What is Wilderness Therapy and How Does It Help Teens with Anger?

gnowDo you remember as a child how you could spend hours throwing a ball against a wall and love how it would bounce back towards you?  That is similar to an adolescent’s anger.  They will throw out subtle comments, cutting remarks or a defiant behaviors and await a negative reaction.  In this way, they feel like they have control over their environment.  Parents become the wall that provides an entertaining game to play.  

When traditional talk therapy isn’t enough to help teens who have anger issues, parents sometimes turn to residential treatment programs instead. While there are a variety of residential treatment options out there, wilderness therapy programs are especially effective at helping adolescents in a way that talk therapy can’t.

What is Wilderness Therapy?

How does wilderness therapy reach teens in a way that parents, talk therapy, and even traditional residential treatment programs can’t? According to Keith C. Russell, a leading researcher of wilderness therapy, “Wilderness therapy utilizes outdoor adventure pursuits and other activities, such as primitive skills and reflection, to enhance personal and interpersonal growth.”

The wilderness environment is more similar to a pillow wall that does not return the ball thrown at it.  In this game, the child has to walk up to the pillow wall, retrieve the ball, then walk back and throw it again, only to repeat this tedious process.  It isn’t nearly as fun and requires far more effort.

Therapeutic Wilderness Setting

Unlike other residential treatment programs, wilderness therapy programs utilize the benefits of outdoor living. Studies show that simply being outdoors has mental health benefits. Benefits of the therapeutic wilderness setting include:

  • Reduces stress
  • Positive benefits to cognitive health (Wells 2000)
  • Reduction in ADHD symptoms (Kuo, PhD, Frances E., and Faber Taylor, PhD. 2004)
  • Enhances social interactions and makes teens “nicer” (Weinstein, Przybylski, & Ryan 2009)

Therapeutic Group Living

The therapeutic group living experienced during wilderness therapy programs helps teens with their interpersonal communication skills and building strong peer relationships. The group living situation provides teens a chance to learn from others who are experiencing similar hardships and overcoming anger issues through wilderness therapy.

Positive Role Models in the Form of Field Staff and Therapists

In addition to the bonds formed with other teens who are learning to deal with emotions in a healthy way, wilderness therapy programs help teach teens healthy ways to cope with anger issues and other negative emotions from the experienced field guides and therapists.  Field guides are trained to defuse situations instead of escalate them.  

Many students will “test” field guides and act out negatively for a reaction. Some will even act out as a form of “revenge” for parents sending them to treatment. Instead of participating in the game of reacting negatively, field guides are trained to redirect conversations skillfully enough that can not justify their poor behavior, and will eventually comply willingly.  The wilderness provides a proverbial mirror for a child to see their behaviors for what they are…theirs.

Helps Show Teens that Anger has Consequences

Wilderness therapy demonstrates to teens that acting out of anger or defiance will not get them anywhere. Instead of lecturing or punishing teens, wilderness therapy programs utilize natural consequences to demonstrate this in a way they understand. For example, when a teen is angry refuses to put effort into making a quality backpack frame because they want to punish their parents for sending them to the wilderness, the weight is not evenly distributed on their backs and often causes needless aches and discomfort. When a child puts minimal effort into tying their shelter down securely, they may have a terrible night’s rest as they stay awake listening to the tarp flapping loosely in the wind. There is no one to be mad at for those things besides themselves.  There is no one to engage in a fun game of returning the ball.

Helps Teens Deal with Emotions

While many teens who are struggling with emotional outbursts and anger issues feel uncomfortable discussing their feelings, wilderness therapy helps to address this. According to Russell, “the process also teaches clients how to access and express their emotions, and why talking about feelings is important.” (Russell 2001) This, in turn, will help your teen express what is upsetting them, before his or her emotions become uncontrollable.

Provides a Strong Sense of Accomplishment for Teens

Another aspect that sets wilderness therapy apart from other residential treatment programs is the strong sense of accomplishment upon completion. Russell states that “completing a wilderness therapy program represents a sense of accomplishment for the client that is concrete and real, and can be used to draw strength from in the future.” (Russell 2001) That strength will prove useful in overcoming future obstacles in your teen’s life.

Instills Self Confidence and Self Efficacy

The sense of accomplishment and strength that many teens gain from completing wilderness therapy is key in helping boost his or her self confidence and self efficacy. According to Russell, “Clients believe that if they completed wilderness therapy, they can also complete other formidable tasks.” Self confidence is especially vital for teens who are exhibiting anger issues due to low self esteem or bullying. Higher levels of self efficacy are linked to greater motivation, positive thinking skills, and lower vulnerability to stress and depression in teens.

Click here to download our free white paper and find out more about how to help with anger issues in teens.


Frances E. Kuo, PhD and  Andrea Faber Taylor, PhD. A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence From a National Study

Russell, Kieth C., (2001) “What is Wilderness Therapy?” The Journal of Experiential Education, Vol. 24, 70-79

Weinstein, N., Przybylski, A. K., & Ryan, R. M. (2009).” Can nature make us more caring? Effects of immersion in nature on intrinsic aspirations and generosity.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1315-1329.

Wells, N.M. (2000). At Home with Nature: Effects of “greenness” on children’s cognitive functioning. Environment and Behavior (32), 6, pp 775-795.


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