language process abilities paired with visual-spatial processing abilities.

Other Struggles Related to Learning Difficulties

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) & Executive Functioning – while there is a lot of debate as to whether or not ADHD is a learning disability in the technical sense, there is no doubt that attention disorders impede learning. Between 5% – 11% of students have been diagnosed with ADHD.

Developmental Coordination Disorder (also known as Dyspraxia) – students with DCD are often called “clumsy” or “awkward” due to their poor general coordination and hand-eye coordination needed for everyday tasks. “By definition, children with DCD do not have an identifiable medical or neurological condition that explains their coordination problems.” Developmental Coordination Disorder occurs in 5% – 6% of children when there is a delay in motor skills development.

Memory Deficits – working memory, short-term memory and long-term memory are all crucial tools the brain utilizes in the learning process. If the brain encounters any problems when trying to store or retrieve information, it may be unable to process both verbal and non-verbal information.

It is important to recognize that learning disorders are not an intellectual disability. People with learning disabilities are not dumb, in fact, they are often extremely intelligent. Students with learning disabilities simply have brains that work differently than someone who doesn’t have the same learning problems.

Does My Child Have a Learning Disability? Know the Signs

The National Center for Learning Disabilities estimates that 1 in 5 children in the US have a learning disability. The first step in getting help for your child is recognizing the signs of a learning disability. The following are some signs to look for in your child’s behavior and cognitive performance:

Cognitive Signs of a Learning Disability:

  • Often spelling the same word differently in a single assignment
  • Trouble with open-ended questions on tests
  • Poor reading and language comprehension
  • Weak memory skills
  • Difficulty in adapting skills from one setting to another
  • Slow work pace
  • Difficulty grasping abstract concepts
  • Inattention to details
  • Excessive focus on details
  • Frequent misreading/misinterpretation of information
  • Trouble filling out applications or forms
  • Easily confused by instructions
  • Poor organizational skills
  • Mental health problems like depression or anxiety

Behavioral Signs of a Learning Disability:

  • Not wanting to go to school
  • Complaining about the teacher
  • Reluctance to engage in reading/writing activities
  • Saying the work is too hard
  • Not wanting to show you schoolwork
  • Avoiding assignments/homework
  • Saying negative things about his or her academic performance, such as: “I’m dumb”
  • Disobeying teacher’s directions
  • Frequent misreading/misinterpretation of information
  • Cutting class and skipping school (in adolescents and teens)
  • Bullying

If your son or daughter is displaying some of these cognitive or behavioral symptoms, it is time to take the next steps.

I Think My Child Has a Learning Disability. What Do I Do?

Once you suspect that your son or daughter has a disability and have recognized some signs of a learning disability in their behavior, it is time to take action:

1. Talk to Your Child’s Teacher about Your Concerns

Share your concerns with your child’s teacher; chances are, he or she may have noticed some of the same things you did. Use this opportunity to collect information about your child’s academic performance and communicate openly about your son or daughter’s performance.

2. Find Out about Pre-referral Services

Before you have your son or daughter formally evaluated by a psychologist, his or her school may have an established process for providing you and your son or daughter with support. Find out what your child’s school can do or is doing for your child.

3. Keep Diligent Records of Your Child’s Education

Keep your own notes on your child’s academic development and meetings with their school’s personnel. Additionally, be sure to add all communication about your child’s academic performance from the school: test scores, report cards, and written comments from teachers. Keeping your son or daughter’s academic records organized will help you and their educators monitor his or her progress and will be crucial for their evaluation.

4. Know Your Rights

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), you, as a parent, have a right to request a free, formal evaluation for your child. Once you make a formal request for evaluation, IDEA puts a set of legal requirements and procedures into motion for his or her school district.

5. Request for Formal Evaluation under IDEA

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) gives parents the right to request a free, formal evaluation of their child. If you decide to make a formal request for evaluation, ensure that you put your request in writing.

Your local school district is responsible for the IDEA-mandated formal evaluation, even if your son or daughter is home-schooled or enrolled in private school. If your child is referred for evaluation by their school, you will receive written notice of the referral and will need to give your consent in order to proceed with the evaluation.

Under IDEA, schools have several requirements once it has been established that your son or daughter will be evaluated by the school district. The law requires:

  • You will be given a copy of the “Procedural Safeguards Notice,” which outlines your legal rights to ensure that your child receives the services he or she needs. This document is extremely important; be sure to read it carefully and know your rights as a parent.
  • The school district is required to complete the evaluation within an established period of time; IDEA requires that the evaluation is conducted within 60 calendar days of receiving parental consent; however, timing guidelines may vary by states.
  • The law sets certain requirements for evaluations. The evaluation must use a variety of scientifically proven procedures, strategies, and tools to examine each area in which a disability is suspected.
  • The school must present you with the plan for your son or daughter’s evaluation before the evaluation begins.
  • As a parent, you have the right to object to certain assessments or tests. In addition, you have the right to request that additional assessments or tests are added to the plan.

You also have the option to have your child privately evaluated, as opposed to having an evaluation facilitated by the school; however, if you choose to go with a private evaluation, the school is not responsible for the cost. As the parent, you have the right to choose whether or not to share the results of a private evaluation with your child’s school.

After your son or daughter’s evaluation, the school is required to provide you with a copy of the evaluation report. It is very important to request a copy of the evaluation report in writing.

My Child Has a Learning Disability. Now What?

Some parents get discouraged upon finding out about their son or daughter’s diagnosis; however, many individuals who have a learning disability can succeed scholastically and professionally. The key to success is individualized instruction that is carefully targeted, well-delivered, and research-based.

In addition to individualized instruction, a strong support system and high expectation (of themselves and from others) are two key aspects to success. It is vital that, as a parent, you are an advocate for your son or daughter. In order to become an effective advocate for your son or daughter, you should become informed about their learning disability, their rights under the law, and ways to help him or her succeed.

What Laws Give My Child Educational Rights?

There are three federal statutes that you should familiarize yourself with. These laws guarantee your son or daughter’s access to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). The three federal laws include:

  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides special education services for public school students ages 3 to 21 who have disabilities; however, having a learning disability doesn’t automatically make a student eligible for special education. He or she must first go through an eligibility evaluation.
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a civil rights law prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities in programs and activities which receive federal funding.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that protects individuals with learning disabilities from discrimination in schools, the workplace, and other settings.

Once your child is formally diagnosed, he or she may receive an IEP or a 504 Plan; however, not all students who have disabilities require specialized instruction. Depending on your child’s diagnosis, he or she may receive a specialized plan.

What Is an IEP?

IEP stands for an Individualized Education Program. An IEP is required under IDEA for every student who receives special education services to make sure that each student receives individualized instruction and services. The IEP is written for each student by a team, which includes his or her parents, classroom teacher, special education teacher, school psychologist, and a school district representative who has authority over special education programs.

What Is a 504 Plan?

A 504 Plan is designed for students who have been diagnosed with a learning disability or an attention deficit who do not meet the eligibility requirements under IDEA. Since Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 has a more expansive definition of a learning disability than IDEA does, students who do not meet the criteria to qualify for an IEP may be eligible to receive accommodations under a 504 plan. Like an IEP, a 504 plan is also a plan written specifically for each student to ensure his or her success in the classroom.

What Is the Difference?

For students who do require specialized instruction, IDEA controls the requirements, and an IEP is developed for that student. The program document is in-depth and outlines the child’s present academic performance, annual academic goals, special services the child will receive, how the institution will track the goals, standardized testing protocol, accommodations, and modifications. The IDEA process requires documentation of measurable growth and specialized instruction.

504 plans are less involved and are designed for students who do not require specialized instruction. While a team of at least five or six people are required to develop an IEP, a 504 plan can be developed among the child’s parent(s) and teachers. They are designed to ensure the student receives equal access to public education and services. ​A document is usually created to outline their specific accessibility requirements and names of who will provide each requirement or accommodation.

Accommodations vs Modifications

Some parents get discouraged upon finding out that their child has been diagnosed with a learning disability; however, many individuals who have a learning disability can succeed scholastically and professionally. When children are diagnosed with a learning disability, parents can sometimes be overwhelmed by the educational options; depending on their diagnosis, a child could receive an IEP or a 504 plan. In addition, a child’s curriculum could have accommodations or modifications to meet his or her specific learning needs; but, what’s the difference? Here is an overview of accommodations vs modifications, and examples of how each could be applied to your son or daughter’s academic curriculum.

What Is an “Accommodation”?

Accommodations are instructional or test adaptations that allow the student to demonstrate what he or she knows without fundamentally changing the targeted skill being taught in the classroom or measured during testing sessions. Accommodations do not reduce performance expectations; they simply change the manner or setting in which the information is presented, or how the student will respond.

Generally, many accommodations can be grouped into five categories:

  • Timing: ex. giving extended time to complete a test item or task
  • Flexible scheduling: ex. giving two weeks, rather than one to complete a project
  • Accommodated presentation of material: material is presented for the student in a different manner than traditionally presented
  • Setting: ex. completing a task or test in a quiet room
  • Response accommodation: ex. allowing the student to respond orally to a written test

What Is a “Modification”?

Modifications are instructional or test adaptations that change the targeted skill and often reduce learning expectations. They may affect the content in such a way that what is being taught or assessed is fundamentally changed.

Modification may lower performance expectations by:

  • Reducing the number of items required
  • Reducing the complexity of the items or task required
  • Simplifying the material, including vocabulary, principles, and concepts
  • Changing the scoring rubric or grading scale

While parents can get wrapped up in the details of their child’s educational plan, it is important to remember that the key to your son or daughter’s success is individualized instruction that is carefully targeted, well-delivered, and research-based. Aside from individualized instruction, a strong support system and high expectations (of themselves and from others) are vital to ensuring that children with learning disabilities succeed academically.

How Can I Help My Child Succeed at Home?

There are many ways you can help your son or daughter succeed– aside from being involved with their education plan and progress. Here are some ways to help your child reach their full potential:

1. Educate Yourself about Your Child’s Learning Disability

Find out as much as you can about your child’s learning disability. Learn about what kinds of tasks will be difficult for your son or daughter, what resources are available to aid him or her in overcoming those obstacles, and what you can do to make learning easier for your child.

2. Use Your Child’s Strengths to His or Her Advantage

Search for indications of how your son or daughter learns best, paying special attention to his or her interests, talents, and skills. Use these strengths to help them learn in a way that is most enjoyable for them. For example, if your son or daughter has a hard time reading information, but can easily comprehend things when listening, take advantage of this. Allow your son or daughter to listen to a book on tape or watch a video to take in new information.

3. Use Media Constructively and Creatively

Television, videos, podcasts, and other forms of media can actually be learning tools. If you can help your son or daughter select valuable programming to watch or listen to, this can be a great use of time. By watching a video or listening to a podcast, your son or daughter can learn to carefully listen, focus, sustain attention, and increase their vocabulary.

