The Family Piece

Three large, flat stones are placed in a triangle formation. One stone represents a teenager, the second and third represent her mother and father. The teenager is asked to think of a specific time when she was fighting or in conflict with her parents. “Stand on your stone and feel what it was like to be you in this situation” she is instructed. She does so and describes, without much effort, her anger at her parents. “Now, move and stand on the stone that represents your mother. Become her in this situation. What is she feeling?” Tears form in the teenager’s eyes as she describes, slowly and thoughtfully, feeling hurt and betrayed by her daughter for violating her trust, again. Next, she stands on her father’s stone. She sobs and says nothing for awhile.

Eventually, the teenager speaks and says, “I feel sad, very sad, and confused. I feel like I have lost my daughter, and I don’t know how to get her back. I miss her so much, but I don’t know how to help her. “Two parents are on the phone with their son’s field supervisor for their weekly session. Mom is distressed: “I’m REALLY frustrated because I have always tried to help my son—I’ve even stayed up at night writing papers for him so that he could get a good night’s sleep before his games—and this is how he shows me his appreciation! I do everything for him and I’m tired.” The field supervisor acknowledges her frustration and feeling burned out, then asks “What would happen if you didn’t write his papers for him?”

Dad jumps in, “His wouldn’t do them and his grades would drop, then he couldn’t play baseball.” “Does your son like baseball?” the field supervisor asks. “Yeah, it’s his life. He’s planning on getting a scholarship, too” answers Dad. The field supervisor asks how many times their son would choose to not do his homework if it meant that he couldn’t play baseball. “I don’t know,” reflects Mom, “we’ve never let him do that.” Silence. “I’m going to let you in on something,” says the field supervisor. “We need to let our children fail.” Three parents are sitting around a table. “Who wants to go first?” Karen asks. “I already know what my son is going to ask for, so I’ll go!” says Susan. Ron agrees to be her son and Karen says she’ll be the observer who will offer Susan feedback. Ron starts: “Mom, I want to go visit my friends in Orlando before school starts. Can I?” Susan states that she doesn’t think it’s safe for him to go on a trip to visit friends who he used to do drugs with so soon after graduating from SUWS, and therefore her answer is “No”.

“But Mom, I haven’t even had a summer since you and dad sent me HERE and this is the only time I’ll be able to go to Orlando—you know that Chris is moving and I won’t get to see him if I don’t go when I get back!” whines Ron loudly. “Well, I know you haven’t had a summer break and I know you want to go to Orlando, but I just don’t think it’s a good idea right now. How about if we talk about going as a family at the end of the month?” Susan pleas, then looks at Karen to see how she’s doing. “You did a wonderful job initially stating ‘no’ and giving your reasons why,” Karen offers, “then you started bargaining with him, which we learned never works.” “Yes, you’re right” exclaimed Susan. “I felt like I needed to offer him something, like I owed him something since he’s been at SUWS! Okay, let me try it again and this time I’ll come back to ‘nevertheless, the answer is no.…

What do these three situations have in common? They are all family systems interventions and they are regular occurrences at SUWS of the Carolinas, a wilderness therapy program for struggling pre-teens and adolescents in western North Carolina. The program combines clinical expertise with a wilderness setting to target and change unhealthy, ineffective, and problematic behaviors of youth. Though youth are the residential clients in the program, parents participate in weekly phone sessions with their child’s field supervisor, write weekly letters to their child, receive weekly letters from—and photos of—their child, and attend a two-day Trail’s End program at graduation that combines a parent seminar with an overnight stay in the woods with their child. Parents are an integral part of the treatment program since SUWS of the Carolinas recognizes the vital role that they, and the entire family system, play in effective treatment for struggling pre-teens and adolescents.

Too often, when families are dealing with children or teens that are out of control, typical treatments that are sought focus almost solely on the youth themselves with peripheral—if any—treatment involving parents and siblings. However, when a teen is struggling, the entire family is struggling. Family systems theory acknowledges that the behavior of one family member or subsystem directly impacts other members or subsystems. For example, when children “parent shop” and use the less strict parent to get what they want, the parental subsystem is damaged and the stricter parent becomes resentful of his or her spouse (or ex-spouse). Involving the family in treatment is more effective in decreasing problematic adolescent behaviors than working with the adolescent only, and the changes are longer lasting, too.

SUWS of the Carolinas is committed to creating the best possible outcomes for struggling youth and their families. This is demonstrated by their present programming, as well as their interest in increasing the family support services they offer. Plans are being made for additional services that focus on the family including greater web-based support, formal family assessment and report, and a 3-4 day family wilderness camp. These services will be offered to families who have a child currently placed at SUWS, families that are struggling with a teen and hope to prevent the need for residential treatment, as well as families that have previously had a child placed with SUWS (or another wilderness program) that would like some “refresher” support.

There is no need for families that are dealing with difficult youth to continue down a path that isn’t working. Early intervention is a crucial factor in successful treatment outcomes. SUWS of the Carolinas is here to help youth and their families.

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.