Teen Wilderness Therapy for Self-Harming Behavior

Key Takeaways 

  • Intense emotional pain and distress caused by past, social, and environmental issues can make teens feel they lack control over their lives 
  • Without the right coping strategies, such teens may turn to self-harming behaviors for emotional release and to gain a sense of control over the chaos
  • Wilderness therapy programs can disconnect self-harming teens from their triggers and, through nature’s therapeutic effects, help them manage their self-harm impulses and underlying emotional issues 
  • Choosing the right program and preparing your teen is important.

Teenager self-harming is a serious issue that can, unfortunately, easily go unnoticed. Most teenagers are good at concealing self-harm, leading parents to believe that the associated signs and symptoms are typical teen angst. Studies on teen self-harm have revealed startling statistics, with some suggesting that teens who self-harm are three times more likely to attempt suicide. 

However, all hope is not lost thanks to interventions such as teen wilderness therapy- a nature-based therapeutic technique that can help adolescents overcome self-harming behaviors by disconnecting them from triggers, offering a structured environment, allowing them to harness the healing properties of nature, teaching them practical coping skills and fostering mindfulness and meditation, among others. 

Let’s find out more about teen self-harming behaviors and the working mechanisms and benefits of teen wilderness therapy for such behaviors.

Understanding Self-Harming Behaviors in Teens 

Teenagers engage in self-harming behaviors when they intentionally damage, bruise, or injure their skin and bodies by cutting, punching, burning, taking drugs in excess, or ingesting toxic chemicals or tablets. 

Most of these behaviors are kept confidential because of shame and fear when, in the actual sense, they need professional intervention. To such teens, self-harming offers a way of dealing with overwhelming emotional distress, releasing intense emotional pain, communicating inner turmoil, obtaining a sense of control over their lives, or relieving themselves from guilt. 

Some of the most common triggers of teen self-harm include extreme stress, emotional distress, feeling numb, troubled relationships, past trauma, abuse, intense teen loneliness, peer pressure, poor coping skills, mental health conditions, and low self esteem in teenager

To know whether your child is self-harming, look out for the following signs and symptoms: 

  • Injuries or bruises on the skin, particularly around the wrist, arms, legs, thighs, stomach, chest, hands, or the head(some teens bang their heads on surfaces). 
  • Attempts to hide injuries by wearing long concealing clothes even on hot days and refusing to expose certain body parts. 
  • Significant changes in moods. 
  • Increased fascination with self-harm. 
  • Unexplained possession of potential self-harming equipment and sharp objects such as razor blades, knives, and needles. 
  • Increased isolation.

How Wilderness Therapy Works for Adolescents with Self-Harm Behaviors

To understand how wilderness therapy works for teens with self-harm behaviors, it’s essential to understand its structure. Teen wilderness therapy is administered in remote wilderness settings to disconnect teens from daily life experiences and triggers. During the program, teens engage in challenging outdoor activities carefully crafted to push their physical and emotional boundaries for enhanced self-development and self-reliance. Let’s now see how wilderness therapy benefits teens with self-harm behaviors.

Provides a Structured Environment 

  • By offering a structured environment, wilderness therapy creates a predictable routine, which can be a significant source of comfort for teens struggling with intense emotional distress and impulsiveness. 

Disconnects Teens from Triggers 

  • Wilderness therapy programs occur in remote outdoor settings where teens are isolated from their families and everyday life.
  • This eliminates social and environmental self-harm triggers, such as family conflict, relationship issues, and peer pressure. 

Offers Continuous Therapeutic Support 

  • Wilderness therapists and counselors use tailored therapeutic interventions alongside outdoor activities to address teen self-harm behaviors.
  • Through individual and group therapy sessions, therapists help participants understand the reasons behind their self-harm behaviors and develop effective coping strategies for teens. 

