Turning Defiance into Cooperation: Treating Oppositional Defiant Disorder in Teenagers with Wilderness Therapy

Teenagers often go through a period of rebellion and defiance as they seek autonomy and navigate the challenges of adolescence.

However, for some young people, defiant behavior can escalate into a more serious issue known as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). Oppositional Defiant Disorder in teens is characterized by a pattern of ongoing angry or irritable mood, argumentative behavior, and vindictiveness towards authority figures, family members, and peers. This disorder can have a profound impact on a teen’s peer and family relationships, academic performance, and social functioning.

One effective approach for treating Oppositional Defiant Disorder in teens is wilderness therapy. Wilderness therapy programs, such as Trails Carolina, provide a structured, outdoor environment where adolescents can develop essential life skills, build self-esteem, and foster healthy relationships with their peers and authority figures. 

By combining traditional therapeutic methods with challenging outdoor experiences, teens learn to overcome their defiant behavior and work cooperatively with others towards a common goal. This powerful combination of therapy, personal growth, and outdoor adventure has proven to be a successful tool for transforming the lives of young people dealing with ODD.

Understanding Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Treating Oppositional Defiant Disorder - A teen boy in a beanie and a sweatshirt glowers at the viewer in the woods.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) is a childhood disruptive behavior disorder that primarily affects the self-control of emotions and behaviors. Teens with ODD often exhibit a persistent pattern of uncooperative, hostile,  argumentative and defiant behavior directed toward adults in positions of authority.

Typical symptoms include:

  • Frequent anger and irritability
  • Arguing with authority figures
  • Deliberate disobedience
  • Blaming others for their mistakes
  • Acting spiteful or vindictive

The diagnosis of ODD is based on these symptoms lasting for at least six months, as mentioned by the University of Pittsburgh. It is important to differentiate ODD from other behavioral disorders too, such as conduct disorder, which involves impingement of others’ rights and violation of age-appropriate social norms.

Associated Mental Health Issues

Teens with ODD often experience other mental health disorders and issues, which can make treatment more challenging. These issues may include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Recognizing and addressing these co-occurring mood disorders is crucial in helping teens with ODD overcome their challenges and lead healthy, productive lives. Wilderness therapy programs can be an effective way to approach these issues and help turn defiance into cooperation.

What is Wilderness Therapy for Defiant Teens?

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A Unique Approach to Therapy

Wilderness therapy is an experiential form of therapy that combines outdoor experiences and therapy sessions to help teens with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) develop confidence, coping skills, and healthier behaviors. 

This type of therapy differs from traditional therapy settings because it takes place in a natural environment, such as forests and mountains of Western North Carolina in the case of Trails Carolina’s wilderness therapy programs, rather than a clinical setting or classroom. 

The immersive experience in nature allows students to face the challenges and natural consequences of the wilderness and encourages self-discovery, teamwork, and trust with their peers, therapists, and wilderness staff.

Wilderness Therapy Programs and Techniques at Trails Carolina

At Trails Carolina, a leading therapeutic wilderness program for defiant teens, we employ various individualized treatments, creative interventions, and experiential therapies, providing a wide range of growth opportunities for our students. Some examples of these techniques include:

  • Adventure Therapy: Adventure therapy involves games and activities that engage teens mentally and physically. It promotes interpersonal skills and encourages personal growth, while also helping students face challenging situations and build confidence in their abilities.
  • Expeditions: Our program includes intentional wilderness expeditions, which involve navigating through natural terrain and completing various tasks such as backpacking, setting up camp, and building a campfire. These experiences allow students to learn valuable coping skills while also fostering self-reliance and responsibility.
  • Therapy Sessions: A key component of wilderness therapy at Trails Carolina is the integration of therapy sessions with experienced mental health professionals. During these individualized treatment sessions, students have opportunities to discuss their experiences and emotions while also receiving guidance from licensed therapists who specialize in trauma-informed treatment approaches.
  • Parallel Family Programming: Trails Carolina’s parallel family programming is another integral part of our therapeutic approach for defiant teens with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Through family therapy sessions, parent education and support, experiential activities, and ongoing communication, we create a collaborative and supportive environment where families can address challenges, strengthen relationships, and promote lasting positive change.