4. Increase Your Child’s Self Confidence

It is important to foster and grow your son or daughter’s self-confidence and maintain high expectations for him or her. While it is vital not to underestimate him or her, it is also important not to set unrealistic expectations. Rather than focusing on his or her shortcomings, focus on his or her strengths. In addition, make sure books are on your son or daughter’s reading level. Many children with a learning disability are reading below grade level. Foster your child’s love of reading, while making sure they do not become frustrated by ensuring that he or she is reading books on an appropriate level.


If you suspect your son or daughter has a learning disability, the best thing you can do is to get them the help necessary to be successful. Recognizing, accepting, and understanding your son or daughter’s learning disability are the first steps to ensuring your son or daughter’s success.

Being an advocate for your son or daughter involves being involved in the testing process, knowing which laws your child is protected under, and helping your child succeed in and outside of the school environment.


Additional Resources

For additional resources on helping your child, please visit our website’s resource section: https://aspiroadventure.com/family-resources/suggested-reading/

This article is sponsored by Aspiro Adventure, the pioneer of Wilderness Adventure Therapy. Aspiro Adventure offers safe, effective, and clinically-sophisticated treatment options for adolescents and young adults with learning differences.

About Aspiro Adventure Therapy Program

Play Video

Aspiro Adventure’s Wilderness Adventure Therapy program was uniquely crafted to assist students and their families in creating lasting, life-long emotional changes through compassionate, intentional, research-backed, and safe outdoor adventure therapy programs. The professionals at Aspiro Adventure understand individuals don’t come with instructions, and every student is unique, capable, and amazing in their own right.

Aspiro Adventure focuses on helping adolescents, young adults, and their families through difficulties that occur when various behavioral, cognitive, or developmental issues are present. Research shows that engaging individuals on a personal level with strategic and intentional activities will aid in developing the tools and skills necessary to engage life in a healthy and positive way.

By Josh Watson, LCSW, CMO at Aspiro Adventure Therapy Program
  • Josh Watson, LCSW
    Josh Watson, LCSW

Motivating Teens & Young Adults: Over 65 Insights & Tips to Help Gifted Underachievers

Motivating Teens and Young Adults: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Gifted Underachievers Overcome Low Motivation and School Failure

In this article, we discuss motivating teens and young adults and provide an overview of the reasons some young people are unmotivated and underachieving in school. We focus on aiding these individuals who are experiencing academic failure by helping them work through a variety of challenges, including, but not limited to: anxiety, depression, family conflict, self-esteem issues, risky/harmful behaviors, substance abuse, and behavior issues.

This article is written for parents, teachers, school counselors, or anyone needing advice on where to turn to help a teen or young adult who is unmotivated, underachieving, or struggling in school.

Wilderness Therapy: A Remedy for Low Motivation, Underachievement, and School Failure

Some students experience trouble in school due to learning disabilities or a neurodevelopmental issue such as ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder. Other students, however, struggle in school due to a lack of motivation. It is not uncommon for teens and young adults who have typically earned good grades in the past to start underachieving in middle school, high school, or college.

While parents often attribute this lack of motivation to their child simply being “lazy” or unchallenged, a sudden change in academic performance can signify a deeper issue. When adolescents and young adults are struggling emotionally or psychologically, their grades can certainly be impacted.

What is Motivation?

“The term motivation refers to factors that activate, direct, and sustain goal-directed behavior… Motives are the ‘whys’ of behavior – the needs or wants that drive behavior and explain what we do. We don’t actually observe a motive; rather, we infer that one exists based on the behavior we observe” (Nevid, 2013).

Theories of Motivation:

Researchers in biology, psychology, and economics have all developed various theories to explain motivation.  Many of the theories separate motivation into two types:

  • Intrinsic motivation – behaviors are performed because of the innate or inherent sense of personal satisfaction that they bring.
  • Extrinsic motivation – behaviors are performed in order to receive something from others—such as praise, attention, or social status.

Unfortunately, no individual theory fully explains motivation and what drives behavior. However, by looking at the key ideas behind each theory, you can gain a better understanding of motivation as a whole (click on each theory to learn more):

The Drive Reduction Theory states that our behavior is driven to satisfy certain drives.  If our hunger grows strong enough, we are driven to take action to reduce the feeling and we eat something.

Arousal in this sense does not refer to sexual intimacy, but rather a state of being alert, awake, and attentive. In terms of motivation, Arousal includes pursuits that help them to feel a sense of fulfillment or accomplishment. People are motivated to engage in behaviors that help them maintain their optimal level of arousal, and depend on individual arousal levels:

  • low arousal levels – content to simply read a book
  • high arousal threshold – engaged in risk-seeking behaviors.
Humanistic Theories of Motivation states that people are motivated to fulfill basic biological needs for food and shelter, as well as those of safety, love, and esteem. Once the lower level needs have been met, the primary motivator becomes the need for self-actualization, or the desire to fulfill one’s individual potential.

Incentive Theory of Motivation says that behavior is primarily motivated by the incentive of extrinsic factors. In other words, people are motivated to do things because of external rewards or to avoid external consequences.

Expectancy theory of motivation says that when we are thinking about the future, we formulate different expectations about what we think will happen. When we predict that there will most likely be a positive outcome, we believe that we are able to make that possible future a reality. This leads people to feel more motivated to pursue those likely outcomes.

The Stages of Motivation: Identifying Where Motivation Breaks Down

If you can identify at which stage your teen’s motivation breaks down, you can better know how to intervene. In psychology there are three fundamental stages of motivation:

  • activation – the actual decision a person will make to begin a specific type of behavior.
  • persistence – the factor in which a person will continue moving forward with a specific and set goal, even when hurdles are thrown in their way.
  • intensity – how much concentration, focus, and energy is put into the pursuit of a specific goal.

Again, motivation is defined as, “a cause or reason to act, an inner urge that moves or prompts a person to action.” If you want to motivate a teen or young adult, you can either increase the reasons to act or decrease the reasons to not act in each of these stages. In order to increase reasons to act, it is helpful to know what is causing the lack of motivation.

Causes of Low Motivation and Academic Underachievement

When an otherwise bright and capable student starts to experience school troubles due to a lack of motivation, parents, teachers, and school counselors will often attribute this lack of motivation as “laziness” or “slacking off.” While, sometimes, poor grades are simply a reflection of a student’s apathy toward school, other times it can be a warning sign that your child is struggling with something bigger. Academic underachievement and low motivation in teens and young adults can be triggered by any of the following issues (click on each item to learn more):

Goals can de-motivate a teenager when their goals are not their own, but ones that have been set for them by authority figures.  These goals are something you want them to accomplish, but they may not be something they want for themselves. Their heart just isn’t in the effort.

If your son or daughter has grown up overly focused on pleasing others and living exclusively the life you have planned out for them, they will end up with NO IDEA what they want or even who they are.  It is important to give your teen as much autonomy as is appropriate, let them fail, let them succeed entirely on their own, and let them figure out who they are and what they want for their own lives.  Help them to find their WHY.

A fixed mindset is when your teen believes their capabilities are fixed.  They are either good at something or bad at something.  This mindset is easily identified by phrases like, “I’m not very creative,” or “I’m not very good at math.” When teenagers adopt a growth mindset, they learn that they may be bad at something right now, but with practice, they can improve and become “good” at something.

It is important for your teen to have goals that are challenging but not overwhelming. Goals that are too small don’t inspire motivation, but goals that are too big seem impossible to achieve.

As adolescents transition into their high school years, there is an increased pressure to perform well in school, get into college, play well in sports, do well on tests, etc. When high schoolers make the transition to higher education, there is the added pressure and responsibility of being on one’s own for the first time. Some students simply are not prepared for these added stressors, leading to an overwhelming feeling of anxiety, depression or low self-esteem. This can certainly hamper academic performance.

There are few things that are as demotivating as feeling obligated to accomplish goals that you think are impossible to achieve. There are a couple of common causes for feeling overwhelmed:

  • Lack of clarity: either on what the actual goal is or on what to do next to accomplish the goal. If this is the case, help your teen or young adult make SMART Goals. These are goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.
  • Lack of task, project, and self-management skills: your teen or young adult may not know how to break tasks and projects down into manageable chunks. Help them identify the different steps it will take to accomplish a goal, and then help your teen to put each step on a calendar so they know how much time & effort it will take to accomplish.
  • They lack the necessary knowledge & skills: Imagine if you had never played the piano and someone told you that you needed to give a performance at a recital in 3 days. Your teen or young adult may feel the same way about accomplishing their goals. They just don’t know how to do it.
  • Procrastination: some teens and young adults (especially those with ADHD) crave the intensity that a deadline provides. They get a rush when they put off study sessions until the night before a test, or submit a paper with just minutes to spare. These teens argue that they do their best work at the last minute. Unfortunately, teens are terrible at estimating how much time and effort a project will take. As they get older and projects get harder, this habit leads to a recurring feeling of being overwhelmed. Help your teenager better manage their time and energy & avoid this “motivation by disaster” habit.
  • They are simply exhausted: If your teenager is already a particularly high achiever, or even if they are simply unused to exerting a sustained effort, they may be experiencing burn out.

Parents can do too much planning and problem-solving for their teen or young adult. We all want our kids to succeed and avoid the sting of failure.  Our best intentions lead us to be overly involved in their school and extra-curricular activities, sometimes to the point of doing projects almost entirely for them.  When you make ALL of the decisions for your teen, it trains them to be comfortable feeling helpless, knowing that you will ALWAYS do it for them. Learn to support your son or daughter without doing things for them by teaching them to embrace the decision-making process, not run from it.  Give them control of their own life, but don’t make them feel like they have to navigate life on their own.  It’s a fine line and will take some practice, but you can learn how to empower and support at the same time. 

If your teenager or young adult never finishes anything, they may struggle with either the persistence or intensity stages of motivation. There are three common causes for this lack of grit:

  • Failure to experience success: If your son or daughter has never experienced that emotional reward of accomplishing something they’ve worked hard to achieve, they don’t know what they’re missing. Encourage them to stick with a smaller but difficult goal, and when they finally achieve it, make it a big deal and truly celebrate. As they build on that success and accomplish more difficult tasks, their self-confidence and ability to tolerate discomfort will grow over time.
  • Failure to experience consequences: This often happens either when parents shield their kids from life’s natural consequences or struggle to enforce consequences in their own family. It is important to let your teenager learn from failure.
  • Mental health struggles: sometimes, this could be indicative of depression, anxiety, or a learning difference like ADHD. If you think this may be the case, please consult a professional to have your teen tested.

Most parents don’t truly understand the power of their words and actions. Sometimes our efforts to “toughen up” teenagers or young adults or to help them see a key character flaw results in shame rather than motivation.

These teenagers and young adults often feel they have to be perfect and are afraid of never measuring up. To counter this, make sure you focus A LOT more on the positives than on the negatives. Research suggests that it is best to give positive feedback 5 times more than constructive criticism.

Lack of sleep, poor exercise and nutrition habits, and toxic relationships all contribute to low motivation.  Help your son or daughter get 7-8 hours of sleep each night, avoid junk food (especially energy drinks and sugary foods), and have them take a walk around the block every day.  In addition to helping their overall health and well-being, it will increase their motivation.