Harnesses Nature’s Therapeutic Properties 

  • Nature has immense healing properties. Immersing oneself in remote outdoor settings away from everyday stressors and distractors can be helpful for the mind, body, and soul.
  • Wilderness therapy programs often harness nature’s calming and healing effects to help teens address their self-harm impulses.  

Incorporates Regular Physical Activity 

  • Regular physical activity is good for the body and the mind. Teen wilderness therapy programs offer regular physical activities that keep participants engaged.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, regular physical activity boosts brain health and reduces teen anxiety and depression, some of the common disorders associated with teen self-harm.

Enhances Self-Efficacy 

  • Wilderness therapy programs incorporate fun and engaging activities in their structures.
  • To improve teen efficacy, they combine natural obstacles in the exercises, which can be overcome, although they appear impossible initially.
  • It also increases teenagers’ self-confidence, which reduces feelings of helplessness and the need to self-harm. 

Offers a Tranquil environment for Self-Reflection

  • Teen wilderness therapy programs offer an immersive wilderness experience. They are conducted in tranquil environments away from everyday stressors: the perfect setting for mindfulness and self-reflection.
  • Therapists often guide adolescents to unlock present-moment awareness and acceptance, helping them interrupt the cycle of negative thoughts preceding self-harm. 

Helps Participants Develop Coping Skills 

  • Outdoor activities during wilderness therapy, such as rock climbing, hiking, and ziplining, help individuals build self-confidence, confront their fears, and develop new coping skills.
  • Therapists also work with teens during individual and group sessions to identify negative thought patterns and develop new coping skills for managing stress, overwhelming emotions, and conflict instead of resorting to self-harm. 

Fosters Peer Support 

  • Adolescents live in groups and engage in group activities during wilderness therapy, allowing them to develop supportive peer relationships that offer a sense of belonging and reduce feelings of teenage isolation

Involves Family Members in Teen Treatment

  • Participants’ family members participate in teen wilderness therapy during treatment planning, family therapy, and progress monitoring.
  • Such opportunities allow program officials to address issues in the family dynamics contributing to teen self-harm behaviors, improve family communication, and foster support for the teenager during and after treatment for better outcomes. 

Prioritizes Safety and Supervision 

  • Teen wilderness therapy programs have several measures in place to guarantee teen safety.
  • First, teenagers live in group settings, which reduces the isolation that precedes self-harm. Staff members are trained to offer timely intervention in case of teen self-harm.
  • Teenagers are also supervised during the program, creating a safe space for them as they work on addressing the issues behind their self-harm behaviors. 

However, it’s important to note that wilderness therapy may not work for every teenager, as some cases need more personalized and individualized care. It is usually applied as part of a comprehensive treatment plan alongside family support and personalized pharmacological and therapeutic interventions. Kindly consult a mental health professional before enrolling your teen in a wilderness alternative program. Alternatively, Key Healthcare offers teen residential treatment centers near natural surroundings that provide nature-based activities such as surf therapy to address various teen mental health issues at affordable rates. Feel free to contact us

Finding the Right Wilderness Therapy Programs 

Not all wilderness therapy programs can address teen self-harm. Some have even been reported to traumatize or exacerbate teen mental health issues due to their approaches, which is quite unfortunate. To be safe, look out for the following when evaluating teen wilderness therapy options for your teenager: 

  • A qualified and licensed staff specializing in teen mental health issues. 
  • Necessary accreditations and credentials from bodies such as the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations and the Association of Experiential Education. 
  • Robust safety protocols and evacuation plans to guarantee teen safety and wellness during the program.  
  • Family involvement opportunities, e.g., family therapy. 
  • Evidence-based therapeutic approaches. 
  • Healthy peer groups. 
  • Provision of tailored therapeutic approaches. 
  • Testimonials and reviews from former participants. 

You should also trust your instincts when selecting a therapy program. The right program should promote your teenager’s self-development while guaranteeing their safety and well-being. Feel free to visit the program to get its feel and obtain essential information such as its structure, daily activities, costs, insurance coverage, and treatment duration.

