The Role of Professional Counselors in Teen Wilderness Therapy

Key Takeaways 

  • Quality teen wilderness therapy programs have well-trained, qualified counselors specializing in mental health and behavioral conditions. 
  • The counselors are required to offer professional guidance and assistance during the program and engage in aftercare planning as it ends. 
  • Treatment plans should be adapted based on the teenager’s needs, treatment response, and progress. 
  • Parents should collaborate with teen wilderness therapy counselors to promote self-development and wellness.

Teen wilderness therapy is a common therapeutic approach for adolescent behavioral issues, emotional issues, and psychiatric issues. It takes place in remote outdoor settings under the guidance and supervision of licensed therapists. The therapists’ roles include assessments and evaluations, developing tailored programs, building trust and rapport with participants, developing therapeutic strategies and techniques, offering emotional support, adapting treatment plans, evaluating teen progress, and administering family therapy for teens

To offer more insight into teen wilderness therapy staff, this article takes a deep dive into these roles. Let’s get started!

How Does Wilderness Therapy Work?

Wilderness therapy is a hands-on treatment approach to teen mental health and behavioral issues, such as teen antisocial behavior. Participants engage in a range of physically challenging activities such as canoeing, backpacking, hiking, rock climbing, and ziplining excursions to address specific therapeutic goals and foster self-development. These activities foster healthy connections and relationships, interpersonal effectiveness, improved coping mechanisms, and enhanced emotional, mental, and behavioral health.

The Role of Professional Counselors in Teen Wilderness Therapy

Teen wilderness therapy programs have trained licensed counselors to offer professional guidance and administer therapeutic interventions. Before looking into their roles, here are a few qualities a good teen wilderness therapy counselor should possess:

  • Relevant clinical training and credentials. This translates to a background in social work, psychology, counseling, or a relevant field. 
  • Relevant licenses and certifications. 
  • Adequate years of experience working with teenagers.
  • Extensive camping, wilderness navigation, first aid, and survival skills. 
  • In-depth understanding of different therapeutic approaches and techniques, such as individual and group therapies, cognitive-behavioral therapy, experiential therapy, and dbt for teens.
  • Ability to assess and manage outdoor risks. 
  • Cultural competence, i.e., sensitivity to cultural backgrounds and an in-depth understanding of cultural factors’ influence on client experiences. 
  • Effective leadership and communication skills.
  • Understanding of and respect for environmental ethics. 
  • Physical fitness. 
  • Progress assessment and evaluation skills. 
  • Extensive crisis intervention skills. 
  • Mastery of wilderness first aid practices and procedures. 

Let’s now review professional counselors’ roles in wilderness therapy.

Assessment and Evaluation 

  • A primary role of licensed wilderness therapy counselors is to assess and evaluate the teenager ahead of treatment.
  • This includes reviewing the teen’s psychological, medical, and social histories and previous treatment experiences and conducting interviews with them and their family members to understand specific challenges, goals, and expectations.
  • They must also offer standardized behavioral evaluations and psychological tests to ascertain the teen’s emotional and psychological wellness. 
  • Comprehensive assessment and evaluation foster an understanding of the teenager’s treatment needs, goals, growth areas, and strengths, supporting the development of a personalized treatment plan. 

Individualized Treatment Plans- Developing Tailored Programs 

  • Once the counselor has identified the teenager’s therapeutic needs, strengths, and challenges, they should engage them and their parents or caregivers in treatment planning.
  • The main aim of treatment planning is to develop personalized treatment plans that combine therapeutic interventions such as group and individual therapy and unique wilderness experiences and activities.
  • They are often adjusted during the program for enhanced outcomes.

Developing Therapeutic Techniques and Strategies 

Wilderness therapy counselors tailor and administer different therapeutic interventions during the program to make the process safe and effective. Here are some of the common therapeutic interventions during wilderness therapy: 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

  • The primary purpose of cognitive-behavioral therapy is to help teenagers change their behaviors by altering their thought patterns.
  • It is premised on the idea that our thoughts and behaviors are interconnected; therefore, changing our thought patterns influences behavioral change.
  • CBT can help teens achieve better emotional regulation, enhanced problem-solving abilities, reduced negative behavior, and improved relationships if adapted and administered well in outdoor settings. 