​When teens and young adults have low self-esteem and self-confidence, this is typically accompanied by low-performance standards for themselves. They don’t believe they can achieve what they’re striving for. What looks like laziness may be fear of failure, exposure, pressure or, most of all, the future. Even the brightest individuals with low self-esteem can believe themselves incapable of performing well in school. In order for your son or daughter to be motivated to accomplish anything, they must first believe it is possible for them to succeed.

In a strange phenomenon, these teens and young adults often become comfortable being unhappy. In fact, they become so comfortable being unhappy, that it can be uncomfortable for them to feel happy. They not only struggle to believe that they can accomplish something, whenever they do they can feel that they aren’t deserving of the accomplishment.

And because your teen or young adult is uncomfortable with happiness, they don’t trust it. They often seek out a more familiar feeling of emptiness and discouragement. In these scenarios, they are not only unmotivated to accomplish a goal, but they also tend to self-sabotage.

Teens and adults display signs and symptoms of depression very differently. An adult who is depressed is more likely to outwardly appear sad. Teens and young adults, however, may appear angry, irritable, or just apathetic. School failure can be indicative of unmanaged or undiagnosed depression in young people.

Anxiety disorders are some of the most common diagnoses in young people. Because anxiety symptoms are associated with impaired cognitive functions, including concentration, anxiety can–much like depression–appear not just as excessive worry, but fear of judgment, unwillingness to try new or previously engaged in tasks/assignments, irritability, anger, and physical symptoms such as frequent stomachaches and headaches. At times students might display apathy towards assignments, saying “I don’t care about school,” when really they are anxious about underperforming, being wrong, or being judged negatively by others.

Adolescents and young adults who are the targets of bullying can often experience feelings of social isolation, loneliness, anxiety, low self-esteem, and fear. These negative emotions can, in turn, lead to poor academic performance. In addition, since school is oftentimes the scene where bullying occurs, some victims will skip school altogether to avoid the conflict.

While many adolescents and young adults demonstrate a high level of maturity, most are not emotionally equipped to deal with major family conflict or trauma such as divorce, abuse, adoption issues, and similar situations. Some adults even have trouble dealing with these issues. Due to their inability to cope with the negative feelings associated with these situations, some will experience major anxiety and emotional turmoil that has the potential to hamper academic performance as well.

Grief is a hard emotion for anyone of any age to overcome. For adolescents and young adults who are less familiar with this emotion, the death of a family member, pet, friend, or peer can be overwhelming and hard to process. Young people may struggle to give it 100% in many aspects of their lives (relationships, jobs, sports, hobbies) after a loss, but the ramifications of failing in school are something that can follow them for some time.

When teens and adolescents start experimenting with drugs and alcohol, a drop in grades and a change in peer groups are usually two of the very first (and biggest) signs.

Because poor academic performance is often a reflection of emotional or psychological turmoil, parents shouldn’t simply dismiss bad grades or underachievement as their child being “lazy.” If you know your son or daughter isn’t living up to their potential, talk to him or her. Find out what’s going on. If you suspect that their underachievement may be simply the symptom of a more serious emotional or psychological issue, talk to his or her physician or mental health care provider.

Ways to Motivate Teens and Young Adults at Home

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The high school and college years are full of some major life changes for many students. Whether your “A student” has become a “C student” or your child is failing every class, academic underperformance and underachievement can be a sign of an internal struggle. There are, however, some ways you can help your child if he or she is struggling with academics. Here are the Do’s and Don’ts of helping an underachieving student who lacks motivation (click on each item to learn more):

Every individual is different. Comparisons to their siblings, classmates, or friends can be extremely detrimental to your child. Statements like, “Why can’t you get good grades like your sister?” or “Your friends all got A’s on their projects!?” simply aren’t helpful. Some parents will even compare their child’s academic performance to their own, “I loved history when I was in high school! I got an A.” This can make your child feel inferior to others and that they will never be good enough as a person. If your son or daughter is struggling with an emotional or psychological issue such as depression or low self-esteem, statements like these can exacerbate the problem.

In addition to making comparisons to others, if your child is experiencing emotional or psychological turmoil, criticizing your child’s efforts can simply exacerbate the problem. Avoid labels like, lazy and unmotivated. Rather than criticizing, seek to understand their difficulties, help them know you see the good in them as a person. In addition, ask how you can help. “Do you need to drop an after-school activity to have more time for homework? Would a quiet working space help? How about after-school tutoring or lessons?” Limit arguing and lecturing, yelling never helps, discussing does.

When your child does perform well academically, make sure to praise each step in the right direction. Whether they aced their big midterm or improved their grade on an assignment, positive reinforcement is a significant motivator. In addition, it is vital to challenge any negative statements about him or herself. For example, if you child states that he or she failed a test “Because I’m so stupid,” simply remind them that, “You didn’t do well for the test, it’s not the end of the world. Let’s talk to your teacher to see how you can improve for next time.”

Chances are if you have noticed your child’s waning academic performance, so has his or her teacher. Reaching out to school staff to notify them of your child’s struggles will help to ensure that they don’t slip through the cracks. In addition, your child’s teacher being more aware of the situation means it is more likely that they will know to notify you if he or she skips class or fails a major project or test.

If your child is having troubles in school, have him or her screened for a learning disability or neurodevelopment issue (such as ADHD) to rule that out as a possible culprit behind his or her waning academic performance. While many individuals are diagnosed as children, over 60 percent of adults with literacy problems have an undiagnosed learning disability. In addition, some students with ADHD (and in particular predominantly Inattentive ADHD) aren’t diagnosed (and therefore do not receive help) until the high school, college, or adult years.

​Depression and anxiety rob teens and emerging adults of the desire and energy to progress. If you suspect your son or daughter is struggling with depression or anxiety, please see a therapist or medical professional. If depression and anxiety are severe enough, you may need to consider a treatment program like wilderness therapy.

The goal of motivating teens and young adults is to get them to eventually be able to live independently and strive to achieve life’s goals without you pushing them. You can mold intrinsic motivation once you learn details about what fuels your teenager or young adult. Here are some ways to help your son or daughter develop internal or intrinsic motivation and not rely on external or extrinsic motivation.

  • Use incentives carefully Avoid external rewards and punishments as much as possible.  Research shows that external rewards can actually decrease intrinsic motivation.  External rewards, praise, punishment, etc. can be very effective, but there is a better way.  Help your son or daughter recognize their natural feelings of accomplishment after completing a task.  Or encourage them to study a subject that already fascinates them.
  • Recognize efforts and achievements – Celebrate your son or daughter’s effort and don’t focus solely on traits or outcomes.  This helps develop motivation for the process and the grit to tolerate the discomfort that may come as they work towards achieving a goal.
  • Celebrate strengths – You will find it is much easier to develop intrinsic motivation in your child if you focus on what they are good at and stop dwelling on what there are not good at.  If your son or daughter loves art and despises math, help nurture that creativity.  Or if they prefer biology to English, go with it. Your child has unique gifts, talents, and interests.  Teaching young people to discover their gifts and talents helps develop motivation.
  • Play video games – This may seem counterintuitive but playing video games teaches teens and young adults to put in consistent and sometimes prolonged effort to accomplish a goal.  Just make sure you set limits around playing video games.

As your child transitions to adulthood, it is important that you give them as much opportunity to practice independence as possible.  This applies to motivation as well.  Here is how you can start to put your teen or young adult in the driver’s seat:

  • Reflect on your own motivations – in looking for ways to motivate your teen or young adult, it’s important to reflect on the origins of the goal you want them to achieve.  Is it something they chose to accomplish or is it something you chose for them?
  • Let your child state his or her own goals – when you let your son or daughter have a say in which goals to pursue, it helps them to take ownership of the goal. 
  • Leverage their radical self-interest – help your teen or young adult answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”  Once you help them understand the benefits that come from living a goal-centered life, they will be more open to practicing their motivation.
  • Expand their vision of the future ­– sometimes it is hard for teenagers and young adults to imagine that anything can be more important than what is going on in their lives at this very moment.  Help them develop motivation by painting a picture of what life could be like 2, 5, or 10 years into the future.  Once they catch the vision, the motivation to act today comes much more easily.
  • Make it achievable – previously we talked about how demotivating it is when your son or daughter feels like there is no way to accomplish a goal.  Avoid that overwhelming feeling by making sure everyone agrees on the end goal, the steps it will take to accomplish the goal, and the time frame. 
  • Don’t move the goal post – Once the goal is set, stick to it.  Don’t change the goal halfway through.  If goals are always changing, your son or daughter may feel like it is impossible to achieve them and lack of motivation to keep trying.
  • Seek out sources of inspiration – Dreaming motivates everyone, including teens and young adults.  One of the best ways to find a dream or goal is to be inspired by something.  When we see other people accomplish amazing things, it helps us expand our self-perception of what we are capable of.  Connect your teen or young adult with positive mentors and role models to help lift their motivation.  Take them to an art gallery, a concert, a sports game, watch an inspirational movie, or host an Olympics party.  Enroll them in sports, send them to robotics camp, or join an outdoor adventure group–Anything that will get positive mentors and inspiration in your child’s life.  
  • Encourage them to journal journaling helps teens and young adults understand their own thoughts and feelings.  It can be their sounding board just to get everything out of their head so it is easier to examine and challenge when needed.
  • Challenge the negative voices in their head – Everyone has a voice in their head telling them to play it safe and to not take too many risks.  Sometimes this voice can be negative, telling your son or daughter that they aren’t good enough, strong enough, or talented enough to accomplish their dreams.  It is safer to just spend the foreseeable future on your couch and not try anything too daring.  Ask your teenager about the negative beliefs they have about themselves and together develop a plan so that both of your actions challenge those negative voices and beliefs.

Maintaining a solid connection with your teen or young adult helps facilitate motivation. Here are some ways you can build your relationship and provide “motivation through involvement.”

    • Empathize – put yourself in their shoes.  Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.  Resolve any problems once you truly understand what’s going on with your teen or young adult.
    • Quantity over quality – It’s important for you to be there for the special moments and celebrations in your child’s life.  It is also important for you to support them through the boring, tedious, or uneventful moments as well.  The uneventful, but consistent relationship building provides a foundation for your child to practice being an adult and then come back to tell you about it.
    • Be Mindful Pay attention to what is going on in your child’s life.  What are their patterns, what do they get excited about, what are their friendships like?  If it is hard to find the time to talk, see if you can set up a regular date night or a scheduled hang out with your kid.  Go do something fun and show genuine interest in what is happening in their life.
  • Communicate Encourage communication that is clear, sincere and open by using the EAR method:
    • Encourage Ask open-ended questions and validate your son or daughter’s feelings.
    • Affirm You can show you understand without agreeing. “I know it’s not easy for you to talk about this,”
    • Reflective Listening  Repeat what you heard in your own words to show that you get it.

