Phoenix Outdoor Family Support Program Aids in Treatment and Recovery

By Jess Clarke

The families of students at Phoenix Outdoor, a wilderness therapy program for teens outside of Asheville, N.C., often experience a different kind of wilderness.

Families often feel anxious, uncertain, or helpless about their role in addressing their children’s substance abuse or dependency. That’s why Phoenix Outdoor offers a family support program with frequent contact and active involvement, so families are nurtured, too. Addiction affects the whole family, so the aim is to treat the family, not only the adolescent, in working toward a successful recovery.

The scope of Phoenix Outdoor’s family support program is unusual among wilderness therapy programs. Soon after a student begins the wilderness rehab program, the Phoenix therapist makes an introductory phone call to parents to help them feel comfortable and informed about the program. The call answers parents’ questions and generally relieves any anxieties they may have about their child being away from home.

Parent Education Series
During a teen’s stay in the wilderness, Phoenix Outdoor offers a parent education series consisting of weekly webinars. These live, interactive meetings and presentations on the Internet allow parents to interact with the therapist and other parents and provide families with discussion and support.

The varied webinar topics include the Twelve-Step Program, which outlines a course of recovery; the effects of substance abuse on teens; and families in recovery, addressing what addiction means for the family, different phases, and how to respond. The webinars also offer perspectives on parenting, including parenting patterns, parenting based on how a teen learns best, setting limits with healthy boundaries, and establishing realistic expectations.    
Appropriate Communication Is Key 
Other webinars address communicating with adolescents by teaching affirming, not negative, expression; explaining barriers to healthy communication; and showing ways to express feelings appropriately to improve relationships.  

In the parent education series, parents learn about dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT, a broad treatment approach that’s an important element of the Phoenix Outdoor program. The series explains the skills associated with DBT: distress tolerance; mindfulness (awareness of habits of excess and environments that may not validate kids); emotion regulation skills; and interpersonal skills. Some DBT skills may be useful in parents’ lives, too.
Involving the family is essential in the Phoenix Outdoor program. As the family recovers, these changes can reverse some of the damaging effects of the teen’s addiction. The parent education series teaches parents about the key addiction issues of denial, enabling, and co-dependency, the factors that may have played a role in their child’s behavior, and strategies for overcoming those issues.

Two-Day Parent Workshops

Phoenix Outdoor recently relocated to the site of SUWS of the Carolinas, another well-known wilderness therapy program in North Carolina, and both are part of Aspen Education Group, a division of CRC Health Group. SUWS’ popular two-day parent workshops, conducted by the family program manager at SUWS, are available to Phoenix Outdoor parents.

The workshop, offered on-campus, is aimed at parents whose children are about halfway through the program. The interactive, experiential workshop, with art and outdoor activities, helps parents examine their parenting and communication styles and how they may influence some of the dynamics involved in their child’s challenges. Parents learn more about the opportunities available through wilderness therapy and ways to achieve meaningful interaction with their child. Many parents also benefit by interacting with other parents who are experiencing similar family challenges.  
Graduation Ceremony

Parents also play a crucial role in the graduation ceremony that marks a student’s completion of the Phoenix Outdoor wilderness program. Family sculpting, a family therapy technique, is a visual representation of how a child or parents experience the family. At the ceremony, family members, or their surrogates, are physically arranged in the way that parents or their child think the family interacts. The exercise gives valuable insight into family dynamics and the presence of stress, enmeshment, alienation, and other factors.

An important underlying aim of the family sculpting exercise and components of Phoenix Outdoor’s family support program is improving communication among family members, which also helps families be supportive during their teen’s ongoing progress after they complete the wilderness program.

Jess Clarke is a freelance writer and editor based in Asheville, N.C.

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