Our wilderness therapy programs aim to provide students with tools and coping strategies to successfully navigate life’s challenges and improve their overall mental health. The structured and supportive environment helps teens with ODD develop better communication and problem-solving skills, ultimately leading to a more harmonious and cooperative existence in their daily lives.

The Benefits of Wilderness Therapy for Teens with ODD

Trails student learning to make a camp fire

Improved Behavior and Attitude

Wilderness therapy programs at Trails Carolina are designed to help teens with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) to develop healthy coping strategies while experiencing the calming effects and additional benefits of nature. Our programs involve peer group activities, hiking, backpacking, and clinically supported group therapy sessions, which help teens exhibiting defiant behaviors gain valuable life skills and improve their behavior and attitude towards others1.

Enhanced Communication Skills

ODD often results in negative communication patterns between teens and authority figures or family members2. Wilderness therapy provides a neutral environment where adolescents can practice effective communication and conflict resolution skills with trusted and trained adults. Group activities and problem-solving challenges in the outdoors encourage teamwork, cooperation, and trust among students and other authority figures, leading to healthier communication habits.

Increased Personal Responsibility and Trust

Adolescents with ODD may struggle with personal responsibility and trust issues, both in their relationships and when dealing with their own mental health3. 

In wilderness therapy, teens are required to take on personal responsibility for their actions, as they participate in meal preparations, campsite set up and take down, and other daily tasks. Trust-building experiences, such as setting up camp and group decision-making exercises, help establish and reinforce positive behaviors and attitudes related to responsibility and trust.

By participating in wilderness therapy programs tailored to their needs, teens with ODD can overcome the challenges associated with defiance, anxiety, depression, and poor relationships with authority or family members. The skills gained through these programs will enable them to better manage their own mental and emotional health, as well as lead more productive and positive lives.

Treating Oppositional Defiant Disorder in Conjunction with Other Mental Health Issues at Trails Carolina

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Addressing Co-Occurring Disorders

Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) often occurs alongside other behavioral or mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, or trauma. To effectively treat ODD, it is crucial to address these co-occurring disorders simultaneously. Trails Carolina takes this comprehensive approach helping to ensure the root causes of defiance and behavioral problems are properly addressed for lasting, sustainable growth.

For children and teens with ODD and ADHD, we focus on improving time management, organization, and impulse control can help reduce frustration and defiant behavior. When anxiety or depression is also present, we incorporate relaxation techniques and building emotional resilience can be particularly beneficial. In cases of trauma, appropriate trauma-informed therapy is integrated into the treatment plan.

Implementing Additional Therapeutic Techniques

By incorporating various therapeutic techniques, Trails Carolina’s wilderness therapy programs can better address the unique needs of each teen with ODD and other co-occurring mental health issues. Some effective methods include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT helps individuals recognize and change negative thought patterns, leading to improved coping skills and behavior. This evidence-based approach is useful for treating ODD, anxiety, and depression.
  • Boundary Setting: Establishing clear rules and boundaries, along with the natural consequences of the wilderness setting, can help improve the behavior of teens with ODD as they learn to take responsibility for their actions.
  • Impulse Control Techniques: Strategies for developing better impulse control can be an important component of wilderness therapy for both ODD and ADHD. Techniques may involve mindfulness practices, deep-breathing exercises, and physical activities that promote focus and attention.
  • Anger Management: As frequent loss of temper is a common symptom of ODD, anger management techniques can be highly beneficial. These can include teaching teens how to recognize triggers, developing healthy coping skills for anger, and encouraging calm communication.
  • Family Programming: Involving the entire family in the child’s therapeutic process can help improve communication and relationships, leading to a more positive environment that supports the teen’s progress in overcoming defiant behavior.

Through a combination of addressing co-occurring disorders and incorporating various therapeutic techniques, wilderness therapy can effectively help teens with oppositional defiant disorder and other mental health issues to develop healthier behaviors, stronger relationships, and improved overall wellbeing.