If you encounter resistance when trying to motivate your child, try the Stop, Drop and Roll strategy created by psychologists Sylvie Naar-King and Mariann Suarez:

      • Stop and evaluate – Is your son or daughter escalating, blaming, stonewalling?
      • Drop your current approach
      • Roll with the resistance – Make a statement that shows you get it, quit for now and try another approach later.
  • Listen to them Practice motivational interviewing by asking open-ended questions about your son or daughter’s life and truly listen to the response. Fight your urge to comment or advise. Ask them what they are feeling and strive to connect and validate those feelings.
  • Always follow-through Teach by example and make sure you always keep your promises and commitments, including holding boundaries and implementing consequences. If you have a hard time remembering, try using a “contract” with your son or daughter.  Outline what each of you commit to and what the expected outcomes will be.

There are 4 common parenting styles: Authoritarian, Permissive, Uninvolved, and Authoritative.  Authoritative parents create positive relationships with their kids while still setting boundaries and enforcing rules.  Here are some authoritative parenting strategies that can help increase motivation in your teen or young adult.

  • Focus on having influence, not control – One of the hardest realizations for any parent is to recognize the only person they can control is themselves.  Instead of demanding that your son or daughter comply with your rules and using punishments and bribes to get them to obey, try to influence them instead. Instead of telling them to do something, take the time to explain why it is important, discuss all their options, and talk about the potential consequences of their choices.  Imagine they are on a jury and you are a lawyer.  You can’t force them to make a certain decision, but you can make your case.
  • Joint problem-solving – Include your son or daughter in the decision-making process as often as you can.  It’s okay to let them know that you don’t have all the answers.  Simply state the problem and see if you can come up with a solution together. In doing so, you give them the respect they desperately seek and show them you are on their side.
  • Hold boundaries and follow through on consequences While you should include your teen or young adult when setting boundaries and deciding on consequences, it is up to you to hold those boundaries and follow through on consequences.  Doing so can actually help your teen or young adult feel secure, knowing that their home foundation isn’t going to shift depending on your mood or how badly they act out.
  • Help them remember – Use planners, checklists, external timers, and visible reminders to help your son or daughter remember their goals and track their progress.  This keeps goals and projects top of mind and helps keep them on track. It will also help you avoid nagging.
  • Stick to a bedtime routine free of electronics – As mentioned above, lack of sleep is a huge motivation killer.  Set a consistent time for you all to go to sleep, and together as a family, turn off your electronics at least an hour before.
  • Provide regular drug tests ­ 75% of high school students today have used addictive substances.  By regularly drug testing your teen or young adult, it gives them an easy reason to refuse invitations to use drugs & alcohol.
  • Share the responsibility provide opportunities for your teen or young adult to have control and make positive choices in their life.  Give them chores to do or have them cook dinner once a week.  Teach your teen or young adult how to accomplish a task and share the joy of doing something well.

When trying to motivate teens and young adults, it is important to focus on the process, not just the final outcome.  Think about a basketball team; if a coach only focused on what happened in the game, the team wouldn’t win very many games.  Rather, coaches provide guidance and direction during practice so that each player’s ability is well honed by game time.  Here are ways you can focus on the journey:

  • Allow small failures  Failure is an important part of learning.  You want to save your son or daughter from repeating your mistakes, but at the same time are you preventing them from learning the lessons that shaped who you are?  Let them learn from failure.  As they fail in small & safe ways, their learning grows until they are able to master what they are working on.
  • Don’t rescue them Allow your son or daughter to work out problems on their own first.  If they ask for help, don’t just give them the solution, but teach them how you came up with the solution.  Empower them so they can do things on their own next time.
  • Give them permission to not have it all figured out in high school – Don’t worry if they don’t know what they will do when they leave school.  The General Ed requirements in college are designed to expose young adults to a wide variety of subjects in order to help them find their passions.  And most people change careers three or more times in their life.  It’s a process.  What’s important is that they just start and try different interests.  The worst thing for them is if they stay paralyzed by fear or shame because they think they should have life all figured out.
  • Don’t make excuses – if your son or daughter is struggling in life or school, don’t shield them from consequences with excuses.  While you may be trying to shield them from pain or criticism, you may be conveying that you don’t believe they are capable.  Let your teen or young adult fail.  Let them experience the pain of the failure.  Validate that feeling and let them know that you believe they will succeed if they keep trying.
  • Never give up – in addition to letting your teenager or young adult fail, it is okay to give yourself permission to not have it all figured out as well.  Not everything you try is going to work.  That is okay, as long as you don’t give up.  If one of these tips doesn’t work, keep trying until you find something that does.  And please remember it is okay to seek help from a professional.  Therapists and treatment programs help teens & young adults find motivation everyday.

Practice using humor whenever you are frustrated.  It can change your whole family’s attitude. See if you can gamify homework and the learning process. Turn chores into a race or make cooking dinner into a singing competition.  Do whatever best fits your family but make things fun.

Options to Aid Academic Underachievers

As discussed previously, when otherwise bright and capable students are displaying waning academic performance, it can be a result of an unresolved emotional or psychological issue. Once they have ruled out the possibility of a learning disability or neurodevelopmental issue, many parents are unsure of where to turn. While every individual is different, here are some possible options to help your child:


If your child is having a hard time adjusting, a good first step in helping him or her is academic mentoring/tutoring. Some students who have done well in grade school and middle school are not used to having to study and work hard to maintain good grades. Enrolling your child in tutoring or mentoring sessions will help with any deficits in his or her studying habits, learning style, organizational skills, and note-taking strategies.


If you suspect that your child’s waning academic performance is likely due to an unresolved psychological or emotional struggle, he or she may not feel comfortable talking with you about it. And that’s okay. However, these issues need to be addressed to avoid further disruptions in his or her academic development. Your child’s guidance counselor or physician may be a good starting point since he or she is likely familiar with your child. If they suspect that your child needs further assistance, they will be able to point you in the direction of a credible educational consultant or mental health professional.

Treatment Programs

Sometimes when psychological or emotional issues are present and talk therapy isn’t enough, a treatment program may be the best option for your son or daughter. While no parent ever wants to send their child away from home to receive assistance, it may be worth exploring the benefits of residential treatment. One type of treatment program that has proven especially effective at helping teens and young adults through difficult situations is wilderness therapy. The disadvantages of treatment–absence from school, separation from family and friends–are short-term, but the benefits to participants have the potential to last a lifetime.

Should I Interrupt My Child’s School Year for Treatment?

When your child is performing poorly in school, it may seem counterintuitive to pull him or her out for mental health treatment. However, if an unresolved psychological or emotional issue is the reason behind your son or daughter’s struggles in school, it may be the best way to get him or her back on track. If left unresolved, their poor academic performance could result in the following:

  • Falling further behind in school
  • Increased risk of engaging in high-risk behaviors (i.e., substance abuse, promiscuity, suicide)
  • Resentment towards and disengagement from family and healthy support groups
  • Not getting into a good college, university, or graduate program
  • Further detriment to his or her self-esteem
  • Hampering his or her chances at a successful career

In addition, if left unresolved, mental health issues or emotional turmoil could become exacerbated and can cause many problems in a young person’s life, including:

  • Developing maladaptive coping mechanisms to deal with stress or negative emotions that will be more difficult to address later in life
  • Isolation from one’s family and/or peers
  • Increased likelihood for mental health problems later in life

Making the choice to send your child away for residential treatment is difficult, as it will interrupt your life and theirs. The type of intervention provided by residential treatment and, in particular, wilderness therapy may be best executed over several months, and that means that your child will miss school.

The most reputable wilderness therapy programs partner with accredited educational certification programs to ensure that credits are provided and that they will transfer successfully when your teen goes back to school. Earning at least some academic credits while also working through mental health issues may be the ideal situation for your child.

How Wilderness Therapy Addresses Low Motivation and Academic Underachievement

Promotes Self Esteem, Identity Development, and Self Concept

According to Keith C. Russell, a leading wilderness therapy researcher, completing a wilderness therapy program can help to remedy deficits in self-esteem. The strong sense of accomplishment upon completion “is combined with physical health and well-being, which may help clients feel better about themselves, leading to increases in self-esteem and the first steps towards personal growth.”(Russell 2001) In addition, Russell argues that, “An enhanced self-concept represents a sense of empowerment and resiliency.”(Russell 2001)

Mark Widmer, a leading researcher in recreation and adventure therapy, echoes the importance of identity development during the wilderness therapy process. According to Widmer, “Organized activities appear to provide an ideal context for the promotion of positive identity development.” (Widmer 2009)

Provides a Strong Sense of Accomplishment for Teens

A major aspect of the success of wilderness therapy in aiding teens and young adults who are underperforming academically is the strong sense of accomplishment upon completion. Russell states that “completing a wilderness therapy program represents a sense of accomplishment for the client that is concrete and real and can be used to draw strength from in the future.” (Russell 2001) That strength will prove useful in overcoming future obstacles in your teen’s life.

Aids in Self Efficacy

When young people complete a wilderness therapy program with a strong sense of accomplishment, this, in turn, can help lead to higher levels of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief that one can accomplish difficult things. Adolescents and young adults believe that “If I completed all of these difficult tasks during wilderness therapy, I can do other difficult things!”

According to Russell, “Clients leave wilderness therapy knowing that they have only just begun the journey and need to continue their own personal growth process.” Higher levels of self-efficacy are linked to greater motivation, positive thinking skills, and lower vulnerability to stress and depression in teens.

Additional Resources on Motivating Teens

  • Duerden, Widmer, Taniguchi, McCoy, J. Kelly “Adventures in identity development: The impact of a two-week adventure program on adolescent identity development”, Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, Edition 4, Volume 9, Issue 4, Pages 341-359, 2009.
  • Legault, L., Green-Demers, I., & Pelletier, L. (2006). Why do high school students lack motivation in the classroom? Toward an understanding of academic amotivation and the role of social support. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 567–582.
  • Russell, Keitth C., (2001) “What is Wilderness Therapy?” The Journal of Experiential Education, Vol. 24, 70-79 http://www.pps.k12.or.us/files/tag/Characteristics.pdf

About Aspiro Adventure Therapy Program

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This article was sponsored by Aspiro Adventure, the pioneer of Wilderness Adventure Therapy. Aspiro Adventure offers safe, effective, and clinically-sophisticated treatment options for adolescents and young adults.

Aspiro’s Wilderness Adventure Therapy program was uniquely crafted to assist students and their families in creating lasting, life-long emotional changes through compassionate, intentional, research-backed, and safe outdoor adventure therapy programs. The professionals at Aspiro Adventure understand individuals don’t come with instructions, and every student is unique, capable, and amazing in their own right.

Aspiro Adventure focuses on helping adolescents, young adults, and their families through difficulties that occur when various behavioral, cognitive, or developmental issues are present. Research shows that engaging participants on a personal level with strategic and intentional activities will aid in developing the tools and skills necessary to engage life in a healthy and positive way.

Written by:

  • Josh Watson, LCSW
    Josh Watson, LCSW

Parenting an Angry Teen: A Proven Guide

How to Parent an Angry Teen: Proven Tips to Help Parents

The teenage years are a challenging time for any parent. Teenagers can be notoriously moody, reckless, and unpredictable. However, for parents of teens with defiance anger issues, these years can be especially difficult. Many parents of angry teens worry about their son or daughter’s whereabouts or may fear when they will have their next episode or bout of rage. While many troubled teens with anger issues require professional treatment, there are several steps parents can take to help manage their teen’s anger. With proper support and treatment from both inside and outside the home, teens can learn new ways to manage their feelings and find success and happiness in life.

