SageWalk Wilderness Therapy Program for Struggling Teens Finds That Most Parents Underestimate Extent of Their Teen's Drug and Alcohol Use

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Licensed clinicians at therapeutic wilderness program advise parents, "If you think your child has a problem, it's probably worse than you think."

These days, prescription drugs are even easier to get than alcohol

After years of experience working one-on-one with troubled teens and their families, the therapists at SageWalk the Wilderness School have discovered that most parents have no idea what their kids are actually doing.

Laurie Wilmot, LCSW, a therapist at SageWalk, estimates that parents are aware of roughly 30 percent of their child's rule-breaking behaviors like sneaking out of the house, cutting classes, or experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

"Parents are particularly naive about their teens' drug and alcohol use," Wilmot explains. "Often, a child's drug use is at least double what parents report, and has been going on a lot longer than they would've guessed."

When students arrive at SageWalk , they complete in-depth assessments detailing the extent of their behavioral and substance abuse issues, which are then sent to parents. Students generally take advantage of the opportunity to open up about their problems, so they can start the program with a clean slate.

"Because students in wilderness programs have been removed from their familiar home environment, and they know they're here to get help, they tend to be more candid than they would be with a therapist at home or in an outpatient facility," says Wilmot. "Parents are sometimes shocked when they see the extent of their child's issues right there in black and white, reported directly from their child's mouth in the initial assessment."

It can be difficult for busy, working parents to vigilantly monitor their children's behavior and pick up on the signs that a problem may exist. In Wilmot's experience, parents are fairly diligent at detecting alcohol, marijuana, and other illicit drug use, but haven't been as conscientious with prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

"These days, prescription drugs are even easier to get than alcohol," notes Wilmot. "Teens are chopping up and snorting Ritalin, and their parents are busy asking them questions about marijuana and cocaine. They're missing some of the most widely abused drugs out there."

SageWalk's therapists recommend that parents look for the following warning signs of drug use in their teens: irritability, secretive or suspicious behavior, involvement in compulsive behaviors like gambling or excessive video game play, or changes in eating habits, personal appearance, sleep patterns, hobbies, academic performance, or friends. Because many of these symptoms closely resemble normal adolescent behaviors, many parents brush off their concerns and say, "He's just being a teenager."

"A child who makes an occasional mistake, skips class once in awhile, or smokes a cigarette to see how it feels is probably exhibiting normal teen behavior," counsels Wilmot. "But if these occasional incidents turn into a pattern of behavior, it could be a sign of a larger behavioral or substance abuse issue. When parents intuitively sense there's a problem, they need to get help - sooner rather than later."

An open dialogue between parent and child is the best place to start, advises Wilmot.
By asking questions, avoiding long lectures, setting specific and enforceable boundaries, and making sure there are consequences if a child breaks the rules, parents can stay actively involved in their teenager's life.

When in doubt, Wilmot recommends that parents speak with school counselors or principals, or call an expert at a residential facility or wilderness program to determine if their child needs professional guidance. The therapists at wilderness programs like SageWalk specialize in assessing adolescent behavior and determining the best course of action to help the entire family get back on track.

"Wilderness therapy has proven highly effective in teaching teens the life skills they need to lead productive, healthy lives," states Wilmot. "In the wilderness, teens learn to control impulsive behaviors and their desire for instant gratification by working for everything from basic necessities like food and shelter to trust and respect from their peers. Without drugs, alcohol, television, or other distractions, teens can re-evaluate who they are and how their behaviors have impacted their lives and the lives of everyone around them."

Since 1997, SageWalk the Wilderness School and its team of licensed clinical professionals, certified chemical dependency counselors, master's level educators, and highly trained wilderness-based instructors have been helping teens aged 13-17 address issues like depression, substance abuse, attention deficit, and anger management. SageWalk is licensed by the State of Oregon as an Outdoor Youth program and Private School, and as a Chemical Dependency Treatment program.

SageWalk is a proud member of Aspen Education Group, the nation's largest and most comprehensive network of therapeutic schools and programs. Aspen Education Group offers professionals and families the opportunity to choose from a variety of therapeutic settings in order to best meet a student's unique academic and emotional needs. Aspen Education Group has been profiled by major news and television organizations around the world, including U.S. News and World Report, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and People magazine, as well as on CNN, ABC's 20/20 and Good Morning America, NBC's The Today Show and Dateline NBC, National Public Radio, and the syndicated television show Dr. Phil. Aspen is a division of CRC Health Group, the nation's largest chemical dependency and related behavioral health organization. For more information about Aspen Education Group, visit or call (888) 972-7736. For more information about SageWalk and the benefits of wilderness therapy, please call (800) 877-1922 or visit

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