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Kai An Chee

Child and Adolescent Psychopathy - Wilderness Optional Response Paper


November 3, 2016

The paradox of adolescence is as ironic as it is troubling: while teens are at their peak

physical healthiness, mortality rates in this age group increase by 200-300%. During the
adolescent years, risk-taking is at an all time high, influenced by biological, social, and
environmental factors. Despite the fact that teens know the consequences of their actions, they
continue to go through with these risky behaviors. While the experience of increased risk-taking
is universal to all adolescents, some teens go even farther, participating in behaviors that are
emotionally and physically destructive to themselves and those around them. Faced by the
monumental task of dealing with their troubled teens, some parents make the decision to put their
children in a controversial kind of remedial program: wilderness programs.
Wilderness, a play by Anne Hamburger and Seth Bockley, chronicles the journeys of
real-life teenagers who have been sent to a wilderness program. Described as a documentary
theatre piece, the play utilized a small ensemble cast of actors who portrayed both the campers
and the camp leaders. In addition to the actors onstage, a series of recorded clips of the campers
parents were included as well. The production created a multidimensional, holistic picture of
what these camps offer troubled teens.
While considered controversial in many circles, the values of wilderness camps cant be
overlooked. Wilderness camps provide the opportunity for troubled teens to get away from
triggering environments; for example, a character in Wilderness had been plagued with
bullying at school. As a result of the bullying, the character had begun self-harming as a way to
deal with the emotional pain. By removing teens from these environments, wilderness camps

may help them move farther away from habitual destructive actions associated with those
settings. Furthermore, as in the case of that character, the isolated setting of wilderness camps
allows far less access to knives and bladesand, for others who deal with substance abuse,
drugs and alcohol. As we saw in the play, campers were required to carry heavy packs with all of
their belongings inside. They had to make their own fires, and lived with only the basics. In this
way, wilderness camps serve the purpose to teach self-reliance in teens. By learning self-reliance
and independence, troubled adolescents can increase their self-efficacy and feelings of
accomplishment. In addition, wilderness camps promote cooperation and problem solving skills
with other campers. Furthermore, the removal of environmental distractionstechnology, social
circles, parents etc. coupled with regular counseling from a certified professional can result in a
distilled setting in which teens can zero in on the roots of their problems. As we saw in the play,
many parents didnt know what to do with their teens after repeated incidents of difficult
behavior. The frustration experienced by parents can translate into unintentional hostility, which
then exacerbated the conditions of the teen. By being in an environment surrounded by qualified
counselors and trained camp leaders, teens can be nurtured by people who actually understand
how to deal with their issues. By being in an expansive natural environment, they can also
develop an appreciation for the natural world, knowledge of environmental sustainability, and a
new perspective on life. The expansiveness of nature lends itself to having space to process their
emotions, and to physically express themselves with less chance to harm those around them.
Wilderness programs, however, are not for every child. As with all of the campers we saw
in Wilderness, good candidates for such problems are teens whose issues are largely reliant on
their environments. Examples of adolescent issues in the play include gender confusion that

resulted in lashing out at parents, and drug taking that led to dangerous actions. Conversely, teens
who display severely at risk behaviorsuicidal, prone to hurting others, etc.are not good
candidates for these programs, as the drastic shift in lifestyle might cause deeper emotional hurt
and be dangers to other campers. Wilderness programs are also not a good option for teens with
severe medical conditions, as they would not be able to withstand the harsh conditions.
Furthermore, teens who have severely biologically-linked mental disorders such as schizophrenia
or profound intellectual disability would not benefit from these programs, and would do better in
a clinically monitored environment.
In addition, wilderness programs can be beneficial for the families of troubled children as
well. As we saw in the show, parents described feeling overwhelmed and helpless when their
child began to act out. By sending their children to a wilderness program, parents may have some
peace of mind that their child is being cared for by professionals who are equipped to deal with
difficult behavior. Furthermore, the frustration and inability to act effectively in the face of
difficult behavior that parents experience may put a strain on their relationships with the teens.
By having some space to rethink their own attitudes and feelings towards their children, parents
can come to actively love and appreciate the child again. Preparing the home to receive the child
post-wilderness could also act as a mirror in which parents can see their own emotionally
unhealthy tendencies and work towards healing themselves as to create a healthy home for the
child.
Along with a plethora of positive factors, wilderness programs also carry with them
significant risks. Some teens, when placed in the wilderness, are simply not equipped to deal
with the harsh conditions and higher levels of physical activity. As told by some characters in the

play, campers are often taken to wilderness without prior warning, and are taken away by
strangers late at night. This could potentially create increased distrust of parents and families,
and cause the teen to act out even more. In addition, lack of regulation of wilderness programs
could result in parents sending their children to a program that doesnt function as advertised.
Rather than genuinely attempting to rehabilitate teens and partnering with clinically qualified
professionals, the program could skew the other way, and instead result in the maltreatment of
adolescents. Another factor worth considering is the variability in attitude and temperament of
camp leaders, as this could potentially hinder the healing of campers. As interaction with other
people is limited, the quality of a camp leader is a huge factor in the healing process of the
camper. If the leader acts in a hostile or harsh way, campers are unlikely to be responsive and
will not benefit from their time in wilderness.
After attending Wilderness, my knowledge of wilderness programs had tripled. In
addition to simply knowing about these programs, I felt that I had gained a better sense of child
and adolescent psychopathology. One of the most interesting things that I learned from watching
the play was how easy it is to see children with behavioral problems as mainly defined by their
issuesthe girl who cut herself or the boy who lied about his parents. Even as I watched the
show, I found myself mentally referring to each character with such monikers when I couldnt
remember their names. When I reflected on the intimate and personal stories that each teen told
as juxtaposed with my crude labeling of each camper, I realized that there was so much more to
them than just their behavioral problem. Through the compassion and patience of the camp
leaders, I saw that treating a child with behavioral issues as a rounded human being was a far
better way to create a healthy environment for healing. I also saw that while some characters

acted as if they wanted to be alone, ultimately, each person wanted their story and feelings to be
shared; this taught me about the importance of community and of trust. Through trust, each of
the campers began to open up, and by sharing them with the communitythe other campers, the
camp leaders, and the audienceallowed them to journey closer to recovery. Lastly, I learnt that
there was truly no one way to move towards healing. Each of the characters was their own
personwholly individual and in need of specific and attentive care. This show truly opened my
eyes to not only a new kind of treatment program that I had previously not known about, but also
the delicate, fragile, and ultimately beautiful nature of the adolescent mind and how it deals with
emotional distress.