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How Wilderness and Therapeutic Boarding School Professionals Can Provide Foundational Support for Families Throughout Transition

As parent coaches, we are always looking for ways to provide guidance for families through the many layers of a child’s treatment process.

Although this article is geared towards ways wilderness and residential professionals can help ease the transition for families, we also wanted the families in our Solutions Parenting Support community to know the work involved on the end of the professionals during this pivotal time.

How to Provide Foundational Support for Families throughout the Transition Process

In an effort to continue collaborating on ways to guide parents in the treatment process, we want to share with the wilderness and treatment professionals, in our community, another prevalent theme we are witnessing with the parents we coach.

As a child goes through the transition from wilderness to therapeutic boarding schools and/or residential treatment, parents can easily become overwhelmed and be an unintended obstacle in the progress of their child.

What can get lost in translation is the parent's understanding that even though their child is still in a high level of care, it is a step down for the whole family from wilderness.

As wilderness therapists, we are prepared to be readily available, responsive and to offer in-depth information throughout the child’s experience. This information sharing process changes, in an appropriate way, throughout the child’s transition to the next step.

We want parents to let go a bit more, to trust the process and to be peripherally involved the way they might be if their teen was living at home and offering limited information about their lives.

In this particular transition out of wilderness, many parents experience:
  • Anxiety when they are not getting the same level of communication that they have been accustomed to receiving.
  • Disconnection and less involvement as they are unclear as to what is “actually happening” on the ground.

Because of this, unfortunately, we often see parents' commitment waiver and trust in the system falters.

These parents are facing the loss of being able to parent face-to-face, the way they wish they could be. During this identity change, they need to feel valued, to feel a part of the process and to feel like they are still parents in whatever ways they can be from afar.

Here is an example:

Following a skateboarding accident (that was not serious, but required stitches), one parent grappled both with the desire to fly to her child and bring him home. Once he recovered, she was hesitant to send a care package for fear she was “rescuing”. The message from the residential treatment program and from me, her parent coach, was “absolutely, send a care package... you are allowed to be a parent!”

Here are some useful tips we have compiled over the years for both wilderness folks and longer-term care programs:
Wilderness gurus:
  • Coach parents in advance to expect and prepare for this change.
    Encourage parents to advocate for their needs, even if it is just calling for an update about the recent dentist's office visit.
  • Many parents feel they become a burden when asking for what they need; they don’t want to be “those parents”. Our job is to help them to know that their needs are our needs. We can then coach them much more easily to really let go once trust is developed and care for their concerns is given.

    Residential Gurus:
    • Clearly outline for parents what communication will look like
      Let them know what to expect, as this can abate the fear that balls are just getting dropped and can help to mitigate reactions stirred by anxiety.
    • Help them to understand the intentions behind the system
      Explain the logic behind why, for example, the therapist might not give them a head’s up about an issue the child is going to bring up in session. As professionals we know that the therapist would rather allow it to happen organically to work with the in-the-moment reactions to unexpected issues. Parents aren't always aware of why this is beneficial.
    • Tell parents that they can "buy themselves time"
      One tip we give parents for when they are put on the spot with a request or issue that they feel unprepared to respond well to is, “buy yourself time.” Listen and say that time is needed to think about the in-the-moment request. The child’s “emergency” does not need to become the parent's emergency.
    • Manage parents' expectations around the less direct communication
      Help parents understand that this is a step-down program and will potentially have less direct communication. One thing we all hear from parents is about the price point of the experience and the level of communication they feel they should be receiving for their money. They want to feel involved in the process and want feedback about the process for their child.
    • Be empathetic that “rescuing” trauma is real
      Parents are unclear as to when advocating for themselves or reaching out to their child is rescuing or simply parenting. As such, many are gun shy to ask for what they need from the program because they are afraid they will hear once again that their motives are an act of rescuing.

    As always, we welcome the opportunity to hear about your stories and experiences in these areas, as well as ways we can support your process with families.


    Hilary Moses & Jen Murphy
    Founders of Solutions Parenting Support

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    Solutions Parenting Support, LLC is a nationally recognized parent support and transition program assisting parents and families with straightforward and compassionate skills based support prior to, during and after wilderness therapy and/or residential treatment. Solutions is a dynamic team of parent coaches who have had extensive careers as therapists in wilderness therapy or residential treatment before turning their talents towards coaching parents around the globe. The team is family system focused and are licensed professional therapists and/or social workers each with 15-30 years of experience working in wilderness therapy programs, varying levels of residential treatment programming, and transitional support.

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