A Family-Focused Wilderness Therapy Program

Wilderness Family Therapy

At Redcliff Ascent family therapy is paramount to the treatment process. Addressing family interactions differently than “traditional” family interventions is needed to increase the likelihood of treatment success in the wilderness setting.

The Story

Imagine you’re reading a biography. The main character is struggling with many things in her life, including friends, family, school, drugs, depression, and anxiety. You read how her parents have attempted to intervene many times. Multiple school counselors, therapists, detentions, suspensions, and intensive outpatient programs seem to dot the storyline. Siblings are being negatively affected. Parents are distancing themselves from her, and when they do get close, it ends in disaster. She is staying out late, not following family rules, and breaking the law. She seems to be ruining her life and the lives of people around her.

As you get further into the biography you start to connect with the main character is some ways, such as having to deal with social pressures, homework, sports teams, and conflict at home. You quietly agree, that, “It’s just easier to avoid all of that.” But, ultimately you develop a feeling of frustration towards her for not having more insight into the wake she is leaving behind.

While you resonate with her common catch phrase of “the struggle is real,” you also ask yourself, “Does she not realize what she is doing?” And want to tell her, “It’s not worth it!” You begin to put yourself in her shoes. There are ways to have handled the situation differently. You become so emotionally involved in her story you have to put the book down.


As you close the book on your lap, looking up slightly to prevent the tears that have welled up from spilling over, you wonder, “Who is this poor girl and I wish I could help her.” Towards that end you flip to the opening of the book jacket where it provides a brief description of the main character. You notice your picture, your name, your age, where you were born, and many other facts that are….well, you! You realize somebody else wrote a book about your life story without you knowing, or ever asking what you thought or experienced. You think, “That’s not my story at all. That’s not even close to how it happened!”

So What?

Now, as contrived as the previous story is, in many ways this is what may be happening emotionally for youth facing their life story for the first real time. Parents, therapists, clergy, and counselors have all attempted to reflect the teen’s life story back to them. Mainly in hopes that the child will “see what he or she is really doing.” However, in this sense, we are writing the story for them.

So, we attempt to bring the family together and each tell their experience and author the storyline together. In some cases, progress is made. At least until the “heavy chapters” where the experiences are so vastly different and emotionally charged co-authoring in the same room seems impossible. The story line becomes saturated with problems and conflict. Undertones of resentment and hopelessness become the mood. We conclude that there is not one universal reality to this story, but that each reality is constructed by one’s own social experience.

The problem becomes apparent: the story does not fit with their lived experience. Another setting is needed, free from simply just re-writing the same chapter over and over with the same co-authors. A biography is not what is needed. Or even a rewrite of the biography. It requires a new, fresh, authoring of an autobiography.

What Now?

Addressing family interactions differently than “traditional” family interventions is needed to increase likelihood of treatment success in the wilderness setting. At RedCliff Ascent family therapy is paramount to the treatment process. Youth participate in unique interventions that allows for the re-authoring of the personal narratives. They provide a new and different perspective on a problem-saturated narrative. Thus, individuals change their relationship to their life story and their family story (Morgan, 2000).

Narrative Family Therapy

By adhering to the evidence-based treatment model of Narrative Family Therapy clients are able to:

  • Externalize the problem(s) they are experiencing.
  • Deconstruct problem-saturated narratives through questioning.
  • Identifying unique times when they were not weighed down by their problem.
  • Link outcomes to the future and provide an alternative and preferred narrative.
  • Invite members of their family to witness the new narrative.
    (Carr 1998; O’Conner et al. 1997)

Narrative therapy is used widely and in a variety of settings. So, what makes family therapy at RedCliff different?

  • Research suggests that family therapy at RedCliff has stronger outcomes than many other similar interventions because of the unique application of Narrative Family Therapy.
  • RedCliff has innovated family involvement in the narrative writing in the wilderness setting. They do so by making the individual family members an audience to each other and their personal narratives, rather than coauthors.
  • By taking the audience approach family members who are distant, as they are often in wilderness programs, can still be involved in the process through being asked to reflect on stories that are being told (Freedman & Combs, 1996).

RedCliff Family Experience

“RedCliff helped us understand him, his concerns, his fears, and his needs. We could not have done this while he was at home as he was unwilling to communicate with us. Removing him from the house for a few weeks gave everyone involved the chance to rethink what was going on and it helped us all get a bit of perspective on the issues…”

The parents continued:

“For us parent narratives were very helpful in two ways. Firstly, it helped us rethink about our relationship with our son, and about how our role might have had an influence on [his] development. Writing the narratives had a huge impact on our way of parenting our kids. Secondly, the parents’ narratives made us get involved in [his] improvement, it allowed us to play a part in his progress even though he was miles away from home...it was a way of working together with him even though we were miles away from home.”


A review of 18 studies found evidence that participation in family therapy while a youth is in residential care is associated with successful outcomes (Hair, 2005). However, due to the nature of a wilderness setting and program, traditional family therapy is not always possible. RedCliff Ascent has been able to successfully integrate family therapy in the wilderness setting beyond a traditional outpatient family therapy session held in the woods. Commitment to the Narrative family therapy model, highly trained therapists, and requiring family involvement in the treatment process, sets RedCliff apart in setting the stage for life-changing family interactions.

Family hugging at redcliff ascent



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