Preparing Your Teen for Wilderness Therapy 

Ensuring teen physical and emotional readiness for outdoor therapy is essential, owing to the challenges and separation involved. Here are a few tips that can help you prepare your teen ahead of the program:

  • Involve them in the decision. Do not force your teenager to engage in wilderness therapy; instead, have a calm, open, and honest conversation about it and give them time to make up their minds
  • Ensure their physical fitness and mental health stability are evaluated before the program 
  • Ensure that the treatment program assesses their needs and tailors their treatment approach based on them. 
  • Share with them what to expect during teen wilderness therapy to foster informed decision-making 
  • Help them pack their clothing and the essential gear 
  • Prepare them emotionally for the experience ahead by acknowledging their fears, offering reassurances, addressing questions and concerns, reminding them of the potential benefits, and motivating them to take charge of their growth and ownership. 

Additionally, remember to participate in treatment planning, attend family therapy sessions, and get involved in their transition from the program to the home environment.

The Wilderness Therapy Experience

Teen wilderness therapy programs have unique daily schedules and activities that can help teens address self-harming behaviors. Let’s explore these: 

Sample Daily Schedule of Teen Wilderness Therapy Programs 

Even though the daily schedules of teen wilderness therapy programs often differ from one to another, teenagers can expect the following: 

  • They wake up at a consistent time daily and attend to their hygiene. 
  • Meditation, yoga, fitness exercises, and gratitude sessions in the morning 
  • Breakfast, followed by guided wilderness activities or team-building exercises 
  • Lunch, followed by individual, group, or expressive therapy sessions 
  • Communication, leadership, problem-solving, and decision-making activities in the evening 
  • Dinner, followed by campfire discussions, storytelling sessions, or self-reflection sessions such as journaling
  • A bedtime routine 
  • 8-10 hours of regular sleep

Types of Activities and Interventions in Teen Wilderness Therapy for Self-Harming Behaviors 

Teens engage in the following activities during wilderness therapy for self-harming behaviors:

  • Outdoor activities such as hiking, rock climbing, and camping: Allow teens to interact with nature, build self-reliance and confidence, and improve their physical fitness. 
  • Emotional regulation training: Teaches teens to identify and manage distressing emotions healthily to reduce self-harming tendencies. 
  • Goal-setting: Creates a sense of purpose and direction for improved treatment outcomes. 
  • Psychoeducation: Teenagers learn about self-harm behaviors, their potential consequences, and how to cope healthily.
  • Experiential learning: Teens learn from outdoor challenges and nature-related experiences, fostering a sense of responsibility and enhanced self-reliance. 
  • Journaling: Helps teenagers process their emotions and thoughts, monitor their progress, and set achievable goals. 
  • Mindfulness/ meditation: Teens engage in mindfulness and meditation during wilderness therapy programs for enhanced self-awareness, stress reduction, and emotional regulation. 
  • Aftercare planning: Helps teenagers develop a solid plan for transitioning back to daily life once treatment ends. 

Common interventions in teen wilderness therapy programs for self-harming behaviors include: 

  • Individual therapy Individual therapy is administered during teen wilderness programs to address personal issues and triggers and help participants develop effective coping strategies. 
  • Group therapy Group therapy sessions offer teens in wilderness therapy a sense of community and support by allowing them to share their emotions, challenges, and experiences with peers. 
  • Expressive therapy: Teen wilderness therapy programs incorporate expressive techniques such as art therapy to foster the non-verbal expression of feelings and emotions. 
  • Cognitive-behavioral techniques: Teen CBT techniques such as journaling and stress reduction techniques are usually incorporated in teen wilderness therapy programs to address negative thought patterns and behaviors. 
  • Adventure-based therapy: Teen wilderness therapy programs allow teens to engage in outdoor activities that require collaboration and trust during adventure therapy to improve their social skills and self-esteem. 
  • Family therapy: Family therapy is usually administered during teen wilderness therapy to address underlying issues within the family dynamic and improve teen support systems.

