Helping At-Risk Youth Overcome Challenges Through Nature-Based Interventions

In a world filled with concrete jungles and digital distractions, struggling kids and teens often find themselves trapped in a cycle of limiting beliefs, unhealthy behaviors, and challenging roadblocks that can put their mental health, school performance, and future well-being at risk.

But what if there was a way to break this cycle and unleash the inner strength, resilience, and untapped abilities of your child?

At Trails Carolina, we use proven, therapeutic nature-based interventions and a relational trauma-informed approach to help our students transform their lives.

The mountains of western North Carolina become more than just a backdrop for at-risk youth to rewrite their narratives and forge a path toward a brighter, more promising future. At Trails Carolina, nature becomes a learning tool for our students, and the wilderness serves as the catalyst for change.

Understanding At-Risk Youth and Breaking the Risk Cycle

The term at-risk youth is typically used to refer to young individuals who face various risk factors that can adversely affect their mental and behavioral health, academic performance, family and peer relationships, and future success.

helping at-risk youth - behavioral problems in girls

These risk factors include but are not limited to substance use, school refusal or poor academic performance, behavioral issues, and family instability. Many struggle with mental health issues, a lack of healthy relationships or community support, and a sense of hopelessness.

In order to interrupt this risk cycle, it is essential to recognize the unique needs of each at-risk teen and provide them with tailored interventions that address their specific challenges.

While traditional approaches to teen intervention may not always yield the desired results, nature-based therapy programs have emerged as effective treatment options for helping at-risk youth build positive relationships, gain essential coping skills, and develop resilience.

The Effectiveness of Nature-Based Therapy in At-Risk Youth Programs

Research shows that nature-based therapy programs offer a holistic and impactful approach to helping at-risk girls and boys overcome risk factors and improve overall well-being.

According to a comprehensive review of over 85 studies evaluating wilderness-based programs for at-risk youth published by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy in June 2022, “exposure to nature is associated with statistically significant positive changes in the following areas:

  • mental health outcomes;
  • behavioral and emotional functioning;
  • cognitive abilities like executive function and academic performance;
  • immune system health;
  • and measures of stress like blood pressure.”

This research review shows the clear effectiveness of nature-based at-risk youth programs that “embed therapeutic components like cognitive behavioral therapy, individual therapy, or reflection time and goal setting with outdoor activities in remote settings.” Trails Carolina is one such program.

The Trails Carolina Approach to Helping At-Risk Youth Through Nature-Based Creative Interventions

At Trails Carolina, we use intentional nature-based intervention strategies to empower at-risk youth to transform their lives.

Our at-risk youth programs utilize evidence-based practices and combine therapeutic techniques (e.g. cognitive behavioral therapy, reflective journaling and goal setting, and individualized treatment plans) with outdoor activities (e.g. hiking, backpacking, camping) to provide a comprehensive and transformative experience for each of our students.

Every aspect of our program is designed to help our students get back on the right track.

Five boys of varying height, age, and race walk with their arms over each others shoulders down a trail in a forest.

Collaborative outdoor activities to build resilience, teamwork, and self-confidence:

Our students get to engage in challenging activities and play outside in a distraction-free environment. Immersion in nature allows at-risk children and teenagers to develop resilience by facing and overcoming challenges in a supportive and dynamic environment. Additionally, our nature-based interventions lead students to develop a stronger sense of self-efficacy, self-awareness, and self-confidence, empowering them to overcome obstacles and pursue their goals beyond our program.

Exposure to nature to improve mental health:

Nature has been linked to having therapeutic effects that can reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress, providing young people with a conducive environment for healing and growth. Engaging in outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, and adventure-based challenges allows at-risk youth to connect with nature, slow down and process their emotions, practice self-regulation, and gain a sense of accomplishment when they do so.

Alumni Story:

Sarah battled anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, which affected her academic performance and overall well-being. Engaging in Trails Carolina’s nature-based interventions provided Sarah with a supportive community and a chance to reconnect with nature.

“Being in nature gave me the chance to work through some of my own stuff without the pressures of school,” Sarah shared. “My therapist at Trails gave me journal prompts to help me work through my anxiety, and being able to journal in nature was way more peaceful than talking to my old therapist in her office. I was able to open up more than I have in the past, which was really good for me.”

During her time at Trails, Sarah experienced a significant reduction in anxiety and depression and developed healthy coping strategies, such as journaling, that she still uses.


Accredited academics and experiential education to combat school refusal and poor academic performance:

Nature-based programs can positively impact academic performance, engagement, and motivation, providing at-risk youth with a pathway to success within and beyond the formal school system. 