Family Involvement in Wilderness Therapy at Trails Carolina

Son, mom, and dad are holding hands and walking outside.

Parental Support and Education

Parents play a crucial role in the success of wilderness therapy for teens with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). By providing consistent support and receiving education about their child’s needs, parents can help facilitate the transformation from oppositional behavior and defiance to cooperation. 

Keeping an open mind and engaging in ongoing communication with the therapy team is essential for understanding the therapeutic process, their teen’s progress, and the necessary steps to take upon returning home.

It is important for parents to understand the dynamics of ODD, learn effective parenting strategies, and strengthen their role as authority figures, while fostering a supportive and nurturing environment for their child. 

This combination of understanding and effective parenting can greatly contribute to the teen’s mental health and overall well-being.

Parallel Family Programming for Defiant Behavior Treatment

In addition to individual therapy, parallel family programming is a vital component of wilderness therapy programs at Trails Carolina. 

This process aims to address family dynamics, build trust, and improve communication, which are essential for creating a healthy and supportive environment for the teen.

Family programming focuses on:

  • Developing problem-solving skills to address conflicts and challenges
  • Establishing clear expectations and setting healthy boundaries
  • Understanding and identifying triggers for defiant behavior
  • Discussing and implementing appropriate consequences for negative behaviors

Family involvement is key to the success of wilderness therapy at Trails Carolina, as it helps create a strong support system for teens with ODD. By investing in their child’s mental health and well-being, parents can increase the likelihood of sustainable change and a successful transition home.

Success Stories and Testimonials

family involvment at Trails Carolina

Many of our parents have seen a significant transformation in their teens after participating in our wilderness therapy programs at Trails Carolina. 

The increased confidence, improved communication skills, and enhanced coping skills developed through these experiences prove the effectiveness of wilderness therapy at Trails Carolina

One Trails Carolina alumni parent expressed gratitude towards our program for helping their teenager overcome their defiant behaviors, gain new leadership skills, and build strong teamwork abilities. They noticed a positive change in their own child’s behavior and attitude at home and school over a year after finishing our program.

Many mental health professionals also advocate for the benefits of wilderness therapy at Trails Carolina. They believe that the therapeutic environment fosters emotional growth and personal development, which is crucial for helping defiant teens cope with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).

Furthermore, wilderness therapy helps teens struggling with defiance build confidence by encouraging them to face challenges and develop problem-solving abilities. One former Trails Carolina student shared that the program taught them resilience and adaptability, which served as a foundation for their personal growth and improved relationships with others.

Through these life-changing experiences, teenagers gain the essential skills and mindset necessary for a healthier, more fulfilling future and turn their defiant behavior into respectful cooperation at Trails Carolina.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the most effective treatment for teens with ODD?

There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for teens with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). However, research suggests that a combination of psychotherapy, parent training, and medication can be effective in managing the symptoms. Trails Carolina wilderness therapy is one such approach, specifically designed for at-risk adolescents and uses natural environments to help them navigate their social challenges.

How does wilderness therapy benefit school age children and teens with Oppositional Defiant Disorder?

Wilderness therapy offers various benefits for adolescents struggling with ODD. It provides a structured environment that promotes personal growth and development, fosters self-confidence, and teaches essential problem-solving and communication skills. By removing them from their usual social contexts, adolescents are encouraged to develop new perspectives and strategies for coping with their emotions and behaviors.

What are the key components of a wilderness therapy program for ODD?

Wilderness therapy programs at Trails Carolina include individual therapy sessions, parallel family programming, experiential learning with outdoor activities, accredited academics, peer group exercises, and workshops focused on emotional regulation, social skills, and healthy decision-making. The program also often involves family involvement, helping to build and maintain strong familial bonds and support.


  1. The Wilderness As Therapy | UNH Today
  2. Wilderness Therapy For Oppositional Defiant Disorder – ODD
  3. Therapy for ODD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder – Oppositional Defiant …
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: https://trailscarolina.com/common-ground-podcast/ 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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