The Role of Professional Therapists in Wilderness Therapy 

You will notice that your teen’s wilderness therapy program for self-harm behaviors has professional therapists. Teens do not engage in outdoor activities only during the program; they also attend individual and group therapy sessions. 

Your teen’s wilderness therapists should be licensed, qualified, and experienced in teen self-harm treatment. They should also have extensive outdoor, crisis management, first aid, communication, and survival skills. 

Here are some of the roles therapists play in wilderness therapy for self-harm programs: 

  • Assessing and evaluating teen self-harm and behavioral health issues. 
  • Tailoring therapeutic interventions to teenagers’ needs, treatment goals, and preferences. 
  • Facilitating individual and group therapy sessions to help teens address underlying emotional issues responsible for their self-harm behavior. 
  • Teaching teens emotional regulation skills and effective self harm coping strategies
  • Monitoring teenagers and ensuring their safety and well-being during the program 
  • Creating a safe and supportive environment for personal growth and self-discovery 
  • Collaborating with other treatment professionals to foster a comprehensive treatment approach 
  • Helping the teenager transition back home smoothly by involving them and their parents in aftercare planning. 
  • Helping participants resolve conflicts and communication issues during the program.

Safety Measures in Wilderness Therapy Programs 

It’s normal to fear for your teen’s safety during outdoor therapy. The right teen wilderness therapy programs have the following safety measures to deal with potential injuries, exposure to extreme weather conditions, accidents, wildlife encounters, allergic reactions, emotional distress, and separation anxiety: 

  • Extensive outdoor risk assessment and mitigation. 
  • Comprehensive pre-program teen evaluation to identify and plan for health issues, allergies, and medication needs. 
  • A qualified and experienced staff trained to ensure teen safety and help participants address conflicts healthily.
  • Ready access to medical professionals. 
  • First-aid training. 
  • Close teen supervision and regular check-ins 
  • Structured (although limited) communication with parents. 
  • Solid emergency response and crisis intervention plans.
  • Clear safety guidelines. 
  • Regular safety briefings. 
  • Provision of quality gear before excursions. 
  • Provision of emotional support through therapeutic interventions.

Assessing Progress and Milestones 

Therapists usually work closely with wilderness therapy program participants to set and track goals. They also monitor their coping abilities and evaluate their overall wellness as the program continues. Here are some of the ways teen progress is assessed during wilderness therapy for self-harming behavior: 

  • Monitoring their self-harm urges and emotional stability daily. 
  • Evaluating their personal growth and goal-achievement. 
  • Tracking their participation and overall engagement in therapy sessions and group activities. 
  • Analyzing self-reflection assignments and their journal entries.
  • Conducting in-depth assessments through open and honest one-on-one conversations. 
  • Observing their behavioral changes and social interactions. 
  • Obtaining feedback from peers and other staff. 
  • Assessing their ability to cope with challenging wilderness experiences. 
  • Evaluating their readiness to transition back to the home environment.

Aftercare and Transitioning Back Home 

  • When transitioning back to the home environment, wilderness therapy professionals, teens, and parents collaborate to develop a solid aftercare plan comprising components such as relapse prevention, crisis management, post-therapy support, family support and involvement, and healthy extracurricular activities.
  • It is essential to involve parents in teen aftercare program planning and continuity of care as it fosters a supportive environment.

Costs and Financial Considerations 

Wilderness therapy programs are expensive. According to information from different online sources, most cost between $500-$800 daily, which is pretty high. Even if paying for some components via insurance is possible, you should confirm with the program first. Ask them to break down the amount expected from your pockets and what the insurance (verify here) will cover. 

Alternatively, admit your teen to our residential treatment program, which is way cheaper and offers components of wilderness therapy, such as adventure therapy, to help teens address various mental health and behavioral issues, including self-harm. We allow insurance payments, having partnered with several providers, including HUMANA One. Feel free to contact us.


