Teens and Young Adults in Wilderness Therapy Programs Appreciate the Meaning of the Holiday Season

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Although parents are sometimes reluctant to enroll their children in a wilderness therapy program during the holidays, one winter in the wilderness can be the life-changing experience both parents and their children need.

Even students who are angry and resentful at first come to realize over the course of the program that their parents acted out of love to ensure a better future for them and their family.

To some adolescents and young adults, the holidays conjure up images of sledding in the snow, baking cookies or roasting chestnuts by the fire. For others, the holidays are best spent under the vast open sky of the Utah desert.

Aspen Achievement Academy, one of the oldest, most reputable wilderness programs in the country, and Passages To Recovery, a wilderness rehab program for young men, report that the most meaningful and memorable holiday of a young person's life can be spent at wilderness camp.

"The winter is one of the most effective times for struggling youth to participate in a wilderness therapy program," said Gil Hallows, MS, executive director of Aspen Achievement Academy and Passages To Recovery. "It is so impactful to be away from home, especially during a major holiday like Christmas or Hanukkah. Our students gain a real appreciation for the things they've always taken for granted - their traditions, their loved ones and the comforts of home."

High-risk behavior among adolescents and young adults tends to increase over winter break. According to Hallows, the wilderness programs get a number of phone calls from parents immediately after the holidays because their children have spent winter break abusing drugs or alcohol, breaking all of the rules, and ruining what should have been a time of joy and family togetherness. Because emotions are running high for everyone around the holidays, some families end up enrolling their child in a wilderness therapy program on Christmas Eve or Christmas day.

"When a young person needs treatment, it doesn't pay to wait just because it's a holiday," said Hallows. "The risk-taking and acting out will likely continue - and, in fact, worsen - because school is out of session, which means they have more time on their hands and more access to dangerous situations."

Rather than focusing on material possessions and lavish gifts, participants in wilderness therapy enjoy the simple pleasures of the holiday season: heartfelt letters from home, crafts that are useful during their time in the wilderness and the company of other young people who understand their struggles.

Participants at Aspen Achievement Academy and Passages To Recovery also enjoy a special meal on holidays, such as a turkey dinner, pumpkin pie and other traditional favorites. In this way, they get a taste of tradition while focusing on the important work of learning new life skills and improving their relationships.

"Our students discover that they can have a meaningful holiday without a lot of presents," explained Hallows. "By re-evaluating their priorities and focusing on what is truly important, they return home with a profound sense of gratitude."

By enrolling their child in a therapeutic wilderness program during the holidays, parents send a powerful message to their child that a healthier, happier future is more important than a date on the calendar. When students at Aspen Achievement Academy and Passages To Recovery reunite with their families at the end of the wilderness therapy program, the spirit of love and gratitude is palpable.

"It is emotional every time we bring students and their families back together, but it is especially striking after the holidays," said Hallows. "Parents miss their children and children miss their parents, and both have concluded that there is something more important than gifts and holiday traditions - the child's safety and well-being."

Parents often are reluctant to enroll their child in a wilderness program around the holidays because they don't want their child to miss out on the festivities at home. Although feelings of guilt are both natural and common, Hallows encourages parents to keep the big picture in perspective.

"Sometimes the safety and well-being of the child outweighs the experience of what will likely be yet another failed holiday," he said. "Even students who are angry and resentful at first come to realize over the course of the program that their parents acted out of love to ensure a better future for them and their family."

Talking with former students years later, many say that the winter they spent at Aspen Achievement Academy or Passages To Recovery was the most memorable and meaningful holiday they've ever had.

"Decades from now, our students will talk to their grandchildren on Christmas day about the winter they spent in the Utah desert," said Hallows. "It's the kind of experience that will stay with them forever."

Aspen Achievement Academy is a licensed wilderness therapy program located in the high desert of southern Utah that provides at-risk adolescents ages 13 to 17 with experiences that promote the development of self-discipline, confidence, problem-solving skills and a healthy lifestyle. Using insight-oriented individual, group and family therapy and modern rites of passage, troubled teens identify healthy ways to bridge the gap between adolescence and adulthood. For more information about Aspen Achievement Academy, call (800) 283-8334 or visit http://www.aspenacademy.com.

Passages To Recovery is a substance abuse treatment program for young men set in the pristine wilderness of central Utah. Using an innovative dual-diagnostic approach to addiction treatment, Passages To Recovery addresses chemical dependency and co-occurring mental health issues through a unique blend of traditional interventions, the 12-Step model, wilderness therapy and research-based methodologies. For more information about Passages To Recovery, call (866) 625-8809 or visit http://www.passagestorecovery.com.

Aspen Achievement Academy and Passages To Recovery are proud members of CRC Health Group, which offers the most comprehensive network of specialized behavioral healthcare services in the nation. With the largest array of personalized treatment options, individuals, families and professionals can choose the most appropriate setting for their behavioral, addiction, weight management and therapeutic education needs. CRC Health Group is deeply committed to making its services widely and easily available to those in need, while maintaining a passion for delivering the most advanced treatment available. For more information about CRC Health Group, visit http://www.crchealth.com or call (877) 637-6237.

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Gil Hallows

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