Parents place their child in a wilderness program setting as a result of behavioral or emotional struggles that have resulted in problems at school, in the family or in the community. Their hope is that the wilderness experience will impact the child in such a way that they are able to resume a healthier level of functioning. Many parents however do not anticipate the impact that placing their child in a wilderness setting will have on themselves as parents and the entire family system. A wilderness placement impacts not only the child who is participating in the experience, but the entire family system.
In the many years of working as a therapists in wilderness settings, we have guided hundreds of families through “a controlled crisis” in which the family system is challenged, impacted and ultimately improved. Most youth placed in a wilderness program are initially resistant to the intervention. Most arrive against their will and have become adept at being able to manipulate others to avoid having to be responsible. In an attempt to avoid having to actually do the work required to complete the program, youth will often attempt to manipulate their parents into pulling them from the program prematurely through any number of manipulative approaches. These attempts typically occur through emotionally charged letters written to their parents that are known as “rescue me/pull me” letters.
Letters may sound something like this: I have changed so much in the five days I have been here. I promise I will never disobey you again. I will go to school every day and earn straight A’s. I will stop hanging out with my friends and spend every night at home with the family. Please, Please, Please give me a chance to prove myself. Please come and get me. You will not be disappointed. Love your son.
Another common manipulative letter may sound like this: How could you do this to me? What kind of parent sends their child to a desert? If you really loved me, you would have talked to me instead of sending me away. I am suffering so much here and you don’t even care. I will never forgive you for this unless you make this right and get me out of here immediately.
For some parents, these types of letters can create a crisis of sorts. “Will my child actually hate me forever?” “Will they ever get past feeling this angry?” “Is the placement only making the relationship worse?” These are each worries that parents can experience and can result in second guessing their decision to place their child and even drive them to consider taking them home from the program prematurely. This is the controlled crisis. Parents place their child in a treatment program to disrupt the crises that had been occurring, but then encounter a different crisis. Even parents who anticipate initial anger and resistance from their child can be shaken by the first letters received.
As difficult as it is to become aware of the discontent of their child in these letters, these situations provide parents with a golden opportunity to reestablish their role as the parent. The parent’s response letter in these situations lays the groundwork for the relationship to begin to be rebuilt around a new, healthier set of family boundaries–a set of family boundaries that allows the parents to function in the role of parent and the child to function in the role of the child. These situations force parents to learn to manage their own fear and anxiety. This requires focus and effort. Parents who remain firm in their commitment to having their child remain to complete the program find that they themselves have experienced significant emotional growth. They find that they have established a new healthier boundary with their child. They find that they have gained new resolve to not be emotionally manipulated by their child. They find that their child has respect for them as a parent for their resolve.
At graduation, during the family therapy session, an interesting conclusion is often reached. Even though it has been their child who has been in the wilderness setting, parents frequently verbalize that the wilderness experience has challenged, impacted and improved the entire family system.
Matt is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been working in the field of youth treatment and psychotherapy since 1995. He did his undergraduate work at BYU and earned his M.S.W. at the University of Utah. He has worked in a variety of treatment setting in his career ranging from wilderness therapy and residential treatment to outpatient treatment and state government.