This article is intended to be a resource for parents, guardians, and teachers of teenage girls and boys struggling with anger, disrespect, and defiance. We will provide an overview of anger and defiance in teens, signs that your angry child’s bad behavior is out of control, how parents can help manage their teen’s anger, and discuss wilderness therapy as treatment.

Anger in Teens: A Phase or a Problem?

The behavior of teens with anger and defiance issues exhibit extend far beyond the typical disrespectful behaviour, eye-rolling, slammed doors, and arguments between teen and their parent. Anger is a normal part of adolescence and can be a healthy emotional response to outside stressors.

Anger is a secondary emotion for teens as it often masks other underlying issues including sadness, hurt, fear, and shame. When these underlying emotions become too much, a teen will often respond by lashing out. Because adolescence can be stressful, most teens will lash out from time to time. However, for teens with anger issues, emotional outbreaks are a regular occurrence.

Teens with serious anger issues are consumed with anger. These individuals can be defiant and may turn to violence, self-harm, risky behavior, and illegal activity as a way to cope with their strong emotions. They may lash out with anger in response to outside stressors or an untreated or undiagnosed mental disorder. In the sections below, we will define common causes of teen defiance and the behaviors and patterns that fall outside of normal.

Angry Teenager Causes and Contributing Factors

There are many factors that can contribute to anger issues and defiance in teens. Every teen’s emotional regulation skill set, capacity, and maturity is different. Some teens simply need more help in learning how to healthily manage their emotions and cope with stress. Other teens experience intense anger as a symptom of a mental health issue, traumatizing life experience, or simply from the stress and pressures of adolescence. Some of these common triggers of severe anger in teens include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Victim of bullying or persistent & unhealthy peer pressure
  • Conflict within the family
  • Traumatic event
  • Death of a loved one
  • Adoption issues
  • Substance abuse
  • Divorce
  • Abuse
  • Grief

In addition to the above list, an unresolved issue such as teen depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) can contribute to anger issues in teens. These disorders often impact social skills, self-control, and impulse control which results in a child being more prone to having angry outbursts.

10 Warning Signs Your Teen’s Anger Is Out of Control

If a parent is concerned about the level of anger and defiance a teen is exhibiting, the first step is understanding what is normal teen behavior and which behaviors may indicate a more serious issue. If your teen is exhibiting one or more of the following behaviors, they likely have anger issues that require external help.

  • Physical aggression or violence
  • Excessive arguing with parents, siblings, teachers, and/or peers
  • Regular emotional outbursts that may include yelling, screaming, or lashing out
  • Irrational thinking and behavior
  • Bullying
  • Verbal threats
  • Cruel behaviors to people or animals
  • Criminal activity
  • Destroying property
  • Self-harm

Any of the above behaviors are a red flag that your teen’s anger issues require professional treatment, in addition to parental support. If your teen’s anger extends beyond normal response to outside stressors and exhibits one or more of the above behaviors, the next step is to lay a parenting plan in place and consult with his or her physician.

8 Ways Parents Can Help Their Angry Teen

While parenting a defiant or angry teenager is extremely draining for parents, there are several key steps parents can take to help ease the contention and strain within home. Teenagers lack the emotional maturity and stability and therefore significantly rely on their parents to give them the help and direction they need.

It is essential that parents do the best they can to love and support their child while still keeping in mind that they cannot control their teen’s emotions or actions. The best thing empowering parents can do is provide their teen with proper support within the home and seek appropriate external treatment to help the teen learn how to manage his or her feelings.

1. Create Boundaries and Expectations for Your Teen

Defiant and angry teens need clear rules that are tied to a clear consequence when he or she breaks the rule. Establish these rules and expectations during a calm time. Have a conversation with your teen so they know what to expect when the said rules are broken. Explain to your teen that these rules are to help keep him or her safe and free from harm. Express your love for your child. Even angry teens want to know that their parents love and care about them.

2. Talk to Your Teen

Parents of angry teens may find it difficult to talk and communicate with their child through the outburst and contention. During times of peace or once a teen has calmed down from their outburst, parents should try and talk to their teen about what is really bothering them. If the teen is willing to speak or share, do not judge or try and correct your teen. Simply listen to him or her without becoming angry.

3. Encourage a Healthy Lifestyle

Encourage a healthy lifestyle of physical exercise, healthy eating, and proper sleep. Creating a healthy lifestyle routine for your teen helps fosters good behavior in children and teens. This includes setting regular mealtimes and bedtimes, a set time to check-in with your teen, and regular exercise.

Most of all, make sure your teen gets enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can increase stress, mood swings, irritability, and can also cause problems with weight, memory, concentration, and decision-making. All teens should get between 8-10 hours of sleep. To achieve this, many parents find it helpful having teens turn in their electronics two hours before bedtime to eliminate distractions.

4. Limit Technology Use

Parents should not just limit technology at bedtime. The overuse of technology, social media, or screen time is unhealthy for any teen. Too much screen time can not only adversely affect your child’s sleep, it can also lead to irritability. Parents must monitor their teen’s technology use to ensure they are not consuming violent tv shows, video games, movies, and music as they increase the likelihood of outbursts and violent behavior.

5. Encourage Your Teen to Find a Hobby

Hobbies can help teens manage their negative emotions. Adults should encourage their son or daughter to participate in a hobby that will serve as an outlet for anger. This includes anything from sports, weight lifting, journaling, music, yoga, mindfulness & meditation, cooking, art, and horseback riding.

6. Set a Good Example for Your Teen

One of the best ways parents can teach their teen healthy coping patterns and emotional regulation is by example. When your teen starts to feel angry, make sure you display healthy and appropriate responses and that you stay as calm and as rational as possible, even when your teen is extremely difficult and defiant.

7. Have Reasonable Expectations for Your Teen

Perfection from teens is not reasonable. A teenager’s brain is continually developing and changing until about the mid-’20s. Therefore, a teen’s brain will process information much differently, including the way a teen manages their emotions and make decisions. Hormones can further complicate things. While these factors should not serve as an excuse for bad behavior, it is important parents keep these biological differences in mind.

In many ways, teens are still learning, and consequences provide learning experiences to help their brain and judgment develop. Parents of angry teens should maintain age-appropriate expectations for their teen and nothing more. For help in knowing what is reasonable to expect, see neuropsychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel’s book, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain.

8. Spend Quality Time with Your Teen

Every child wants to be unconditionally loved and accepted by their parents, even when they do not show it. Take the time to spend quality time with your teen doing an activity they enjoy. During this time, just focus on loving, validating, and being positive about your teen and their strengths. Reassure them how much you love them both in word and in deed. Even if a teen is angry or negative towards you, deep down they are likely feeling unlovable and insecure. Give your teen your undivided attention to reassure them that you love and care.

Don’t get frustrated if your teen resists your efforts. Just continue trying. Remember, the objective is to simply build a relationship with your teen and support them in the ways they need it most.

Wilderness Therapy as Treatment for Anger in Teens

While the support parents provide to their child at home is incredibly important, severe cases of teen anger require more intensive treatment. The best thing parents can do for their son or daughter is to provide them with the professional help they need. It is important that teens learn healthy coping mechanisms now, so their anger does not consume them or hinder them in their adult life. To achieve this, many parents turn to wilderness therapy.

Researcher Keith C. Russell defines wilderness therapy as “Utilizing outdoor adventure pursuits and other activities, such as primitive skills and reflection, to enhance personal and interpersonal growth.” A credible wilderness therapy program will teach a defiant teen how to manage their anger from a loving and experienced clinical team in a therapeutic wilderness setting. These two factors, among others, enable wilderness therapy to help teens with anger issues in a way that talk therapy cannot.

"My life is amazing. Aspiro has changed everything. I now know how to climb every mountain. Thank you Aspiro for making me realize so much about my life and how to deal with anger."

– Brian, a former student at Aspiro

A Therapeutic Wilderness Setting for Teens with Anger Issues

Wilderness therapy for teens utilizes the natural benefits of the outdoors to help angry teens heal and grow. Studies show that simply being outdoors has mental health benefits. In addition, the new and novel environment of wilderness therapy is ideal for establishing new patterns and ways of coping in defiant teens.

Wilderness Adventure Therapy Promotes Healthy Habits for Teens with Anger Issues

A credible wilderness adventure therapy program provides regular opportunities for teens to learn how to cope with anger, develop problem-solving skills, and establish healthier patterns and behaviors. A credible wilderness therapy program will create a schedule so that participants participate in regular exercise, receive good nutrition, and healthy sleep. These provide angry teens with a healthy mind and body that will be more receptive to learning new patterns.

Wilderness Therapy Strengthens Social Skills in Teens with Anger Issues

The therapeutic group experience of wilderness therapy helps teens with anger issues refine their social skills. Angry teens often feel misunderstood, but wilderness therapy allows them to connect with other teens who are facing similar issues. These daily interactions in a variety of situations can greatly improve a defiant teen’s interpersonal skills.

Wilderness Therapy Provides Angry Teens with Personalized and Specialized Help

A credible wilderness therapy program will support the teen with a caring and professional team of therapists and field staff to support the teen’s journey. Wilderness therapy participants are able to learn healthy ways to cope with anger from an experienced therapist who specializes in working with troubled teens. The clinical team of a credible wilderness adventure therapy program are trained to get the bottom of a teen’s anger issues and provide them with the exact tools they need to work through it.

Wilderness Therapy Teaches Defiant Teens Cause and Effect

Wilderness adventure therapy utilizes “in the moment” or experiential therapy, so students can see, feel, and touch what they are learning. Assessing the hidden emotions behind the anger makes them easier to reach and understand. Experiential therapy is especially effective for teens with anger issues as it helps them take responsibility for their actions and learn about consequences.

Instead of lecturing teens about their anger and poor decisions, wilderness therapy utilizes natural consequences to demonstrate cause and effect in a very real and immediate way. For example, if a teen chooses not to build their tent or if they do not build it properly, they will get wet when it rains and sleep horribly. Such experiences teach a teen that they their choices have consequences that only they are responsible for.

Wilderness Therapy Gives Teens with Anger Issues Self-Confidence

Wilderness therapy puts teens with anger issues in situations that allow them to feel confidence and success in a variety of different environments. Participating in adventure activities like mountain biking, rappelling, and hiking, teens are able to achieve things they never thought they could do. In turn, they become more confident and positive individuals who know they can overcome hard things. This self-confidence is key for teens who experience anger since confidence is linked to positive thinking skills as well as a lower vulnerability to stress and depression.

If you decide wilderness therapy is the best option for your teen with anger issues, it is important that you do your research to ensure you are selecting a credible wilderness therapy program for your teen.

How Parents Can Support Their Angry Teen Through Wilderness Therapy

Even when a teen is away at wilderness therapy, they still need love and support from their parents. Continue to strengthen and improve the relationship you have with your son or daughter by sending letters and calling them. Let them know you are there for them and that you are always available to listen.

