Motivating Girls Through Wilderness Therapy

An Interview with Terri Chester, MA, LPC, NCC

By Meghan Vivo

Like teenage boys, girls thrive in wilderness therapy programs. Living in nature with a group of peers and participating in the therapeutic process makes wilderness programs highly effective in getting teenage girls motivated to make changes in their lives.

But girls sometimes struggle to understand the benefits of primitive living and may take longer to invest in treatment. In an effort to help teen girls achieve even greater success in wilderness therapy, Terri Chester, MA, LPC, NCC, a field therapist at SUWS of the Carolinas wilderness program for troubled teens, has reviewed decades of developmental research. Based on her findings, SUWS has incorporated new tools in its approach to working with teen girls. “Our goal is to understand how we can best motivate and support our female students,” said Chester. “We want to help teen girls access all of the benefits of the wilderness experience so that they can become more effective when they return home or go on to their next placement.”

Defining Success

When they begin a wilderness program, girls sometimes feel punished, ostracized or abandoned by their families. While most boys quickly realize that the wilderness experience will help them become more self-reliant, girls tend to be slower to recognize the benefits of “roughing it” in the woods and learning to depend on themselves.

Part of the reason for this disparity is that girls have different value systems and are motivated by different things than boys. In fact, certain aspects of wilderness therapy that motivate boys (such as “hard skills” like building fire and making traps) are sometimes the least effective in motivating girls.

“The research shows that girls typically build their sense of identity first through relationships, and then through individuation,” said Chester, “while teenage boys typically do the opposite.”

For females, success is defined by the relationships in their lives (for example, having a boyfriend or a close network of friends) rather than tangible achievements like winning a tournament or being the best at a certain skill. For males, success is more functional, and is defined by what they can do, how much money they can earn and what the trade-offs are for achieving success.

Understanding Motivation

According to motivational theorists McClelland and Atkinson, the motivation to succeed has four factors. Motivation is strongest when hope for success is high and the other three factors are low.

  1. Hope for Success

Hope for success is the ideal mindset for maximizing motivation. For teens with learning, emotional and behavioral issues, building hope for success may require lessening the influence of the other three factors.

“Many of the students at SUWS come into the program with little hope of success because they haven’t had much in their lives,” said Chester. “One of our goals is to help them view success as something positive and worth working toward.”

     2. Hope for Failure

Based on research by Klinger and McNelly, girls are more likely than boys to believe winning is losing and to play the victim role.

At SUWS, girls are sometimes convinced that they can’t manage in the wilderness and may resist treatment because they believe their parents will come rescue them, said Chester. They may make slower progress in the program because they don’t want their parents to think they were right to send their teen to a program, or they fear that doing well will result in more responsibilities.

“Teens use their own failure to get power over their parents,” Chester explained. “In some cases, they are more invested in failing than succeeding, which can be a difficult mindset to shift.”

     3. Fear of Success

According to research by Horner and Hoffman, girls are more likely than boys to report feeling a fear of success. Whereas boys thrive on competition, girls may lower their performance when competing with boys or other girls. For example, girls may not strive to get the best grades in school or run as fast as the boys, even when they are capable of doing so.

At SUWS, Chester has observed a trend in the girls’ groups where students who are focused on achieving tasks and assuming a leadership role are shunned by the rest of the group. Instead, the girls choose their own social leader, whereas the boys’ groups will respect a leader who can accomplish tasks even if they don’t like him.

“Girls tend to resist separating themselves from the group through achievement,” noted Chester. “They want to fit in with their peers, attract potential partners and avoid resentment, so they let themselves achieve less than they are truly capable of.”

     4. Fear of Failure

Girls are also more likely than boys to report feeling a fear of failure (Horner). As a result, they may give up trying to accomplish challenging tasks.

Helping Teens Succeed

Every parent wants their child to be the best they can be. Here are a few steps parents can take to make sure their daughters stay motivated to succeed.

Offer Emotional Support. Because they are relationship-driven, teenage girls need plenty of emotional support and encouragement in order to stay motivated to achieve their goals.

