Wilderness Therapy for Pre-teens: Blue Ridge’s Footsteps Program Continues to Evolve by Enriching Family Involvement

Blue Ridge first opened our Footsteps group for pre-teens in 2006, as one of the first wilderness therapy programs to work with this younger adolescent age group. It has always been developmentally focused to fit the needs of 10-14 year-olds, with an emphasis on nurturing these kids through every interaction. Our field staff balance supporting students through tasks while not rescuing them from what needs to be done. In this way, our students develop new skills while having the “safety net” of caring adults. We are a co-ed group led by co-ed field staff. This mirrors the traditional school setting where students develop their communication skills and build healthy relationships with peers and staff of different genders. These young students spend most days backpacking, but every ten days, they get to regroup and spend time at our hybrid base camp, called The Fort.

In the Footsteps program, we work with our students to increase their understanding of the role they have played in family communication and conflict. Footsteps students often discover that they have felt misunderstood while expecting their family to understand things that they have not expressed openly. Repeated conflicts and resentment have resulted in students viewing those who care for them most as an opposing force. Feeling unsupported and misunderstood, students have developed patterns of behavior that have exacerbated the problem. By teaching personal responsibility and assertive communication skills, we assist students in taking steps toward mending their damaged relationships.

Footsteps parents’ work is particularly important. The opportunity to correct problems and repair family relationships has come at a pivotal time in the lives of our students, and the work they and their families do at this point will impact the students’ success through adolescence and young adulthood. When parents commit to their own progress and develop an understanding of their child’s treatment, the student and whole family can have the experience of being on the same team again. The work of parents involves being open, honest, and vulnerable with themselves, each other, the primary therapist, and their child. The anger, fear, sadness, and other difficult emotions parents have experienced all flow from their caring and concern for their child, and, when parents can be open about these emotions and express them in a way that is neither shaming nor rescuing their child, there is an opportunity for increased understanding and closer relationships. From a place of honest self-examination, parents can then set goals and begin to develop new skills and strategies.

Footsteps (1).jpgIt’s commonly asked why wilderness therapy would be necessary to facilitate this kind of change. Families that are considering enrolling their child at Blue Ridge have often reached a point of significant conflict and struggle in their home, and yet, for a family to rebuild an atmosphere of caring and support for one another, the battles must be over. The moment a student arrives at Blue Ridge, the old patterns of blame shifting and conflict are disrupted. Not only are students in a new environment where their ability to focus on their own responsibility is optimized, but parents also experience the space needed to break the patterns they have developed in reacting to their child. The physical separation and the thoughtful process of communication through letter-writing are helpful in beginning the process of change. Parents have one hour weekly conversations with the therapist working with their child, and a great deal of insight is gained by both parents and therapist through this collaboration. To ensure that parents feel supported and engaged in their own process of growth, additional parent support calls and an intensive parent workshop are offered. In Footsteps, our every action is intended to optimize the opportunity for parents and students to evaluate themselves and their relationships and to take steps that lead to greater understanding and a greater sense of fulfillment.

For more information on Blue Ridge’s Footsteps program for middle schoolers and pre-teens, please contact Primary Therapist, Jeremy Nunnelley, LPC. He can be reached at or (828) 301-0304.

Recent Posts

Blue Ridge operates with the same guiding principles it was founded on. Safety is, and has always been, the number one priority while offering the highest level of customer service and clinical expertise available in a wilderness therapy setting.