According to a 2019 Frontiers in Psychology study titled “Do Experiences With Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-and-Effect Relationship”, evidence strongly suggests that “experiences of nature boost academic learning [and] personal development” in youth.

This study, which is based on a review of a large body of research, concludes that “nature-based instruction outperforms traditional instruction” when it comes to helping students achieve increased “perseverance, problem-solving, critical thinking, leadership, teamwork, and resilience.”

At Trails Carolina, we give our students a new perspective on learning. Our accredited academic programming includes hands-on learning and experiential activities that help students regain interest in their education. Our team of certified teachers and subject matter experts keep students engaged in academic curriculum and habits, making the transition back to school easier.

Family-centered programming for improved communication and healthy child-parent relationships:

Often, at-risk youth need extra support, especially in the home environment. We recognize the significance of family involvement and the power of having trusting relationships with adult role models in the journey of at-risk youth. 

Our program prioritizes parallel family programming, which includes weekly parent calls with the child’s primary therapist, family workshops and educational materials, and ongoing alumni support services to foster stronger family relationships and create a supportive home environment. Families and students learn to communicate their needs and listen with respect through our family programming.

The impact of family involvement in at-risk youth programs: family engages in communication activity outdoors.

Transitional programming to create realistic pathways to long-term success:

Adapting to change and dealing with transitional times in a healthy way is often a serious challenge for at-risk youth. That’s why we create intentional transitions in our program so that students can practice using their new coping skills and emotional regulation techniques in various settings and with different people.

We also help develop personalized aftercare plans for families which helps our students create realistic pathways toward academic success, personal growth, and positive contributions to their communities long after graduation.

Alumni Story:

Jack struggled with anger management and communication issues but found solace and growth through Trails Carolina’s nature-based program.

Through engaging in outdoor activities, therapy sessions that included creative intervention strategies, and building relationships with peers and mentors, Jack developed a stronger sense of self-efficacy and self-confidence, improved his emotional regulation, and rebuilt his relationships with his family and peers.

Today, he is thriving academically and embracing personal growth.

Segmented peer groups and dynamic teams to promote respect and a community mindset:

Our nature-based programs create opportunities for at-risk youth to develop meaningful connections with peers, compassionate and experienced wilderness guides and clinicians, and even horses through our equine therapy program.

This fosters a support network that plays a crucial role in their overall well-being. Our wilderness staff guides peer groups through collaborative activities that allow students to practice teamwork and build leadership skills. Our team of licensed therapists provides individual therapy sessions and empowering group exercises, focusing on addressing underlying issues, uncovering students’ strengths, developing coping strategies, and fostering personal growth.

Key Takeaways

  • Our nature-based therapy programs provide effective treatment options for at-risk youth, promoting mental health, healthy communication and relationship building, and resilience.
  • Immersion in nature offers a therapeutic environment for at-risk youth to develop coping skills, improve self-esteem, and overcome challenges.
  • Our therapeutic interventions have a transformative impact on students’ lives, fostering personal growth, academic success, and improved well-being.
  • Building positive relationships, creating realistic pathways toward success, and involving families are essential components of successful at-risk youth programs at Trails Carolina.

Trails Carolina Can Help Your Family Today

At Trails Carolina, we believe in the potential of every child to thrive, grow, and create a better life for themselves. Through the use of our creative teen intervention services and comprehensive support in a wilderness setting, we empower young individuals to navigate their challenges, build resilience, and discover their path to success. Learn how Trails Carolina’s at-risk youth programs can help your child embark on a transformative journey of healing and growth.

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Avatar of Jeremy Whitworth

Jeremy Whitworth

As Executive Director at Trails Carolina, a leading wilderness therapy program for youth and teens, I oversee operations and collaborate with our leadership team. Since 2022, I've also hosted the Common Ground Podcast for parents: With a background in Wilderness Leadership and Experiential Education, I've managed adventure-based therapeutic programs across the US and Canada. My experiences in competitive athletics and adventure sports have honed my leadership, risk assessment, and decision-making skills, which I apply to running a successful business like Trails Carolina.

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Trails saved my daughter’s life. Amanda is an amazing human and a brilliant therapist. I am so grateful to her, Science Steve, and the other wonderful people who could reach my daughter at a time when I could not.

Margot Lowman August 2022

Great life changing experience for our son. After becoming addicted to gaming during covid he was very depressed. At Trails he experienced the wilderness, Science Steve, learning survival skills and top notch therapy and support etc… I highly recommend! This gave our son and our family a renewed family bond full of love and excitement about his bright future.

Winnifred Wilson July 2022


Outstanding clinical work and superb staff! There’s a great culture at this company and it shows with how they engage with families/clients.

Kristin Brace June 2022


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