Experiential therapy

  • Experiential therapy is an immersive therapeutic technique administered through expressive tools and modalities.
  • It helps teens to explore difficult situations, adopt a different perspective, and process difficult emotions.
  • It engages the body, allowing participants to reach psychological elements they wouldn’t freely access.
  • Some benefits of experiential therapy include situation resolution, reduced avoidance, creative expression, and altered perspectives. 

Wilderness interventions 

  • Wilderness therapy programs combine outdoor adventures such as camping, rock climbing, backpacking, and kayaking with other therapeutic techniques to promote teen self-awareness, self-esteem, resilience, communication, and interpersonal relationships.
  • These activities also reduce stress, foster self-reliance, and allow teens to develop a deeper connection with nature. 

Mindfulness and Meditation 

Mindfulness and meditation enhance teens’ present-moment awareness and foster acceptance. Wilderness therapy counselors guide teens through mindfulness and meditation during the program to promote emotional regulation, stress reduction, and self-awareness. It is important to note that these practices are even more effective when teens are immersed in nature. 

Here are the common strategies used to administer these techniques: 

Individual Counseling 
  • Individual counseling sessions involve one-on-one discussions between the teenager and the therapist to explore personal issues, set goals, and offer professional guidance.
  • Its confidential nature encourages teens to lower their guard and share their problems freely with therapists.
Group Therapy 
  • Participants engage in group discussions and activities during group therapy to foster peer support, improve communication, and explore interpersonal dynamics.
  • Under the guidance of group counselors, teens share their feelings and experiences, develop a sense of community, and learn from one another. 

Building Trust and Rapport 

Counselors must cultivate therapeutic alliances with teens for the program to work. Here are some of the techniques that help create a teen-counselor bond in wilderness therapy:

  • Creating a safe and non-judgmental space for teens to share their experiences. 
  • Facilitating open and honest conversations. 
  • Actively listening to teenagers and validating their feelings. 
  • Joining the teenager in shared outdoor activities.
  • Offering guidance,  emotional support, and reassurance. 
  • Offering teens consistent care and respect. 
  • Maintaining a warm, friendly, and approachable attitude at all times. 
  • Making teens feel connected and valued during group sessions. 

Emotional Support and Guidance 

  • Teenagers need emotional support and guidance during wilderness therapy to overcome unique challenges and work towards achieving their treatment goals.
  • Counselors in wilderness therapy programs provide emotional support and guidance to participants by listening to their feelings, addressing their concerns, maintaining a safe and empathetic environment, acting as role models, offering supportive counseling, teaching emotional regulation and problem-solving skills, offering positive reinforcement and encouragement, and guiding them through challenges and transitions, however small.  

Evaluating Teen’s Progress 

Progress assessment is essential in mental health and behavioral treatment as it helps evaluate treatment effectiveness and whether participants are working toward their therapeutic goals. Wilderness therapy counselors closely monitor participants’ emotional, physical, and behavioral developments during the program by: 

  • Observing their behavior, outdoor interactions, emotional responses, and how they utilize therapeutic strategies.
  • Having open and honest conversations with them to identify any underlying or emerging issues and concerns. 
  • Using self-report measures and standardized tools to evaluate changes in their self-awareness and emotional wellness.  
  • Using structured activities to assess their collaboration, emotional regulation, and problem-solving skills.

Adaptation of Treatment Plans 

  • Counselors use progress evaluation results and feedback from teens and their family members to make necessary adjustments to the teen’s treatment plan.
  • This treatment modification promotes individualized care, enhances the effectiveness of interventions, improves treatment motivation and engagement, addresses evolving challenges and concerns, offers a more personalized therapeutic experience, encourages ongoing progress, fosters a sense of ownership, and leads to a stronger teen-counselor bond.
  • Above all, it promotes positive, long-lasting results. 

