Sarah, a 14 year old from Sydney, came to True North Expeditions in late 2014 after her parents became worried about her self-harming behaviours of cutting and smoking cigarettes with a negative influencing group of friends. Although she did not wish to attend the adventure program she agreed to go just to “get her mum off her back.”
In the first few days of the program, the group hiked through the rugged mountains of the Flinders Ranges. Sarah struggled to get along with the other girls and didn’t see a point to the program. She cried at night saying that she wished her life hadn’t come to this point and that she missed her family at home.
After the third night of the program, Sarah woke to say she had just had the best sleep since she could remember. She felt more energised and said that she hadn’t felt this alive since she’s been feeling numb for over a year. She sat with Emily, one of program leaders, on the side of a mountain and they talked. Laughing and drawing in their journals, they spoke of her strengths and ways she could use them to overcome adversity and build resilience. The practiced new ways to self-regulate and stay calm and clear.
Much of our program’s philosophy comes from the work of Dr Bruce Perry and his experience in working with traumatised children across America. Dr Perry’s research on the brain has led to remarkable breakthroughs for educators, psychologists and anyone providing helping services to children and families. The real breakthrough is his work in using literature on the brain’s development to tailor-fit interventions that really help children and adolescents grow.
Important to this process is the Three R’s, or Regulate, Relate, Reason. A lot of us think that we should “Relate” with children before we attempt to regulate difficult emotions. There are also times where we try to “Reason” with them creating a battle of wills where we may yell, command or punish. However, research has indicated that children who are stressed and anxious struggle to use the parts of their brain that allow for strong relationships and rational reasoning.
So our first step, before relationships or therapy can occur, is to help our children to feel calm and regulated. Being a relationship-focused program, our practitioners focus heavily on relationships that are built on genuine trust and mutual respect, not authority or teaching. Although Dr Perry’s research is fairly modern, Carl Rogers has been saying this since the 1960s. Unconditional positive regard and genuine warmth are the best relationship building tools we have. And a nurturing environment helps children to stay regulated.
There are no bad kids that need fixing or children that are just a diagnosis or effected by this trauma or that. There is a person that we can help but only if we are connected. This is where the reasoning comes in.
Some participants struggle to adapt to life in the bush during one of our 14-day adventure therapy programs. Instead of letting them suffer, as some programs do, science tells us that we need to help them become calm and clear. It is only at this time that true psychotherapy begins.
True North Expeditions, Inc. provides adventure therapy programs and services for children and teenagers in Australia. Based in Adelaide, the TNE team writes about child and adolescent psychology, family dynamics and how adventure therapy programs can connect with struggling adolescents.