Navigating through adolescence in today’s socioemotional landscape can be extremely difficult for teens. From mood swings to academic problems to more complicated mental health issues, it’s becoming increasingly common for teens to reach a level of distress where professional help can be beneficial. Research has shown that therapy can help teens in a variety of ways such as preventing minor problems from turning into major problems and improving overall mental well-being.

With an increase in the overall number of teens turning to therapy for support, there has also been an increase in the number of available methods of therapy. To understand what option could work best for your son, it can be beneficial to know the differences between traditional therapies and more experiential therapies.

What individual therapy looks like in general

Individual therapy is the process in which a licensed mental health professional provides therapeutic services to an adolescent in order to help them gain a higher level of self-awareness surrounding their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, as well as provide coping strategies that will help teens adjust their thought patterns to better manage their feelings. Traditionally, this will take the form of psychotherapy, or talk therapy, which relies on communication as the basic tool to bring about change in a person.

Traditional therapy can be used for teens with or without a mental health diagnosis, and those without a diagnosis will often begin their therapeutic relationship with assessment to determine if any diagnosis is appropriate. For other teens, traditional therapy may be used when they are going through a time of great stress, such as their parents’ divorce or moving to a new place.

Within talk therapy, there are a number of different evidence-based treatments that a therapist might use. Typically a therapist will specialize in one or two approaches to psychotherapy. A few common adolescent psychotherapy treatments are acceptance and commitment therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, interpersonal therapy, mentalization-based therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy.

Regardless of the type of therapy your child engages with, these therapeutic sessions typically last around 50 minutes and are scheduled once a week. Initially, the focus will be on creating a trusting, supportive therapeutic relationship so that the teen feels comfortable with the therapist. Once this relationship has been established, they can begin working on adopting the necessary coping strategies to improve behavior and thought patterns. Traditional therapy can be helpful in a number of ways such as receiving emotional support, resolving conflicts, and gaining a deeper understanding of one’s thoughts and feelings. However, if traditional therapy hasn’t yielded positive results, other options such as wilderness therapy, can take change to a new level.

What individual therapy looks like in wilderness programs

Individual therapy in wilderness programs has been found to be successful because it typically does three things very well: assessing the underlying issues, helping teens develop positive coping strategies, and allowing teens to emerge back into the real-world with a more positive sense of self and hope for the future.

The first step of therapy at wilderness programs is individualized assessment aimed at helping each client open up. Families typically note they have a lack of in-depth knowledge surrounding all of the issues happening with their child beneath the surface. Wilderness therapy programs have recognized that a one-size fits all approach isn’t likely to have long-term positive impacts, so one of the goals of individual therapy is to invite teens to play a more active role in identifying their personal goals. This collaboration between therapist and client helps to create a symbiotic relationship where the client is more likely to participate in the process. Other factors included in individualized treatment plans include psychological testing, outcome questionnaires, learning style assessments, and parental input.

Individual therapy is often boosted in wilderness settings through the complimentary use of group therapy. Even though once a week therapy can be helpful to adolescents, the clinical and finite setting of traditional therapy can cause teens to be reluctant in opening up. A wilderness therapy program is immersive and students are surrounded in therapeutic settings daily. Many students start to open up in individual sessions after they hear peers who are experiencing similar struggles share during group therapy sessions. The family system is typically very involved in this initial assessment period, and even though their child is physically away from them, parents are updated weekly with therapist observations and progress reports.

After initial assessment is complete, wilderness therapy aims to help its students develop healthy coping mechanisms for success. Because students are immersed full-time in the therapeutic environment, therapists can constantly assess how each client is managing their experiences. This allows the client and therapist to talk through issues he is experiencing in real-time and how to come up with better strategies in the moment to self-regulate and process emotions. Developing these skills can help build self-confidence, hope, and improve interpersonal relationships, all of which can be transferred back to the home setting after graduating from a wilderness program.

How do students benefit from therapy in wilderness settings over more traditional settings?

A research study from the University of New Hampshire reported that wilderness therapy is more effective and less expensive than traditional methods of therapy when treating adolescents for mental health and substance abuse issues. The study concluded that outdoor behavioral health programs had higher completion rates, better long-term outcomes and actually cost less in the long run than office-based treatment programs. But what accounts for these results and why are students benefiting more in the long run from wilderness therapy?

One way wilderness therapy works to achieve a greater impact on students is through getting a true buy-in. Many traditional talk-therapy programs push to work clients through predetermined steps in a methodological manner, and this approach tends to prescribe to clients what their priorities should be and how they should behave. This can cause clients to shut down and only mimic the desired behavior in order to move onto the next stage. Even though a teen may be expressing compliance, the underlying challenges that brought them to therapy in the first place still exist. Wilderness therapy programs, conversely, have their clients choose what they wish to work on which allows kids an immediate buy-in to the process. Agency, combined with a serene setting and engaging adventure therapy activities, are the power behind effective wilderness programs.

Wilderness therapy programs also offer the benefit of individualized treatment plans provided by highly-trained clinicians. Programs, like BlueFire Wilderness, implement a variety of evidence-backed techniques that will best help each individual with their needs. Some of the techniques include motivational interviewing, cognitive behavioral therapy, equine-assisted psychotherapy, experiential therapy, recreation therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, neuro-feedback, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, and brainspotting. This wide range of treatment options, which all take place in a naturally therapeutic setting, can provide a more all-encompassing care than traditional settings which may only implement 1 or 2 of these techniques.

Beyond the content and method of treatment, another reason why wilderness therapy has been found to be more effective than traditional therapy is simply due to the setting. A research study found that being in the wilderness supplies a new or novel setting for teens that takes them outside of their comfort zone and provides them a fresh slate for contemplating their life and their decision making. Additionally, the natural consequences found in the wilderness provide an opportunity for teens to push and learn from themselves as it forces them to come up with new and healthier coping mechanisms when situations don’t go their way.

If your child could benefit from a fresh, multimodal approach to therapy, BlueFire Wilderness can be the difference he needs.

How BlueFire Wilderness provides beneficial therapeutic treatment to teens

BlueFire Wilderness Therapy is a premier wilderness therapy program for troubled teens struggling with emotional, social, and behavioral challenges. We utilize a comprehensive approach to teen treatment based on research and decades of experience. Our strength is combining clinical expertise, adventure experiences, academic assessments, and a family systems approach.

We utilize highly trained staff, cutting edge technology, and the latest research to create the best environment for change. This environment provides a supportive opportunity for parents and children to reconnect and strengthen their relationships.

At BlueFire Wilderness, our students receive numerous services that are not found in traditional therapeutic settings. A few of these beneficial interventions include:

More therapy: Our therapeutic experts are in the field with our students four days per week. This allows each of our students to receive individual therapy two times per week and group therapy four times per week.

Comprehensive family involvement: Our family-centered approach continually involves parents in a way that makes them integral to the healing process and helps to reconnect the entire family system.

Weekly equine therapy: Therapy with horses has been empirically proven to assist in developing healthy relationships and improved communication skills.

Base camp setting: Our base camps are where all our students set up in between their adventure treks. Base camps are complete with yurts, cots, and a cooking center, all of which contribute to a “home away from home” atmosphere for our students.


Adventure therapy: This type of therapy utilizes the wilderness and outdoor surroundings to help individuals challenge themselves in a healthy way to promote emotional, psychological, and behavioral growth. Clients will participate in activities such as multi-day hiking, mountain biking, climbing, and many others to gain a new perspective on their ability to complete goals.

For more information on how BlueFire can help, please call (208) 502-2326.

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