In August, I was asked to run a last minute workshop at the Australian Association for Bush Adventure Therapy’s National Forum. Someone dropped out and I was given a spot as a guest speaker during a pre-conference event. There was no real prompt as to what to discuss.
Given I was already to MC a panel of difficult adventure therapy topics and run two 90-minute workshops, I didn’t think I had much material left. I called my experiential learning and therapy friends for help. They are some of the best at improvisation. They had an idea for me in minutes.
Think back to when you were a kid. From 5 to, let’s say, 8 years old. Think of an event which had a massive impact on you. So massive it has stuck with you and informs your work and everyday life.
“That’s too big and heady,” I thought. I didn’t believe I had such an event. My friend shared his event as I continued my denial of this being a good idea. Suddenly, however, it came to me.
Like many others, I grew up with two working parents: my father was a carpenter who left for work often before the sun rose. Side note: My dad would hit snooze, get ready, and walk out the door. That really irritated my mom! My mother started a career in real estate as I was entering school as a 5 year old and often would not return home until 6 night. My younger brother wasn’t born until I was 8 years old.
I woke up in the morning, walked to the kitchen, and ate cereal for breakfast. My mom would be getting ready for work. I got to school, where I struggled immensely. I was a terribly slow reader and teachers were consistently telling me to try harder. I fell through the cracks. As each year became harder, I felt more left behind. I would do anything not to be noticed.
I would attend after-school care until after Year 8 when I decided I wanted to go to boarding school. A close friend said he was going to try and go and I leapt at the idea. After all, I had already been attending seven weeks a year at summer camp living in the outdoors…sort of a precursor to True North Expeditions, right?
I was a regular at after-school care until my father would pick me up at 6pm and take me home. As I walked in the door, I would grab whatever frozen TV dinner was available and place it in the microwave. I was a MasterChef at TV dinners. I would use a fork to poke perfect holes over the frozen brownie and make sure to tear the corner over the corn kernels to ensure it stayed somewhat crunchy. Frozen pizza? Even more solid. I would eat by myself before retiring to invent games to play to pass the time. There was no TV on school nights, so, the TV dinners were typically eaten in silence and alone.
Now, this is not meant to be some diatribe on my upbringing or intended to bring a wave of sympathy about my upbringing. This felt “normal”. I didn’t know any better and didn’t even think there was something wrong about this at all. However, this is what emerged when I was asked the question above. I started to share my story.
The second part of the prompt, however, asked how these experiences informed my work. As I spoke about these experiences, I knew right away: I hate seeing young people feel alone. That’s how I felt. I knew my education was a losing battle because I was never successful at it. I was successful at other things: a decent athlete and good musician.
This was a long-winded way to get to the topic at hand and maybe quite cathartic. What does this have to do with squinting, demoralisation, or hope?
For the past four years, I have been completing a PhD about young people from all over the world who have completed adventure therapy programs. I wanted to share their experience, their voice, and what matters to them. After all, they have the most at stake.
Most of the young people who wind up on programs like True North Expeditions have been to therapy before. We call them therapy veterans. They are experts at therapy going wrong. Their parents have exhausted the local resources and spend time googling to find the next best alternative. Their children, however, had yet to benefit or possibly even see a purpose in engaging with therapy. If therapy hadn't helped, they’re probably still getting into trouble, right?
When teens wind up on adventure programs like ours, which they probably weren’t too thrilled about attending in the first place, it can be helpful to seek to understand their experiences of “demoralisation” or hopelessness. They may also have little faith in the effectiveness of therapy, even if it’s adventurous and in the outdoors. People of all walks arrive to therapy with some level of demoralisation. They would have solved the problem on their own otherwise. If their own efforts haven’t helped them, or pleased those around them, why are they there anyway? Of course, there are a million of counterpoints, such as people going to therapy for specific phobias, but stay with me.
Today I posted an image that read, “Allowing a student with a hidden disability (ADHD, Anxiety, Dyslexia) to struggle academically or socially when all that is needed for success are appropriate accommodations or explicit instruction, is no different than failing to provide a ramp for a person in a wheelchair”. I received good feedback and interaction. While this is not the space to discuss the legitimacy and over-diagnosing of things like ADHD, I provide a second metaphor.
Image telling a school student in need of glasses to ‘squint harder’ in order to see the front of the board. It would be a losing effort.
Teenagers need to experience the Crucial C’s: Connection, Capability, Counting, and Courage. A young person feeling as though they have something to contribute (connected to a range of caring adults) is going to know they can step out in a courageous way because their effort will count.
So how does this work on an expedition if young people are arriving in a state of demoralisation? I begin with asking for their help. I state that I have only one goal. That is to be useful. If I do something that is not useful, I hope they can tell me so I can avoid doing that again.
I also try to provide moments of control. In small ways, which may be significant. “How far should we walk today? Should we go up and over the mountain or around? How should we cook dinner tonight? Where would you like to set up your shelter tonight? Who has an idea for how we should structure the day?” The adolescent participants, typically referred to me because of problem behaviour in school and home, begin seeing their contribution taken seriously. They are vital to the whole damn operation. They are the wild card!
Experiencing the crucial C’s leads to hope. They experience success and mastery and believe their efforts, along with the support of others, can help them to overcome adversity at home and in school. We don’t expect the disengaged young people who arrive at our programs to engage right away. The responsibility of engagement rests on the adults around them. And in our case, those are our adventure therapy leaders and social workers.
If a young person is telling us they can’t see the white board, we don’t tell them squint harder. We adjust our services to meet the needs of the young person so they don’t feel alone, unheard, incapable, or worse, further demoralised. We adjust.
See you in the trail,
Will Dobud MSW