How do I work with a wilderness program graduate?
An adolescent I will be working with will be returning from a wilderness program. What should I be looking out for, and how should I work with her to make sure she maintains her progress?
In the first place, it will be good to get her sense of what went down in the program. Did she experience it as positive? If so, in what ways?
There have, of course, been many cases of confrontation and abuse in such programs. The results of such experiences are often very negative. Indeed, I am suspicious when people describe how — after their initial resentment — they welcomed the program's effects. It can be a kind of identifying with the aggressor that still leaves the person in a bad place. (I am indebted for my recognition of these issues to my colleague, Maia Szalavitz, who is researching this question.)
So you first have to determine where your client is coming from, while assessing for yourself what the impact of the program has been for her. From there, you may need to address problems she has experienced, including exacerbated negative feelings about herself and who she is.
The positives to wilderness experiences can be the exposure to new experiences of physical exertion leading to growing self confidence and resulting appreciation of new strengths and abilities. The issue then is how to make sure these are retained, exercised, and expanded in her day-to-day environment. Can she continue physical activities like those she did in the program? Will she take on new responsibilities based on her successes there? Channeling the new energy, making sure it is not dissipated but is in fact utilized as a real part of her life, is the key to this part of the process.