After addressing necessary issues, focus on the future without shaming them for past choices. Allow your child to share their experiences and growth without judging. Parents should also keep the lines of communication open with their teen’s therapists, so they stay informed and current about their teen’s progress and what they are currently working through. Staying informed and involved with your teen’s treatment program is vital to his or her success.

While your teen is away, continue learning about your teen’s issues and diagnosis. Consider your teen’s situation and learn more about how to help. Doing so will not only help you better understand your teen but will also help you know how you can best help your teen after treatment.


While some parent-teen conflict is normal during the teenage years, there comes a point where anger turns from an emotional response to a level of constant contention that must be addressed promptly. This process can be extremely draining, difficult, and heartbreaking for parents.

No matter how hopeless a parent may feel, and no matter how much turmoil you and your teen are facing, with proper care and support, things can and will get better. A credible wilderness therapy program can provide your child with healthier coping patterns, confidence, and the tools they need to manage their anger and find joy and success in life.

About Aspiro Adventure Therapy Program

Aspiro Adventure Wilderness Adventure Therapy program was uniquely crafted to assist students and their families in creating lasting, life-long emotional changes through compassionate, intentional, research backed, and safe outdoor adventure therapy programs. The professionals at Aspiro Adventure understand individuals don’t come with instructions, and every student is unique, capable, and amazing in their own right.

Aspiro Adventure focuses on helping adolescents, young adults, and their families through difficulties that occur when various behavioral, cognitive, or developmental issues are present. Research shows that engaging individuals on a personal level with strategic and intentional activities will aid in developing the tools and skills necessary to engage life in a healthy and positive way.

By Josh Watson, LCSW, CMO at Aspiro Adventure Therapy Program
  • Josh Watson, LCSW
    Josh Watson, LCSW

How to Develop Grit: Perseverance And Passion For Long-term Goals

how-to-develop-grit Perseverance And Passion For Long-term Goals

We all want our kids to grow up and be healthy, thriving, independent young adults. One of the primary indicators of whether our kids will thrive after leaving home is something called grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals.

Below, we’ll discuss:

  1. What is grit?
  2. What are the benefits of grit?
  3. How to develop grit?

What is Grit Exactly?

So, what is grit anyway? I think it’s something that we’ve heard a lot about maybe the last 10 or 15 years or so. Ivy League professor and best-selling author, Angela Duckworth, defined grit “as the combination of perseverance and passion toward long-term goals.” Grit is when you’re able to harness the power of passion and turn it into resolve, persistence, stamina, and tenacity, working toward goals that endure over time. In short, grit is: consistent. hard. work.

Examples of grit are someone:

  • developing a hobby or interest
  • learning to play a musical instrument like the piano
  • learning to dance or play a sport.
  • working toward graduating high school or college.

Grit shouldn’t be mistaken as short bursts of intense energy. It isn’t grit if a student was able to finish a school project over the weekend. They may have worked for hours and hours, the project was amazing, and they earned a great grade. That’s great work, but different than grit. Grit strives to delay gratification until your child’s goals are achieved. It is a mindset, a focus on consistent effort over long periods of time perfecting your craft. Grit is a willingness to embrace the daily grind in order to achieve long-term goals.

Grit is a little different than IQ which tends to be a little bit more fixed. Grit is something that actually can be developed, harnessed, taught, and most certainly improved throughout the course of someone’s life.

Benefits of Developing Grit

There are two benefits that come to mind when I think about developing grit. The first thing that stands out for me, is that grit prepares and conditions us for long-term success. That can be carried over into graduating college, career development, family relationships.

A second natural benefit is that grit absolutely can overcome talent deficiencies. However, it is on rare occasions that I’ve seen that talent can overcome grit deficiencies.

Here are a couple of examples of how grit may apply. Let’s say someone struggles with some academic learning, you may have a child that really struggles in that way. So what grit can teach is the ability to figure out things like: taking notes is really hard, how do I figure out how to study 50 pages for an exam? How do I take out the themes or highlight the points? And then I can continue to improve and get better at those particular tasks and develop a growth mindset that will take me through high school or college graduation and prepare me for a career.

What if you have a child who struggles with some social or emotional learning? Or somebody who might be really bright but struggles socially with school? Maybe they’re very anxious, struggle with performance anxiety, or social anxiety really hinders school. How can grit help them?

I think that for most of us, when something is uncomfortable, or when we are not good at something, we I would shy away from them. Grit helps to bring about an opportunity to practice over a consistent period of time dealing with the very things that might be difficult. Again, contrary to the notion that we should shy away from things we’re not good at, grit would have us develop the skill necessary to become competent in those areas.

What if your child has a lot of talent and gets good grades? You may still be a little concerned about how much grit they have. What if they haven’t been challenged enough academically, socially or emotionally? And what happens when they get to college and school isn’t easy anymore? I think that’s the fear for all of us.

Grit becomes really critical to help insulate our kids in these challenging situations.

How to Develop Grit

Far too soon, our kids will be out in the world, deciding what activities to spend their time all on their own.  If our children are able to master this self-directed focus while living at home, in an environment that is safe for them to fail and learn, then they will thrive when they go out on their own.   Something we need to remember that as parents we can’t actually control our children. We can’t make someone develop grit.  We can persuade and influence and we can punish and reward. But in the end, if our kids don’t want to do something, we can’t physically make them do it.

For example, if you have a piano player in the house who does not enjoy practicing. You as a parent may decide, “I am going to help them develop grit because I will make them go to the piano practice.”  Probably the only person in that scenario that may be developing grit would be you, the parent. You are the one who has to deal with the arguments, the frustrations, even the tantrums about practicing the piano.

However, there are several things you can do to create an environment that fosters grit development.

1. Start with Passion

If you are just starting to help your child develop grit, try focusing on an area they are passionate about.  If you want them to strengthen their intrinsic motivation, it helps to start with something they already want to do. If they love music, get them playing an instrument.  Or if they love sports, sign them up for a team. But guide them toward something that will take consistent & prolonged effort.

The goal is not to make them hate life, it is to help them understand that it is okay to sacrifice comfort to get something they passionately want.

2. Use Commitments & Contracts

For most of us, the first time an activity is hard or difficult, or we make a mistake, or we feel embarrassed, the tendency is to think, “You know what, I don’t want to do this anymore.” It is in these moments when your son or daughter may say, “Hey, I went. I hated it and I’m never going back again.” They’ll want to quit an activity, not because they stopped wanting the outcome, but because the effort is hard.

Rather than allowing them to quit in midstream, try anticipating this situation talking about ahead of time. Make an agreement with your child before signing up for a particular sports team, hobby, or interest.  Let them know that there are two price tags for these types of activities: a financial price tag and a time/effort price tag. Let them know that you may be willing to pay the financial cost, but only if they are willing to pay the cost of time and effort.  Then talk about how it needs to be a sustained effort for whatever time period you are comfortable with. Maybe it’s three or four weeks, or maybe it’s three months depending on the activity. Just help them commit to an honest effort and attempt.

Again, the goal is not to make them suffer, but to help them be okay with discomfort while striving for something they want.

3. Help Them Understand Delayed Gratification

You could say that grit is just our ability to delay gratification, to sacrifice immediate gratification so that we can achieve long term goals.  When your son or daughter wants to quit something because it is hard, first help them remember why it is they started in the first place. Try to help them visualize what it will be like to win the championship, walk across the stage to get the diploma while their name is being called over the speakers and everyone is standing up cheering for them or to play that difficult musical arrangement at the next recital. This is why it is so important to start with setting a clear goal, something your child wants to accomplish.  It gives them something to hold in their imagination and look forward to when times get tough.

Second, help your son or daughter recognize and be mindful of the immediate rewards they are already receiving.  Can they recognize the value of the friendships they are making by being a part of a team? Or can they find joy in the fact they did better this week than last week? Most experiences are not all good or all bad.  When we validate our kid’s struggles while helping them find the good, it makes it much easier for them to persevere.

4. Develop Self-efficacy

It is difficult to keep working toward a goal if you don’t believe you can actually accomplish it.  Self-efficacy is the belief that one can accomplish difficult things. Higher levels of self-efficacy are linked to greater motivation and positive thinking skills.

Your son or daughter can develop self-efficacy just by trying to do things they previously thought were impossible. We see this all the time with the students at our program. These adolescents and young adults believe that “If I completed all of these difficult tasks during wilderness therapy, I can do other difficult things!”  Our students do things they never thought possible before coming to an adventure therapy program. They master many activities that initially terrify them, including rappelling, rock climbing, skiing, snowboarding, and mountain biking. With each activity, their belief in themselves grows. They not only believe they can do hard things, they know it.

Upon returning home, this confidence in their ability to do hard things helps fuel their commitment to school, family relationships, and other goals.  Self-efficacy is key to developing grit.

5. Embrace a Growth Mindset

Similar to self-efficacy, a growth mindset is a belief that one’s talents & abilities aren’t fixed.  This means that knowledge, skills, talents, and abilities can all be grown and improved depending on how much effort we put into developing them.  For example, someone with a fixed mindset may say, “I’m not good at math.” But someone with a growth mindset would say, “I’m not good at math yet.”  Here are two ways to develop a growth mindset and build grit:

Value Effort over Talent

Students today, particularly in our society, are highly praised for their achievement, test scores or talent. Instead, we may want to focus more on praising their effort. As parents we must ask ourselves, can we value hard work, can we value effort more than talent?  

I think we tend to get sort of enamored with talent and how amazing our kids are. If they start to see success, instead of focusing on how their achievement or talent, try honoring, praising, and rewarding their perseverance.  You may say, “Wow, you have practiced that a lot! No wonder the recital went so well” instead of commenting about how smart or talented they are. Continue to focus on the effort and tenacity that it took to achieve the goal.

Change How We See Failure & Stop Rescuing

This is kind of a paradigm shift for a lot of us, but to help our children learn a growth mindset we might need to let them fail.  An effective way to treat anxiety is called exposure therapy. This therapy slowly exposes people to their fears in incrementally increased doses until a fear no longer holds any power over them.  When we let our kids fail, it is kind of like providing a form of exposure therapy. We’re able to reframe failure from something to be feared and turn it into something that is necessary to learn and grow.

Let failure be an event, not a person. By allowing the process of failure to be a catalyst for teaching, our kids develop even more stamina and resolve.  Many of us have heard of the example of Edison and the light bulb. And it wasn’t about that he failed 1000 times, but that he found 999 ways not to make a light build.  By positively exposing your son or daughter to failure at an early age, you prepare them to handle the difficult situations they will face when they go out on their own.

And as a parent myself, I get it. This process is painful for us as parents. We want to rescue our kids from the pain of failure.  However, I don’t know that there is a better teacher than pain or failure or shortcomings. What we must not do is lift them up and carry them beyond those limitations and those failures.  We must not be helicopter parents or lawnmower parents, but rather failure to be the great learning experiences that can teach grit and long-term success. And success is going and growing from failure to failure without any loss of enthusiasm

6. Validate Painful Emotions While Showing Encouragement

Despite the fact we want our children to be comfortable being uncomfortable, we don’t want to negate what they are feeling.  Trying new things is hard. Failure is painful. And having grit doesn’t mean you don’t feel pain. It’s okay to feel hurt or frustrated.  We all have those feelings. The difference is that people with grit push through the discomfort and pain until they achieve their goals.