Family Counseling and Aftercare 

The counselor’s role does not end with completing the program; they generally work with families for effective teen transition, aftercare support, and family therapy. Here are some of the post-treatment roles of wilderness therapy counselors: 

  • Helping the teenager transition smoothly back home.
  • Providing ongoing support and guidance to the teenager. 
  • Administering family therapy sessions to address unhealthy family dynamics. 
  • Addressing any specific post-treatment issues 
  • Guiding family members in implementing new strategies. 
  • Monitoring teen progress. 
  • Providing or recommending resources for continued aftercare teen support
  • Contributing to the long-term healing and well-being of teens and their family members 

Case Studies and Success Stories 

Counselors have been helping teens address behavioral, psychological, and emotional issues from time immemorial. Counseling Today, a publication of the American Counseling Association, shares several success stories with challenging clients. Remember, counselors are trained to handle various adolescent behaviors and challenges. There is a very high chance your child will benefit from them; if not, they will refer you to the proper treatment specialist based on their assessment of the teenager.


Teen behavioral and mental health programs, including wilderness therapy, cannot be effective without licensed therapists. These mental health professionals perform various tasks, including assessments and evaluations, preparing and adapting tailored programs, developing therapeutic strategies and techniques, and offering emotional support and guidance. All you have to do is find a program with qualified, licensed, and experienced counselors specializing in adolescent mental health or behavioral issues, such as our Key Healthcare’s teen residential treatment program, and let them take care of your adolescent. Get in touch to know more.

Frequently Asked Questions(FAQs)

Wilderness therapy programs have the following measures to ensure teen safety and well-being: 

  • Thorough pre-program participant physical and mental health assessment 
  • Regular safety briefings 
  • Risk assessment and management protocols 
  • Solid evacuation plans 
  • Adequate equipment and gear
  • Emergency communication devices such as phone-paired messengers 
  • Wilderness-specific first aid kits and training 
  • A highly experienced and trained staff 
  • Constant participant supervision

During wilderness therapy, therapists often respond to crises and emergencies by conducting situation assessments, ensuring the immediate safety of participants, administering first aid where necessary, evacuating participants to a safe location, contacting emergency services, providing support, and managing emotional distress. Afterward, they document the incident, report it to appropriate authorities, conduct a debriefing, follow up with affected parties, and review and adjust safety protocols as required.

Whether wilderness therapy can benefit teens with severe behavioral issues depends on their circumstances and specific needs. This therapeutic approach offers an immersive outdoor environment and incorporates effective therapeutic interventions that can help teens struggling with behavioral disorders such as defiance. However, it may not be suitable for cases needing more personalized care. At Key Healthcare, we conduct a comprehensive assessment before teen treatment to ensure that adolescents are paired with a treatment program matching their needs and conditions.

Common support and aftercare services for teens and their family members post-wilderness therapy include family therapy sessions, teen individual counseling, local mental health resources, progress monitoring, support groups, regular check-ins, and educational resources.

To help teenagers succeed in teen wilderness programs, parents should: 

  • Attend and actively participate in family therapy sessions 
  • Offer encouragement and emotional support 
  • Work closely with the treatment team for successful treatment planning, progress monitoring, transition, and post-treatment care. 
  • Stay engaged in the therapeutic process.
  • Willingly address family issues with the teenager 
  • Implement and actualize the strategies taught in family therapy 
  • Offer continued support after the program 
  • Stay positive and hopeful

Successful teen wilderness therapy can improve self-awareness, interpersonal and communication skills, self-esteem, self-reliance, problem-solving abilities, resilience, adaptability, and personal growth. This therapeutic approach can also lead to positive attitude and behavioral changes, enhanced understanding of personal changes, and improved mental health and wellness.

Common risks and challenges associated with teen wilderness therapy include safety concerns, unpredictable weather and natural elements, physical injuries, teen resistance, difficulty adjusting to the wilderness environment, emotional and psychological distress, privacy concerns (during group activities), and the high costs involved.