The right wilderness therapy program can empower self-harming teens toward a brighter future by offering them a fresh perspective and enhancing their self-esteem, coping skills, resilience, and problem-solving abilities. Research the available options and select accredited programs specializing in teen self-harm behaviors. Remember to also participate in your teen’s wilderness therapy program by communicating with them through the provided channels, attending therapy sessions, obtaining progress updates, and motivating them.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Wilderness therapy is best suited for at-risk or struggling teens dealing with various emotional, behavioral, and mental health issues. Such teenagers may withdraw from friends and families, engage in aggressive and risky behaviors, struggle to form or maintain healthy relationships, lack motivation, have self-esteem issues, excessively use drugs, or experience challenges regulating their emotions.

Wilderness therapy programs mostly run from 30 to 90 days, which often varies depending on the participant’s specific needs, treatment goals, and overall therapy engagement.

Yes. Parents and teens should be wary of certain potential risks associated with wilderness therapy. They include physical injuries, exposure to extreme weather conditions, difficulty transitioning back to the home environment, and physical or emotional distress. Choosing the right therapy program with trained and experienced therapists can help minimize these risks.

Yes. Wilderness therapy is often combined with other treatment methods to create a comprehensive treatment approach to teenagers’ needs. It can be integrated with traditional therapeutic techniques such as individual and group therapy to create a holistic treatment plan. However, for such a plan to work, treatment professionals must assess the participant’s needs and account for their challenges and circumstances.

Although pre-teen programs exist, most wilderness therapy programs only admit teens aged 12-17 due to the technique’s unique structure and challenges.

Wilderness therapy offers a unique environment for teens to explore their emotional issues, learn healthier coping skills, and build resilience; therefore, it has the potential to address underlying conditions accompanying self-harming behavior. However, other therapeutic techniques and strategies, such as individual and group therapies, CBT, and mindfulness therapy, are often included to address such issues fully.

A few items to pack as your teen leaves for wilderness therapy include weather-appropriate clothing, a quality sleeping bag, a lightweight sleeping pad, a pair of sturdy and comfortable hiking boots, a sizeable backpack, personal hygiene items, a water bottle, sunscreen, insect repellent, first aid kit, prescription medication, and a first aid kit. Some programs may provide some of these items; therefore, confirming with your teen’s specific program is advisable.

The duration it takes to see results from wilderness therapy for self-harming behaviors normally varies depending on the teen’s circumstances, needs, the severity of their issues, and the program’s quality.

If left untreated, self-harming behaviors can lead to the following issues: 

  • Severe infections or scarring 
  • Nerve damage 
  • Severe injuries
  • Shame and emotional distress 
  • Increased social isolation 
  • Worsening underlying mental health conditions 
  • Difficulty forming healthy coping strategies 
  • Suicidal ideation and attempts 
  • Negative relationships with family members, friends, and other loved ones 
  • Long-term psychological trauma

The following tips can help teenagers maintain progress after wilderness therapy: 

  • Establishing a solid support network of friends and loved ones. 
  • Engaging in nature-related and outdoor activities. 
  • Developing and maintaining healthy routines. 
  • Attending post-treatment counseling or therapy sessions. 
  • Applying the coping strategies learned during therapy to deal with challenging situations. 
  • Avoiding negative influences and triggers. 
  • Promptly seeking help to address relapse or setbacks.

Here are a few tips to help your teen transition smoothly back home after wilderness therapy: 

  • Encouraging them to develop and maintain a healthy routine. 
  • Engaging in ongoing family therapy sessions to learn more about post-therapy challenges and how to support them.
  • Setting clear boundaries and expectations and preventing enabling behaviors. 
  • Monitoring their progress while respecting their privacy. 
  • Having a patient and understanding attitude when dealing with them. 
  • Creating a safe and nurturing home environment. 
  • Involving them in fun and healthy family activities. 
  • Preparing for setbacks or relapse. 
  • Acknowledging and celebrating their achievements and milestones to keep them motivated.