Wilderness Interventions: Rock Challenge

One of the best aspects of wilderness therapy is that the process of change is expedited.  In any other treatment setting the typical timeline for a child to go from a state of blame and denial to a state of accountability and confidence takes around 12 -18 months, in the wilderness it takes an average of 2 months. 

This is due to the wilderness setting that creates natural challenges for the teen to overcome and grow from.  Many people erroneously think that saving teens from challenges will give them an advantage in life.  Instead of running away from challenges, Outback works with teens to help them overcome challenges. 

This process can be uncomfortable and difficult, but it is the difficulty and discomfort that prods that teen into action and a positive direction.  While the wilderness provides a foundation of natural interventions, our staff and therapists are ever mindful of intentional ways to invite students to step outside of their comfort zone and into their growth zone. 

Below is an example of a wilderness intervention experience:

Rock Challenge –7.24.09 (15)

“A wilderness intervention I did with a boys group one time was called the rock challenge.  To set the stage for this challenge, you need to know that while students are in Outback, they have a very healthy diet of whole grains, fruits and vegetables…they do not have access to candy.  So one day I walk into a group with a pack of starbursts and when the kids saw it they lit up with excitement.  When I asked them if they wanted some they shouted their answer in unison, “YES!”  I then asked, what are you willing to do for it?  “Anything!” was their response.  So, I told them to go pick up a large rock and bring it back.  After doing so, I laid out the challenge, in which they would each receive 2 starbursts if they held on to that rock in the same hand all day without putting it down.  “That’s it?!” they said, “yep, that’s it”.  They scoffed and began talking about how they were going to devour their starbursts later that day.  As the day went on, the students began to experience the difficulties of having to hold on to a large rock in one hand while trying to tie their backpacks, dig a fire pit, or make their shelters.  Some of the boys just didn’t even try…they just sat there thinking about their starbursts later that night while the others tried to pick up their slack.  As the day came to a close we all sat down around the fire and began to talk about the metaphor behind the rock.  We talked about how difficult it was to hold on to the rock, how much their hand would cramp throughout the day, and how holding the rock limited their abilities to perform their normal daily tasks. Some of them also talked about how frustrated they became with others that just chose not to engage in the group and how that forced them to pick up the slack.  After this discussion, I introduced the pinnacle of the challenge.  Because they had chosen to go through so much difficulty, frustration and even pain for a few small pieces of candy, I related this to their negative behaviors at home.  The weed they smoked, the classes they skipped, the hours they spent playing video games…all had a similar “delicious” feeling to the starbursts that was enticing.  But each of those behaviors were affecting the way they lived their life.  Their family relationships were deteriorating, their grades were plummeting, their ability to have fun without substances abuse was gone, their time spent gaming was taking over their life…they were living their life going from one starburst to another, and experiencing the negative side effects that it was causing.  As this analogy was laid out, some of the boys immediately became disgusted in the fact that they held on to a rock all day long in spite of how much it negatively impacted their day.  Other boys in the group tried to fight against the analogy and began to justify their behaviors at home and their behaviors while holding the rock.  Regardless of how they received the analogy, the crucial challenge was then given…”As a symbol of your commitment to change, I’m inviting you to let go of your rock.  If you do this, you will not receive the startbursts, but you will feel empowered to drop other “rocks” that weigh you down in life.  At the end of the discussion, half of the boys decided to drop their rocks even though they held it all day long in order to receive their reward…while the other half of the boys chose to refuse the symbolic analogy and eat their starbursts.  This was a pivotal moment because it seemed as if those that were making the “right choice” were being punished while those that were refusing to let go of their negative behaviors were being rewarded.  To wrap up the night, we talked about how many times we chose the small rewards like 2 starbursts because we want something delicious now.  Rather than learning how to feel sadness and handle it appropriately, we are tempted to avoid our feelings through behaviors such as substance abuse, gaming, defiance, etc…  But if we learn how to healthily process our challenges, we grow so much more and experience even greater rewards.  At this point, I pulled out multiple packs of starbursts and gave one to each of the students that chose to let go of their rock.  The students that had by now finished their 2 starbursts were upset and saying that if they would have known they would get a full pack, they would have dropped their rock…but that became the physical lesson they needed to experience…the choices we make that have negative effects on our daily lives will affect the rewards we have in the future.  You must go beyond thinking about what you will get now, and practice patience and maturity for the possibility of what you will get later.”


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