“In order to feel confident in their abilities, girls need emotional support,” explained Chester. “Boys tend to think of support as information or technical help, but girls want moral support. Males feel more confident once they have been shown how to complete a task, while girls need positive reinforcement as they test their abilities.”

Reward Effort, not Results. Parents have the best of intentions when they praise their child’s accomplishments, but it is important, especially for parents of teenage girls, to recognize their work ethic as well. For girls, motivation is intricately tied to social support and recognition. Girls need affirmation every step of the way when they are learning something new. For example, rather than congratulating their daughter only if she wins the basketball game or earns all As in school, parents should reward dedication, commitment, self-confidence, improvement and hard work.

“Parents help their daughters build a stronger sense of identity by changing the way they praise their daughters,” advised Chester. “A teenage girl needs to know her parents see her, not just her achievements.”

Avoid Rescuing. It’s hard for parents to see their child struggle. As a result, they may go out of their way to do things for their child or fulfill their child’s responsibilities. But the result is often a child that can’t tolerate disappointment or failure and who has a strong sense of entitlement.

“Teens need to be challenged in order to feel empowered,” said Chester. “Along the way, parents should provide support and praise, rewarding their child’s perseverance and willingness to try new things. But they shouldn’t always let their teen take the easy route.”

According to Chester, it’s healthy for teens to work for some of the things they get. They should know that it’s okay to make mistakes because that’s how they learn.

Get Help. Teens who have already lost their desire to succeed will likely need a more intensive intervention to get them back on track in school and at home. Based on research and more than 25 years of experience, SUWS specializes in getting teens invested in their treatment and their future.

“We live in a society that is built on a competitive, achievement model,” said Chester. “Schools, sports and careers all require people to work hard to be the best. In order to be successful in our culture, girls need the skills for competency and achievement.”

Individualized treatment allows the therapists at SUWS to tailor their approach to the needs of each student. For example, a teenage girl with an intense fear of failure may struggle in school and have a low tolerance for stress. The therapists may work with the student to build success in her comfort areas, provide positive reinforcement after every step and encourage her peers to offer their support. Once she learns that she can succeed outside of her comfort zone, her fear of failure lessens and the student can gradually take on more challenging tasks.

The initial focus with the girls’ group is on getting them integrated into the group and establishing the group identity. Once students feel supported by their peers, they begin to invest in the process. Although girls don’t naturally thrive on competition, they will thrive on a sense of competence and can build self-esteem through small successes, which results in greater motivation and functionality.

For girls, competence isn’t measured by the outcome of a task, but by the intrinsic value of the task (Kipnis, Sutherland & Veroff). They do best when they are measuring themselves against their own past performance rather than comparing themselves to others’ achievements.

In order to encourage teen girls to strive for success, SUWS arranges for each individual’s success to benefit the whole group. For example, the girls may have the option to coordinate a community service project, which earns the entire group a special food or recreational activity. This way, the girls are encouraged to assume a leadership role.

Respecting Differences

When it comes to theories about gender differences, there are always exceptions. Not all girls fit the profile, and not all boys thrive in a competitive environment, especially across different ethnicities and cultures. Because much of the applicable research was conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, modern gender roles may change the outcome for this generation of teens.

Nevertheless, the research gives wilderness programs like SUWS more tools to evaluate the motivation system of teens and help them develop positive attitudes and eliminate detrimental ones.

The SUWS model of wilderness therapy is informed by theories of development and psychology and honors the disparate needs of males and females. Rather than trying to fit teen girls into a model that suits teen boys, SUWS respects the role relationships play in the lives its female students and uses that value system to build rapport, investment and motivation. By working with girls in the way that best suits their needs, SUWS helps them develop a healthy sense of identity, relationship skills and self-esteem.

“We are working to find the ideal blend of approaches at SUWS so we can best meet the needs of our students,” said Chester. “By tailoring the program to suit each student’s individual needs, we’ve seen both boys and girls get more motivated to succeed and achieve far more than they thought possible.”

The wilderness therapy offered at SUWS was the dynamic solution needed to help my son with his behavioral issues. When my son left SUWS, he was completely changed for the better and also created new bonds and unforgettable memories! I can't recommend SUWS enough for anyone in a similar situation!

– Britney A.