Adolescent Girls and Wilderness Therapy: Can They Handle It?
The title of this blog was a tough one for me to type. My internal answer to the question is always a bold and resounding, “YES, of course, and why is that even a question?” But it is a question and a concern that I have heard from many parents contemplating wilderness therapy for their adolescent daughters over the past few years. After consulting with adolescent boys wilderness therapists, my suspicion about this gender stereotype was confirmed. It seems that the boys groups get very few (if any) questions about their capacity to “handle it”. First let’s identify a few built in assumptions to the question about girls and their abilities in a wilderness program. The assumptions range from “they might not be strong enough or tough enough” to “they might be traumatized by the rugged nature of living in the wilderness”. I have also heard parents express concern about their daughters feeling “unsafe in the remote wilderness” or “unable to endure the discomfort of the weather or learning how to build a fire”.
Having experienced being a teenage girl myself and now having worked in a wilderness setting for over 5 years, I can say whole heartedly that girls are just as capable in every way imaginable as boys are, to thrive in the wilderness. As are transgender, gender fluid, gender non-conforming, and gender-neutral adolescents.
I remember when I was about 15 years old, I got to participate in a summer youth program abroad, and part of the program was a weekend trip camping on a remote island off the coast of Greece. I was so excited at the idea of this and asked enthusiastically when we would be able to go on the camping trip. To my dismay, I was told that the trip was only for the boys. I was baffled and even a little insulted. I recall that I immediately blurted out, “Why? That doesn’t make any sense at all! We have worked just as hard as the boys!” The response I was given was that it wouldn’t be “appropriate” for the girls to camp on the island because “girls would have a harder time”. Again, I responded with questions and pleas and assertions that I was not one of “those” girls who would have a hard time with it. I certainly understood why we maybe wouldn’t camp together but why not allow us to camp at all?! After a few more dedicated attempts to make my case, I was told to let it go and the rule would not change. That night when I curled up to try and find sleep, it was the first time in my life I was genuinely filled with anger and bewilderment at being told I was somehow less capable or less worthy as my male counterpart. Little did my 15 year old brain know, it would be the first of many times in my life I would receive that same message.
Recently I was asked to give a presentation about my work with girls in the wilderness and while I was researching information for the presentation, I stumbled upon a theory pertaining to adolescent girls that I had never heard before. It is called “the bravery deficit” and was explained eloquently by a phenomenal woman named Reshma Saujani. In a TED talk entitled, “Teach girls bravery, not perfection”, she talked about how boys are being raised to take risks and girls are being raised to be perfect. In other words, girls are taught to color inside the lines and stay within the limits of getting things right, rather than exploring at the risk of failure. She reviewed statistics that alarmed me, including one revealing that men will apply for a job where they meet only 60 percent of the job qualifications but women will apply only if they meet 100 percent of the qualifications. The meaning of this is explained as rooted in how girls and boys are raised or socialized. Boys will take risks, whereas girls will play it safe, because that is how they have been socialized to behave. I was told at age 15 that I was somehow less capable or less deserving. Luckily I didn’t believe it at the time and went on to challenge the assumption throughout my life - but not every girl is so lucky. As the saying goes, if you hear something long enough, you may just start to believe it – and not because it is necessarily true.
In the TED talk, Reshma Saujani, went on to explain that one major difference is in how boys and girls approach a challenge, how they are taught to approach a challenge. Girls often get praised for being “good”, while boys are praised for “trying hard”, so girls strive to be good or perfect and give up easily while the boys strive to try hard and develop resiliency in the face of challenge. One of my favorite quotes from the TED talk was, “When we teach girls to be brave, they will build incredible things”. I could not agree more with this statement. We know that when a person is treated as if they can succeed, the likelihood that they will succeed is incredibly higher. If girls are not given a chance to try and maybe fail, aren’t we robbing them of the chance to learn from that experience and come back stronger? Bravery and resiliency come in part from distress tolerance, from trying really hard at something all of the time and only succeeding some of the time. Wilderness therapy provides an opportunity for increasing distress tolerance, strengthening resiliency, self-discovery, and ultimately helping individuals’ believe they are indeed strong and capable! Girls cannot only “handle it”, they will often exceed expectations and surprise not only their parents but often themselves.