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What Is a Therapeutic Program?

By C. Webb
Updated Feb 10, 2024
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A therapeutic program, also called a wilderness program, is designed to provide help for troubled adolescents. Teenagers that defy authority, do poorly in school, or rebel at home are typical candidates for a therapeutic program. Such programs are held in wilderness settings and encourage participants to learn to trust others, rely on themselves, and work as part of a team.

Adolescents entering a program typically come after a court order or parent request. Such participants may have been in legal trouble already, or their parents believe legal trouble is in their child's future if the teenager does not get control over his or her life. In many cases, participants have not been asked if they want to sign up for the therapeutic program and are defiant when they arrive.

Therapeutic programs are held throughout the world, in many different seasons and landscapes. They are individually designed, but have the commonality of using the land and its hardships to remold the thinking of troubled teens. Programs typically involve participants hiking many miles into the wilderness and, in theory, learning to survive by working together, trusting each other, and realizing that they are stronger than they believed themselves to be.

Through building campfires, foraging for food, and carrying heavy backpacks filled with supplies, participants of the therapeutic program work with bare necessities. While surviving in the wilderness, they are also encouraged to talk to each other and program leaders about their anger issues or other problems. When problems arise, participants are required to work out solutions rather than lash out in anger.

Advocates of the therapeutic program believe the strategies used can help a teenager overcome depression, anxiety, defiance, violence, suicidal tendencies, and other problems. Those who do not support the programs believe they are little more than boot camps for teenagers that further destroy the teens' ability to trust. A therapeutic program typically lasts from one week to several months.

Programs usually require a signed parental waiver protecting the program from liability if something goes wrong while the parent's child is participating. Many programs offer individual therapy, group therapy, and physical endurance challenges. There is usually a strong focus on accountability and taking responsibility for one's actions.

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