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Wilderness Therapy for Teen Boys: How Rock Climbing Can Help Teens Struggling with Behavioral Issues

rock climbing therapy

Wilderness Therapy for Teen Boys: How Rock Climbing Can Help Teens Struggling with Behavioral Issues

I work with adolescent boys who are often struggling with issues like substance use, technology addiction, depression or anxiety. Many of these issues lead to additional struggles in the classroom. I work with many students who are “thrill-seekers”. Thrill-seeking students show up in the classroom distracted, bored, and ready to leave the classroom. They may have some underlying educational issues if they have an underlying ADD or ADHD diagnosis. This often leads to compounding frustrations in the classroom. Meanwhile, they are not asking for help. They often don’t feel empowered enough to ask questions or get help. We have to work with them on building confidence and finding healthier ways to channel their energy.

Our Adventure Week programming at Trails has helped many of these thrill-seeking students who once used substance use or technology as a way to experience a rush, find new interests and healthy coping mechanisms through outdoor activities like rock climbing. Climbing helps empower students to ask for help. It teaches them that they can do things on their own, but they will still have the support of their community if they need it. They gain confidence and have a new outlet for the thrill seeking behaviors their brains desire.

Rock Climbing as Part of the Therapeutic Process

For thrill-seeking students, rock climbing is a healthy alternative source of the adrenaline they yearn for. Rather than relying on old habits like substance use or spending too much time on screens, it changes the pattern to instead seek healthy outdoor activities that give the same rush. Not only this, but it builds confidence and improves overall physical and mental health.

After graduation from Trails, one of the first students who was able to do our Adventure Week has now joined one of the bigger climbing gyms in his area. He’s been going to the climbing gym three days a week. Ironically, both of his parents were very avid athletes. This student felt like he didn’t hit the mark when it came to comparing himself with his family. Now, he’s finally found his niche. He’s taken all of the skills that he learned in the program and applies them to his daily life. Climbing has become both a passion and a therapeutic outlet.

Connecting Before Correcting

Climbing was an important part of my own therapeutic process. I learned a lot while climbing – to slow down, use my breathing, and make better decisions in the moment. It really helped change the direction of my life. The mind/body presence that climbing requires helps you recenter and refocus. My own experience with climbing and the power of adventure therapy helps me connect with students and has shaped my relational approach.

When a student comes in, before we start the more traditional therapeutic work, I just get to know them – what are their likes and dislikes, what are their hopes and wants? Connecting with a student before trying to correct behaviors helps build the needed trust between a student and their therapist. Beyond the trust, a relational approach helps students learn what healthy relationships look like, and gives them the confidence to work through their issues knowing they are fully supported and they are not alone. With a solid community of support established, students can start to work through the challenges they face using experiential therapy opportunities like climbing or other outdoor activities as part of our adventure programming.

Todd grew up on a lake in the beautiful mountains of Morgantown, WV and subsequently pursued a bachelors and masters degree at WVU. He started at Trails in 2011 after working for over a decade with adolescents and their families in their homes and in a residential setting. He has a relational approach that helps him to quickly gain rapport with students who have a hard time trusting others. Todd’s passions outside of Trails include spending time with his family, rock-climbing and surfing. His love for both the mountains and the ocean keep him very busy!

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