Women In Wilderness Therapy: Trails Carolina Female Therapists Discuss Wilderness Therapy for Girls

family services header family program trails carolina It’s widely accepted that boys and girls respond to their environments in very different ways. When it comes to wilderness therapy, a therapeutic approach that has been in use for decades, many programs are designed with the therapeutic needs of boys in mind rather than girls.
There is a growing number of female students in wilderness therapy, which means there is a growing need for programming specifically designed for the developmental needs of girls. Trails Carolina, a wilderness therapy for girls and boys ages 10-17, has created programming that addresses and meets the needs of all genders.
At Trails, wilderness therapy for girls can be an extremely empowering and transformative experience. Out in the wilderness, girls are removed from the superficial things they may have worried about on a daily basis. They don’t know what they look like (there are no mirrors in the woods) and so fashion and makeup don’t matter anymore. They have no idea what’s going on with the mean girls at school or what their favorite reality television stars are up to. Instead, guided by an expert therapeutic team, they are able to focus on reshaping their core values and beliefs into something that is healthy and sustainable.

What are the differences between boys programming and girls programming at Trails?

Traditional paradigms  and historical data suggest that boys do well in an activity-based therapeutic setting. Boys tend to get excited about competition and completing really difficult physical challenges. Research shows that girls can benefit from physical accomplishments too but that many girls have more sustained self confidence through interpersonal successes. A girl might be the best hiker or bow driller of their group but that may not translate to boosting her self esteem if she is not attuning to her peers and experiencing positive social reciprocity.
According to a variety of studies, females experience empowerment and self esteem through building strong relationships with others, especially their peers.

How does wilderness therapy for girls help middle school girls?

The unique emotional and behavioral responses of girls vary depending on their developmental stage. Trails Carolina helps girls who are just hitting puberty, as well as those who are further along developmentally. Because of this, developmentally appropriate programming is in place for both groups.
For all young women at Trails, there is a strong emphasis on teaching them about self identity and overcoming unhealthy thoughts about themselves . This negative self-talk begins toward the end of elementary school into middle school where girls begin to experience social discrimination and a developmentally predictable social segregation.
Because middle school is a fragile time of identity development and critical examination of self, supporting this age group in  a wilderness therapy setting is vital to healthy adolescent development.  Moreso, at Trails we believe that serving young girls, age 10-14, is not only preventative of challenges in later adolescence, but a crucial part of young girls evolving into confident, courageous and uniquely strong young women.
Derry O’Kane, MS, LPC, NCC,  the primary therapist for the middle school girls group, explains how wilderness therapy helps this population:

“Wilderness therapy helps girls celebrate exactly who they are, not who they think they should be. Influenced by what they see in the media and in social networking, girls in this age group may try to act and dress much older than their age and can even feel ashamed of their age or perceived status in society. In my work, I strive to create experiences that allow space for girls to be the playful, daring and spirited people they really are. I celebrate authentic expressions of their personalities. I help girls come out of hiding. By creating experiences that resonate with middle school minds, I’m able to help my students express themselves in ways that won’t be judged by anyone and most importantly, will be celebrated by all. ”

O’Kane carries out experiential activities like using improv comedy to teach social skills and expressive arts to teach DBT concepts.  Recently, during an evening camping with the group, she brought out fleece wildcat onesies for girls to wear.

“The onesies allowed them to feel silly and playful…and secondary to that, they were extra warm!” says O’Kane. “After some time in the wilderness, girls begin to care much less about what people think. Most of these girls would never have thought twice about wearing a wildcat onesie before coming to Trails, for fear of ridicule.   This is a great way to strip away all the worries and fears that have kept them stuck in really inauthentic versions of themselves and have fun promoting useful therapy techniques like the DBT concept Opposite to Emotion . ”

How does wilderness therapy for girls help high school girls?

As a girls gets older, their relational sophistication amplifies tenfold. According to Ashley Brown MSW, LCSW, LCAS, a therapist at Trails who works with girls ages 14-17, teenage girls begin to use nonverbal cues more often to express themselves. This comes in the form of eye rolling, hair flipping, and who they choose to sit next to every day.
According to Brown:

“Middle schoolers are more prone to say what they mean. Older girls tend to use more subtle forms of communication to get their point across. Our programming is designed to help those girls express themselves in a developmentally appropriate way. For example, if we’re putting on a talent show for older girls they might be doing spoken word performances whereas younger girls would be doing skits or coordinated songs. Older girls can digest more and be exposed to a wider array of things than younger girls.”

Brown uses a relational model while working with the older girls. She uses ceremonies and initiatives that bond girls together. One way Brown encourages relationship building within students is through hiking order. She will pair students up based on people she believes may form friendships. Another example of Brown’s relational model is a ceremony in which girls may paint each other’s faces and talk about positive affirmations.

Why is Trails Carolina the best wilderness therapy for girls?

The female therapeutic team who work with the female groups at Trails are extremely passionate about their work with the students of Trails. Derry O’Kane, Tai Kulenic, Shalene Pierce, and Ashley Brown bring unique perspectives and therapeutic approaches to their work with female students at Trails. Learn more here.
Within Trails, there are a variety of change agents that help ensure a smooth transition for students after their experience in wilderness therapy. Students go through multiple transitions throughout their experience at Trails. By going back and forth between a campus setting and expeditions, it helps ensure that the therapeutic changes made are transferable to real world settings.
“Trails has always been the premier wilderness therapy program for our female population,” says Shalene Pierce, MSW, LCSW, Primary Therapist for girls ages 14-17. “We’ve always had more girls within our program than boys, which is very rare for a wilderness therapy program. Our very first group of students were girls and we’ve consistently built a program that is oriented towards the female adolescent experience since our inception.”
Although Trails offers programming for both boys and girls, there are no co-educational groups within Trails. This is an intentional design which prevents distractions and allows for programming specifically designed to cater to the needs of each gender. Research shows that girls and young women in middle and high school develop more confidence within all female environments. Through single-gender programming, girls are able to focus on developing a strong sense of self identity and can overcome the challenges that brought them to Trails in the first place.

For more information about Trails Carolina’s wilderness therapy for girls, please call 800-975-7303 or visit https://trailscarolina.com/.


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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: 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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