What to Do When Wilderness Therapy Comes to an End

One of the biggest struggles for a family with a troubled teen, beyond making the decision to send their teen to a wilderness therapy program, residential treatment center, or therapeutic boarding school, is the transition the entire family has to make once the program comes to an end.

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The experience of spending time in the wilderness can be transformative, and it can help young people develop new coping skills and build confidence.

However, the benefits of wilderness therapy don’t end when the program is over. In fact, the aftercare that typically follows wilderness therapy is just as important as the therapy itself.

Although the evidence shows that the majority of teens make significant growth during enrollment in a residential treatment or wilderness program, the process of leaving the therapeutic environment of the wilderness treatment center and coming home can result in a step backward if not handled with care and planning.

First, how progress is made in wilderness therapy programs?

Before we jump into what happens after a child graduates from a therapeutic wilderness program, it helps to understand how students progress during wilderness therapy programs.

Getting To The Root: A Holistic Approach To Healing

First, the best wilderness therapy programs take a holistic approach to healing. At Trails Carolina, our expert clinicians, wilderness camp staff, and wilderness school teachers work together with each individual student and their family to address the physical, emotional, and mental aspects of the student’s life, rather than only focusing on a specific diagnosis or issue.

Students in our wilderness therapy programs work with a primary therapist in the development of an individual treatment plan that is tailored to their unique needs, goals, strengths, and challenges. This therapeutic support has proven extremely beneficial in helping our students develop healthy, personalized coping strategies for a sustainable recovery.

Learning To Navigate Change: Intentional Transition Practice

A transition model is a plan that residential treatment programs use to prepare youth for the adjustment from the wilderness back to their home environment. This process typically involves gradually reintegrating the child into their family and community, with the goal of helping them maintain the progress they made in therapy once they return to their home.

Unlike other residential treatment options that wait until the end of treatment to begin practicing transitions, our wilderness therapy transitions model intentionally incorporates opportunities to practice navigating change throughout the entire program.

Because let’s face it, change is part of life. And change is hard and can be anxiety-inducing. And we believe that empowering our students to face change with flexibility, grace, and courage is one of the most significant things we can do to help them be successful not only in navigating the transition home but also in facing unexpected challenges throughout their young adult lives.

At Trails, we leverage the unpredictability of the wilderness environment as well as the more structured environment of our residential base camp to teach our students emotional regulation and other helpful new skills.

Building A Stronger Support System: Parallel Family Programming

Becuase we recognize the importance of family involvement in the child’s long-term success, Trails Carolina focuses on the entire family through our parallel family programming.

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During parallel family programming, parents will work with one of our family coaches to learn similar communication and self-regulation skills that the child is learning, as well as suggestions of things they can do to help ease their child’s return to home after the program.

We offer multiple touch points throughout the student’s enrollment for parents to plug in, connect with other Trails families, and get support from the Trails Family Coaches. We also offer Alumni Support Services to continue providing our families with encouragement and assistance after graduation.

How do I help my child maintain progress after wilderness therapy?

Now let’s look to the future. Here are the key things that parents should remember in order to help their child maintain progress after a wilderness therapy program.

Family Involvement Is Key To Continued Success

Though your child has only been away for a month or two, a lot has changed. Families are included throughout the entire wilderness therapy program at Trails to keep them up to speed on these changes.

At first, family therapy will address personal growth issues and breakdowns in relationships due to the child’s behaviors, working toward healthier family relations.

As the wilderness therapy program comes to an end, family involvement includes learning to build a healthy environment suitable for maintaining the healthy changes that have been reached. When your teen returns home, you will be able to:

  • Provide clear expectations and rules
  • Identify triggers for negative behaviors
  • Effectively communicate with your child
  • Follow through with consequences

Optional Family Camp Brings Closure and Completion At Trails

Unlike most therapy programs, Trails Carolina offers a 5-day intensive camp for the student and entire family upon the child completing their program. After including the family in learning new behaviors and solutions while the child is away, the family camp offers the opportunity to put into practice what you’ve learned together before bringing your son or daughter home. Learn more about our family programming offerings!

Continued Support Through Weekly Therapy & Mentor Groups

One of the key characteristics of a residential therapy program, such as wilderness therapy, is the ability for the patient to gain a different perspective on their own behaviors and reactions in a new environment, away from negative influences and daily struggles.

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Although the child is learning new coping mechanisms and developing new communication skills, they might see struggles when putting what they’ve learned into practice in their home environment.

After leaving a residential treatment center, continued therapy, even weekly or biweekly, can help your son or daughter talk through new struggles they are facing. Look into community resources, such as support groups and mentor programs, to provide additional support as well. At Trails, we offer Alumni Support Services for our students and families.

Aftercare planning is a crucial part of the wilderness therapy process. It involves developing a plan for how the youth will continue to receive support and treatment after the program ends.

This may include therapy sessions, medication management, and other types of ongoing care. It’s important to involve the youth, their family, and their treatment team in creating an aftercare plan that’s tailored to the youth’s specific needs.

Other Options For Extended Treatment

Though many teens see incredible, sustainable improvement in emotional well-being after completing a wilderness therapy program, some teens need more time to address severe issues.

At Trails, your child’s therapists and camp staff will be able to help you make the decision for what is best for your child: returning home or going to a residential center to help them stay focused on recovery.

Although you will see the change in your son or daughter and be excited to be reunited with them, an immediate return to home might not be the best solution if there is a high risk of regressing. The goal of treatment is to always help the child’s return home to be productive as possible.

To learn more about Trails Carolina’s wilderness therapy programs, call us at (800) 975-7303.

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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