By Meghan Vivo
Summer vacation is a time when boredom and curiosity lead to trouble. Many teens try drugs for the first time over summer vacation, and many escalate their risky behaviors to the next level.
Is this the summer your child will go from trying marijuana to using hallucinogens or harder drugs? Or the summer your teen will lose touch with childhood friends to start hanging out with a “cool” older crowd?
A Dangerous Mix: Boredom, Freedom and Lack of Supervision
During the year, teens are most likely to engage in risky behaviors after school between 3-5 p.m. In the summer months, when the days are long and the weather is warm, the window of risk-taking is even larger.
For example, in June and July, the rate of teen marijuana use spikes, according to research by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The lack of structure and supervision, added freedom and more time with friends increases teens’ access to (and temptation to use) drugs and alcohol.
The ailing economy has given teens even more free time, promoting further risk-taking. With more competition and fewer jobs to go around, the unemployment rate among adolescents has soared to 24 percent, the highest it has been since 1965.
Because many parents work full-time or have other obligations, teens tend to spend more time home alone in the summer. At a time when summer jobs are scarce and public schools are slashing summer school and other programs, teens may seek out a “second family” in their friends, who may encourage more risky behavior.
Making Plans for a Safe and Happy Summer
So what’s your plan to keep your teen out of trouble this summer?
While parents are busy wondering how they’ll keep their kids occupied when school is out, most children and teens have one thing on their mind: summer camp.
Parents who want their children to learn new skills over summer vacation, but also want to address certain behaviors that concern them, such as drug or alcohol use or defiance, have found the best of both worlds at wilderness therapy programs. Wilderness programs do double duty, fulfilling the need to keep teens busy over the summer as well as parents’ desire to get help for their child.
At wilderness camp, teens get the campfires, friendships and time outdoors of a traditional summer camp, while having a therapeutic experience that addresses negative behaviors. By helping teens develop social skills, manage their emotions, and improve their communication and relationship-building skills, these programs are more than a summer away from home – they are an investment in the future.
Why Wilderness in Summer?
“Summer is a great time to attend wilderness camp,” said Jesse Quam, MSW, LCSW, the clinical director at SUWS of the Carolinas wilderness therapy program for struggling teens. “The days are longer, teens don’t have to miss school to participate, and they can come explore some of the most beautiful regions of the country.”
Teens who participate in a full-length program don’t sacrifice their schoolwork, and teens who have a busy schedule over the summer can participate in a wilderness program like SUWS Adolescent and Youth Programs in Idaho, which requires as little as 28 days.
“A summer in the wilderness can be a leadership- and confidence-building experience,” said Kathy Rex, the executive director of SUWS Adolescent and Youth Programs, which offers separate groups, activities and age-appropriate curricula for 11- to 13-year-olds and 14- to 17-year-olds. “After a few weeks of hiking, group activities and counseling, teens can return home and enjoy the rest of the summer with their family or continue building new skills in a therapeutic environment.”
Wilderness therapy programs serve teens with a wide range of learning, emotional and behavioral issues. In the summer, wilderness camp can be particularly beneficial for teens who:
A Golden Opportunity
Although some teens view wilderness therapy as a punishment or burden, by the end of the program they realize it can be a positive and life-changing experience.
“Wilderness therapy is something totally unique and different,” said Neal Christensen, the clinical director at Outback Therapeutic Expeditions, a wilderness therapy program for teens in Lehi, Utah. “Not many teenagers have experience living in nature in such a primitive way.”
Historically, people sought out nature as a way to find clarity and purpose, and the great outdoors can be an important part of the therapeutic process for today’s youth. Wilderness therapy offers a safe, structured and clinically sophisticated rite of passage that can help teens reflect on their choices and set goals for the future.
“Aside from weddings, funerals and graduations, there are few rites of passage left,” said Quam. “Wilderness therapy creates a unique opportunity for teens to mark their transition into young adulthood.”
Getting Help in Time for Fall
Because teenagers’ brains are still developing, adolescence is an ideal time for therapeutic wilderness camp. Their thought and behavior patterns can still be modified, any mental health issues can be managed, and behavioral issues can be staved off by getting treatment as early as possible.
By choosing a therapeutic summer program for a child, parents have some control over the company their child keeps. In wilderness therapy, teens’ “second family” becomes their peers, field staff and therapists, all of whom have the student’s best interests in mind.
“Parents have an opportunity when their child is just beginning to head down the wrong path to pull the child out of a toxic situation and place them in an environment where they have a chance to think about where they’re going and receive support as they learn and grow,” said Christensen.
A summer at a wilderness program can make all the difference when teens go back to school in fall. Graduates’ behaviors often show marked improvement – they’ve built stronger relationships with their families, and they’ve gained an academic advantage through months of hands-on learning. Some wilderness therapy programs even offer academic credit.
While adolescents are working on their issues at camp, their parents are working with the program therapists to understand how they’re contributing to the family’s challenges and to set goals for the next school year. The break gives the entire family a chance to de-stress and re-group before the teen returns home.
“In many households, everyone is so busy and stressed during the school year, they begin to lose touch with one another,” said Christensen. “A summer in wilderness therapy can help everyone focus, start speaking the same language and put together a plan to make next year more successful.”