If your son or daughter is struggling to push through the struggle, first try to validate what your child is feeling.  Share with them your experiences trying new things.  Let them know that you understand how they feel. But, your goal is not to rescue them from the hard feeling but to strengthen their ability to handle difficult emotions.

Secondly, tell your son or daughter that you are confident they will be able to succeed.  It can be helpful to share specifics as to why you are confident. For example, you may say, “I know how difficult this is for you.  Learning new things can be hard and scary, even for me. I remember how you practiced so hard for your last recital and it turned out wonderfully.  I know if you keep practicing, you can master this piece too. I believe in you.”

And here is the hard part, our actions also need to show we are confident in their abilities.  We can’t tell them they are capable and then rescue them by helping them escape the discomfort or doing the task for them.


Your child’s grit, or their ability to focus their perseverance and passion for long-term goals, might be a better predictor of future success and academic achievement than their intelligence. And while you can’t force your child to develop grit, through deliberate practice you can help your child develop grit.

Please contact us to learn more about how wilderness adventure therapy can help your son or daughter develop grit, overcome behavioral struggles, and heal your family relationships.

  • David Mayeski, LCSW
    David Mayeski, LCSW
    Family Services Director

Wilderness Therapy for Eating Disorders and Body Image Issues

overcoming body image issues in a Wilderness Therapy Program

I became passionate about treating eating disorders and body image disorders almost 15 years ago while working in residential treatment. It’s not an easy area of practice because progress can be slow and sometimes almost imperceptible. Studies show that it takes an average of 7 years to fully recover from an eating disorder. But over long periods of time, I watched men and women emerge from the fog of addiction and reclaim their lives. That work, for me, is rewarding.

As you can imagine, after 15 years, I had strong opinions about the best path to recovery, the best mode of therapy, and had my preferred treatment methods for helping people struggling with eating disorders. A few years ago, wilderness therapy was not one of the types of treatment on my radar to use with this population.

Fast forward to the present moment: my perspective has changed. I have learned much more about how wilderness therapy is precisely the tool that many of my clients have needed to overcome some major hurdles in their fight for recovery.

Read moreWilderness Therapy for Eating Disorders and Body Image Issues

Wilderness Therapy in Winter: Staying Safe While Healing & Having Fun

Wilderness Therapy in Winter

Wilderness therapy in winter offers therapeutic value and unique opportunities for growth, especially at Aspiro. Not only is winter in Utah incredibly beautiful with the views of snow-capped landscapes, but a Utah winter also provides students with diverse environments and allows them to accomplish things they never thought possible. Living in the winter elements provides students with a boost of confidence, greater resilience, and an increase in self-efficacy. Research indicates these qualities translate into a strong belief in the ability to do hard things. Once a student moves on to the next step following Aspiro, this belief stays with them; whether it be the confidence to tackle an algebra class, to communicate with a peer, or to be emotionally open and vulnerable with a parent.

Aspiro’s priority is ensuring the safety of students throughout the year, and especially during the winter months. Maintaining the highest standards of risk management is crucial to the Aspiro team. There are many protocols in place that apply to different aspects of the program. Below are some areas where there is an additional focus in the winter months.


During every season, a variety of seasonally appropriate gear is provided to ensure comfort and safety. In the winter:

  • thick, warm coats are given out,
  • an addition to wool socks,
  • 2 pair of gloves,
  • a warm winter hat,
  • layers of thermal underwear,
  • fleece layers,
  • and waterproof layers.

Students also have insulated winter hiking boots and over-boots.

Students are given a -20-degree sleeping bag plus two insulated sleeping pads in order to protect them from feeling cold at night. The specialized gear, a student’s body heat, and the heat from the others in the shelter provide a cozy place to sleep. Also, students spend a few hours each week at the field office near Aspiro’s base camp, where they take warm showers and get freshly laundered clothes for the new week, ensuring they have clean and dry clothes available. All gear is regularly assessed and replaced or repaired as needed, in order to ensure that all students are comfortable and warm.

In addition, students are taught to properly care for and pack their gear so it stays dry, as well as how to wear the right layers in the correct order, to ensure warmth. Field staff teach the students to first use a wicking layer next to their skin to help move moisture away from their bodies. Second, they put on on an insulating layer to keep that heat trapped in, and lastly, they have a waterproof layer to keep out moisture and wind. It’s a science!

Staying Warm When the Weather is Cold

In addition to quality clothing and gear, another utilized practice for staying warm is engaging in warm-up exercises first thing in the morning, throughout the day, and before bed, in order to keep blood circulating and the body’s core temperature high. Being proactive and getting moving is the best way to stay warm.

To supplement physical movement and activity for warmth, each student and staff member has a stove that heats water efficiently. They then put this hot water in water bottles and keep them next to their bodies under their layers of clothing, or in their sleeping bags at night. This hot water, which can be made quickly and often, is also used for herbal tea and to make warm meals.

Students also utilize fires and wood burning stoves to stay warm. Army grade tents are available while at base camp, and each of these has a wood burning stove inside. Students spend time in these tents doing activities, eating meals, participating in therapy, group activities, and receiving safety checks. Each tent is equipped with thermometers in order to monitor the temperature, as well as carbon monoxide detectors and smoke detectors.

Versatility in the Location of Programming

One of the most unique aspects of Aspiro is the ability to utilize many environments throughout the state of Utah, ranging from the mountains in the North to the warm desert climate down South. Taking into account the therapeutic objectives for each group, as well as weather conditions, Aspiro has the flexibility to send students on various adventure itineraries throughout the state of Utah. These can range from mountain biking on the red rock terrain in the warmth of the St. George desert, to skiing in the fresh snow up in the mountains of Sundance, Utah.

During the winter month’s Aspiro dedicates considerable time to warmer itineraries down South such as mountain biking, rock climbing, hiking, and canyoneering. Although Aspiro often utilizes the warmer desert climate during the winter, there is great therapeutic value in the cold weather adventure itineraries as well. These winter itineraries create a great sense of confidence as students learn to care for themselves in more difficult conditions, learn to plan ahead and ensure they are prepared, recognize they have the tools and equipment to stay warm and safe and gain confidence from their ability to manage the winter elements. Another important part of wilderness therapy in winter is learning to reframe snow and winter as an opportunity for peace, enjoyment, and learning. Students often report that some of the winter adventure itineraries are their favorites.

Cold Weather Adventure Itineraries

Winter presents its own beautiful twist on the scenery and allows students to access incredible places in Utah that might be overpopulated in the spring or summer. This allows them to take full advantage of the solitude and peace that comes from the lack of other visitors while snowshoeing on untouched trails, or backpacking amidst the quiet landscape.

In addition to snowshoeing and backpacking, skiing is a favorite winter adventure.  Not only is skiing an enjoyable activity, but in addition, students gain skills such as awareness of self and others, physical strength and coordination, and an ability to find great emotional reward as they get into the state of “flow”. Flow Theory stems from positive psychology, and is the state of mind where one is focused completely on the moment and is fully “in the zone”. In this state of flow, there is a feeling of being more present than ever, losing oneself completely, and being intensely focused. Being in a state of flow helps students learn to alleviate anxiety and stress in life as they practice getting into this mindful place.


Aspiro’s vehicles are regularly inspected and all have high-quality all-terrain tires, as well as tire chains available to use as needed. Each vehicle is also equipped with a tracking device, allowing the field leadership team to know where all vehicles are at each moment, as well as exactly how each driver is doing. This helps ensure the safety of both guides and staff. All staff also go through a DDC professional driving course and must have a clean driving record in order to be eligible to drive Aspiro vehicles. There is also great flexibility in the Aspiro program that allows a group to drive out to a different area to camp or facilitate a therapeutic adventure if driving conditions are deemed unsafe by the risk management team.

Medical Checks

Aspiro guides complete hand and foot checks on every student at a minimum of 3 times a day, and check to ensure there are no injuries or blistering. During these checks, extremities are closely evaluated and the warmth and comfort of each student is confirmed. This close evaluation is in addition to the constant safety monitoring of every student that takes place 24 hours a day.
The guides call into the leadership team twice per day to report on each student and have access to the Registered Nurse or EMT 24/7 as needed. Aspiro’s medical team also has access to a Medical Doctor at all times.

In addition to guides completing safety checks of the students, students also complete regular hand, foot, and face washing to ensure cleanliness and safe hygiene. Students are also physically evaluated once a week by a member of the medical team, and each student is analyzed by a Body Composition Analyzer, which reports to the team a student’s weight, body fat percentage, body mass Index, and skeletal and muscle mass. Aspiro’s medical team uses this information to gauge each student’s individual diet and to ensure they all are getting the proper amount of calories, nutrition, and exercise.


In the winter, students receive additional food that has a higher fat content in order to ensure more caloric intake. Foods denser in calories take longer to metabolize, thus increasing overall body warmth. Because winter temperatures can require more energy to manage, a higher calorie diet also helps offset this. In addition to fresh fruits and vegetables, students eat nuts, peanut butter, canned salmon, canned tuna, rice, beans, cheese, oatmeal, and more, in order to get the calories and energy needed. Staff monitor food and water intake closely to ensure that students are getting the nutrition and hydration they need.

Weather Monitoring

Aspiro’s Operations Team is continuously monitoring weather on a daily basis. They use weather predictions and patterns as part of the information gathered when they plan the weekly schedule for students. Guides that are out in the field communicate with the Operations Team and on-call leadership members at least twice a day. During this call, the guides are updated as needed, regarding weather conditions so they can make any changes necessary to their daily plan. Students do not engage in activities outside of the campsite if temperatures drop below 10 degrees.  Instead, at that point, they stay at camp and keep warm by engaging in warm-up exercises and doing activities by the wood-burning stoves or by a fire.

Staff Training

Aspiro guides are taught to empower students with the information they need in order to live safely in the wilderness and to manage various temperatures and environments. These staff are trained on various topics in numerous areas and attend mandatory training on a weekly basis. The training for winter includes how to build winter shelters, how to implement emergency heat wraps, first aid, how to respond to any cold weather emergency scenarios, how to monitor for winter safety, and more. Aspiro’s medical team, a Registered Nurse, an EMT, and a Medical Doctor, are on call 24/7 and available to answer any questions that guides may have while in the field.

Aspiro guides are certified or working toward certification as Wilderness First Responders (WFR), which is the nationally recognized standard in wilderness medicine and provides education on the best practices for risk mitigation. A WFR certification typically requires 72-80 hours of classroom training and practice and includes a written and practical exam.

