Empowering Young Women: The Benefits of Wilderness Therapy for Teen Girls

By Caitlyn Cook, LCPC, ATR-BC, Clinical Director of Summit Achievement               

Read the below blog post or watch this new video with Caitlyn talking about the benefits of wilderness therapy for teen girls.

When you find your adolescent daughter struggling with anxiety and depression, your first thought might not be Wilderness Therapy…. But maybe it should be.  

It’s generally known and accepted that adolescents are figuring out who they are and their place in the world.  They try on many different “hats”, test limits, and work towards becoming more independent.  At best, it’s awkward, uncomfortable, and challenging.  These days, the process is further complicated by a never-ending stream of messaging via social media and the greater culture about who, how, and what they are supposed to be.   Adolescent girls are at the epicenter of the storm with rates of depression almost three times greater than that of their male peers.  If you are asking yourself why this is the case, these next two facts might point to a possible answer:  

  • Teenage girls are more likely to be plugged into their phones and social media than their male counterparts.
  • There is a significant correlation between screen time and depression in teens.  

Your daughters are drowning in a technology-driven culture of “never enough” and are under immense pressure to be all things to all people – smart, pretty, cultured, sexy, popular, athletic, witty – the list goes on and on.  Heaven forbid they show an ounce of perceived imperfection and they’ll surely pay for it in a public, social media lashing.  As a parent, you may try to shield them by limiting screen time and while these efforts are on the right track, they are often not enough when the seeds of self-doubt have already been planted.  Without a strong foundation to combat the messaging, a brief Instagram scroll can quickly confirm the belief that they just don’t measure up.  They have no room from all the noise to figure out their potential and their identity and the arenas where they are trying to work it all out simply don’t feel safe.  Yes, some girls are able to navigate these murky years with relative success, but a staggering amount are overwhelmed and paralyzed by toxic feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, defeat, and unrest.  

When considering the treatment options, one thing I hear too often from loving and well-meaning parents is the concern that the physical demands of expeditions in Wilderness Therapy will be “too much” for their daughter.  Unfortunately, this concern reinforces the exact messages of inadequacy that any treatment would seek to counter.  Here’s the truth:  Wilderness expeditions are challenging.  Life is challenging.  And your daughter CAN do challenging things.  In fact, doing challenging things is exactly how she is going to gain empowerment and confidence to take control of her life.  

Two of the most wonderful gifts that Wilderness Therapy provides are those of safe struggle and space from all the noise girls are facing at home and school every day.  In the woods, screens are nowhere in sight, expectations are simplified and girls begin to see for once who and how capable they really are.  Four days a week, Summit Achievement teams head out on expeditions in the surrounding wilderness and White Mountain National Forest.  No computer, no tablet, no phone – just the essential items they need to survive, all loaded up into a backpack that they are responsible for carrying.   This model serves as a powerful metaphor that puts to the test the sense that girls need to have or to be more.  A former student once reflected on their realization that, “Everything I actually need, I have with me”.   

With only the requisite tools in tow, they embark on adventures they never thought possible for them – summiting some of the tallest mountains in the northeast, navigating across chains of lakes, climbing rock faces, rappelling off cliffs, snowshoeing across frozen mountain ponds and so much more.  On weekly family calls, girls proudly proclaim their victories however big, small, profound, or silly.  “I paddled 11 miles in one day!”.  “I slept on the summit of a mountain.” “I started to realize that I’m more judgemental of others when I don’t feel so good about myself.” And the always hilarious, “I pooped in a hole!”   

Out on the trail, girls unplug from their devices and tap into their environment.  Just this one act alone packs a huge punch.   Studies show that a simple nature walk significantly improves mood and memory.  What’s more, a 3 day/2 night jaunt into the wilderness has been found to reduce stress for a whopping 30-days after! When girls take to the woods instead of the couch, they are actively and genuinely connecting to themselves and their environment as opposed to passively ingesting a mirage of connection through their devices.  Here’s an important note: REAL connection to the –self, others, and the environment is critical to our overall health!  

The bottom line is that girls need the opportunity to push themselves, take risks, be vulnerable, and authentically take stock of their values, character, capabilities, and limitations.  What’s more, they need to feel safe and supported while doing it.  When your daughter is struggling and all you want to do is wave your magic wand to make it all better, consider instead that the magic is within her already, waiting to be revealed under layers of distortion and deception.  She only needs the right set of circumstances to discover what’s always been there and those circumstances just might be found in the wilderness.