Throughout the year, and especially during the winter at Aspiro, a great amount of time and effort goes into ensuring the quality of programming, the availability of high-quality gear, the training of staff, a healthy diet, and overall safety. The attention to detail and safety in these areas adds to an impactful wilderness experience. The joy that comes when completing a winter adventure, the peace attained through the serenity of the quiet landscape, and the additional opportunities for growth that are found during the snowy adventure itineraries all lead to a powerful and life-changing experience.

Defining Level 1 Autism: Distinguishing Why Different Levels of Care are Needed for Different Traits

Understanding the levels of autism, especially Level 1 Autism by Defining the Traits and Behaviors of Autism Spectrum Disorder

By: Carl Smoot, PhD, Shane A. Whiting, Ph.D., LMFT, Brandon Moffitt, LPC

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is defined as having persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts.

Levels of Autism

The current DSM-5 diagnostic manual has separated the disorder into three varying degrees:

  • Level 1: Requiring Support
  • Level 2: Requiring Substantial Support
  • Level 3: Requiring Very Substantial Support

In this article, we will focus specifically on level 1 autism, distinguishing traits of level 1 autism, and how specialized treatment such as a wilderness adventure therapy or a residential program can help.

Defining the Traits and Behaviors of Level 1 Autism

Individuals with level 1 autism, without proper support, will display noticeable impairments in social communication. Common behaviors in individuals with level 1 autism include:

  • Inflexibility in behavior and thought
  • Difficulty switching between activities
  • Problems with executive functioning which hinder independence
  • Atypical response to others in social situations
  • Difficulty initiating social interactions and maintaining reciprocity in social interaction

Theory of Mind in Specialized Treatment Programs for Level 1 Autism

One of the most effective ways to treat level 1 autism is through utilizing the Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind and adaptive skills-based treatment that targets executive function, emotional regulation, cognitive flexibility, social communication skills, and anxiety reduction. These are all critical aspects in the field of Level 1 treatment, particularly in specialized treatment programs such as Vantage Point, Black Mountain Academy, and Daniels Academy.

Theory of Mind is the ability to accurately predict or attune to the thoughts, intentions, feelings, and perspective of another person. Individuals with autism have delays in this particular development. As a toddler, a neurotypical child will transition into a phase of cooperative play in which theory of mind begins to develop. Ideally, the child begins to be aware of the needs and feelings of those around them.  When theory of mind does not develop, early adolescence is marked with delays in social maturation, social/emotional problem solving, and cognitive flexibility all of which play a crucial part in adaptive function.

Enrolling a teen in a specialized program that both understands and executes Theory of Mind can help these individuals with ASD become more aware of other perspectives in addition to learning social skills and adaptability.

Wilderness Adventure Therapy and Specialized Residential Programs as Treatment for Level 1 Autism

Additionally, for teens with level 1 autism, a credible wilderness adventure therapy program, such as Vantage Point by Aspiro, or a smaller residential programs such as Daniel’s Academy or Black Mountain Academy, can be a highly effective treatment option in helping these individuals improve their social skills, establish healthier patterns, and learn how to make smooth transitions.

Vantage Point: Short-Term Program as Treatment for Level 1 Autism

Short-term wilderness adventure therapy programs such as Vantage Point should be considered as an intervention, foundation, and starting point for level 1 autism treatment.  When students first begin treatment in a specialized program like Vantage Point, they participate in a variety of adventure activities, service, and community involvement. This helps lay the foundation for them to establish a connection with the people and the world around them. This is especially effective in a short-term specialized treatment program because of the novel and new environment.

Daniels Academy and Black Mountain Academy: Long-Term Care for Level 1 Autism

With Vantage Point and other short-term programs serving as a starting off point, long-term programs such as Daniel’s Academy and Black Mountain Academy provide students with ongoing reinforcement, application, and long-term efforts to solidify new skills. A long-term residential program is able to teach teens with ASD these skills on a long-term basis through project-based learning systems as a way to collaboratively solve problems that have real-world application.

Ultimately, both long-term and short-term programs help teens with ASD break through boundaries, build awareness, and establish healthier cognitive and behavioral patterns. Students with ASD who enroll in a specialized treatment program learn how to reduce their stress through coping skills and learn how to increase their flexibility and improve their social skills. The students are able to make lasting change and internalize these skills through cognitive behavioral, collaboration and communication, consistency, active training, verbal praise, and encouragement.


Each individual with autism is unique. The level of disability and combination of symptoms can vary dramatically on the autism spectrum which makes it essential for every child and teen with ASD to get a proper diagnosis and the treatment they need. For teens with level 1 autism, a credible wilderness adventure therapy program or residential program can help refine and teach these individuals how to work through their executive function deficits through individualized care and research-based model to facilitate lifelong growth and lasting change.

This article is brought to you by Aspiro Group. To learn more about the authors of this article, click here.

About Aspiro Group

The Aspiro Adventure programs are uniquely crafted to assist students and their families in creating lasting, life-long emotional changes through compassionate, intentional, research-backed, and safe outdoor adventure therapy programs. The professionals at all of the Aspiro group programs understand individuals don’t come with instructions, and every student is unique, capable, and amazing in their own right.

All of our programs focus on helping adolescents, young adults, and their families through difficulties that occur when various behavioral, cognitive, or developmental issues are present. Research shows that engaging individuals on a personal level with strategic and intentional activities will aid in developing the tools and skills necessary to engage life in a healthy and positive way. Aspiro group programs include Aspiro Adventure, Daniel’s Academy, Vantage Point, Pure Life,  Black mountain Academy, and Outback.

To learn more about level 1 autism, we recommend the following resources:

Josh Watson, LCSW

Also specializes in: crisis de-escalation / anxiety resolution / frustration tolerance / verbal de-escalation / CBT/DBT / interpersonal relationships/leadership development

Josh has been working with adolescents, young adults, and their families since 2001. As an original member of the Aspiro Leadership Team, Josh has fulfilled several roles at Aspiro including Clinical Wilderness Therapist, Clinical Supervision, Admissions Director, Strategic Development, and currently serves as the Chief Marketing Officer. He is passionate about carrying out the mission of Aspiro and creating the best possible experience for our clients. When Josh is not at work he enjoys traveling, cooking, outdoor adventure (of course!), golf, and spending time doing just about anything with his wife and two daughters.

Josh Watson, LCSW

Also specializes in: crisis de-escalation / anxiety resolution / frustration tolerance / verbal de-escalation / CBT/DBT / interpersonal relationships/leadership development

Josh has been working with adolescents, young adults, and their families since 2001. As an original member of the Aspiro Leadership Team, Josh has fulfilled several roles at Aspiro including Clinical Wilderness Therapist, Clinical Supervision, Admissions Director, Strategic Development, and currently serves as the Chief Marketing Officer. He is passionate about carrying out the mission of Aspiro and creating the best possible experience for our clients. When Josh is not at work he enjoys traveling, cooking, outdoor adventure (of course!), golf, and spending time doing just about anything with his wife and two daughters.

Leigh Uhlenkott, NCC, LMHC
Clinical Wilderness Therapist, Adolescent Males & Females, Ages 13-17

Also specializes in: NLD / Spectrum Disorders / Learning and Executive Functioning Issues / Substance Dependence / Obesity / Self-Esteem Issues / Adoption / School Refusal / Anger Management / ADHD / Oppositional Defiance Disorder

During her 20 years of experience, Leigh has worked at a therapeutic boarding school for boys specializing in learning disabilities, 3 wilderness therapy programs; Expedition/Nomadic model, Transition Model, and now an Adventure based programming model working with adolescents with multiple diagnoses, and a school in Broward County, FL providing counseling, prevention work, and substance abuse counseling for adolescents. Leigh also has training in and a certification for working with transgendered clients. She has extensive experience working effectively with these clients and is passionate about doing so. Leigh’s eclectic approach fosters her ability to be creative with each individual she works with, finding the best possible interventions to meet their needs. She enjoys helping struggling families’ find their common ground so that they can move forward out of crisis. Leigh has a particular strength in utilizing wilderness therapy to find the perfect metaphors and rites of passage to support real change and sustainable success. When not working, she enjoys traveling and spending time with her family, friends, and her two rescue dogs—Fluffy and Yoda.

Josh Watson, LCSW

Also specializes in: crisis de-escalation / anxiety resolution / frustration tolerance / verbal de-escalation / CBT/DBT / interpersonal relationships/leadership development

Josh has been working with adolescents, young adults, and their families since 2001. As an original member of the Aspiro Leadership Team, Josh has fulfilled several roles at Aspiro including Clinical Wilderness Therapist, Clinical Supervision, Admissions Director, Strategic Development, and currently serves as the Chief Marketing Officer. He is passionate about carrying out the mission of Aspiro and creating the best possible experience for our clients. When Josh is not at work he enjoys traveling, cooking, outdoor adventure (of course!), golf, and spending time doing just about anything with his wife and two daughters.

Josh Watson, LCSW

Also specializes in: crisis de-escalation / anxiety resolution / frustration tolerance / verbal de-escalation / CBT/DBT / interpersonal relationships/leadership development

Josh has been working with adolescents, young adults, and their families since 2001. As an original member of the Aspiro Leadership Team, Josh has fulfilled several roles at Aspiro including Clinical Wilderness Therapist, Clinical Supervision, Admissions Director, Strategic Development, and currently serves as the Chief Marketing Officer. He is passionate about carrying out the mission of Aspiro and creating the best possible experience for our clients. When Josh is not at work he enjoys traveling, cooking, outdoor adventure (of course!), golf, and spending time doing just about anything with his wife and two daughters.

Josh Watson, LCSW

Also specializes in: crisis de-escalation / anxiety resolution / frustration tolerance / verbal de-escalation / CBT/DBT / interpersonal relationships/leadership development

Josh has been working with adolescents, young adults, and their families since 2001. As an original member of the Aspiro Leadership Team, Josh has fulfilled several roles at Aspiro including Clinical Wilderness Therapist, Clinical Supervision, Admissions Director, Strategic Development, and currently serves as the Chief Marketing Officer. He is passionate about carrying out the mission of Aspiro and creating the best possible experience for our clients. When Josh is not at work he enjoys traveling, cooking, outdoor adventure (of course!), golf, and spending time doing just about anything with his wife and two daughters.

David Mayeski, LCSW
Family Services Director

Also specializes in: Family Systems Work / Understanding Family Roles, Dynamics and Power Struggles / Genograms

David comes to Aspiro with almost 20 years of experience working with families in therapeutic programs. Originally David received his Bachelor’s degree in Government and Politics and went on to earn his Master of Social Work.

Prior to joining Aspiro, David served in many capacities at highly respected residential treatment centers as a primary therapist, Admissions Director, and Clinical Director. After working as a primary therapist for two years, he was awarded his License in Clinical Social Work (LCSW) in 2003 and has continued practicing therapy with students and their families. His desire to help families heal and overcome obstacles, his years of experience, and his clinical sophistication, make him the perfect match as the Family Services Director where he continues to help families heal through parent coaching, therapy sessions, webinars, and during groups over Aspiro’s Parent Seminars.

David is passionate about helping others and guiding families through their journey of connecting and healing as a system. David enjoys talking politics, playing a round of golf, and especially cherishes time with his beautiful wife and three children.