Reframing Letter Writing
Communication throughout the wilderness therapy experience can feel very different for most families in treatment. At home, communicating is as straightforward as talking around the dinner table or sending your child a text, and in residential settings, phone calls typically happen a few times each week. In wilderness, however, the majority of communication happens through letter writing. In and of itself, this can be a drastic change for most families, and for this week’s blog I wanted to touch on one of the biggest shifts I navigate with families regarding the letter writing process.
Having begun my development at Evoke as a field instructor, I initially experienced only the child’s perspective with weekly letters. Throughout my time in the field, I heard countless complaints along the lines of, “My parents haven’t changed at all, they just keep talking down to me, lecturing at me, and trying to teach me lessons… why should I even write back.” When I started supporting parents through the letter writing process back in 2015 as a clinical assistant, I was grateful to experience the other half of this communication, yet I often hear similar frustrations.
One of the most common struggles I hear from parents regarding the communication is, “Why didn’t my child write me this week?” or, “Why didn’t he/she/they respond to my questions?” followed by something along the lines of, “Why should I keep writing these letters, if they aren’t going to write back?” My quick, and maybe confusing, response to parents in these moments is, “You shouldn’t.” Having seen both sides, the true benefit of writing letters isn’t actually about the other person’s response, it’s about ourself. The parents who accomplish the most throughout the letter writing process in wilderness are those who turn the letter writing assignment into an exercise of self-expression and open communication.
If the intention of having parents write their children each week was to engineer a response, change opinions, or control outcomes, we’d consistently fail! Basing anything in treatment to be dependent on someone else’ actions (things outside of our control) would lead to disappointment, frustration, and hopelessness. At the heart of the letter writing process lies the hope that parents and children will write letters to better express themselves, not to control or influence one another.
And I want to clarify here too, it is absolutely painful and challenging to have the communication feel primarily one sided. Of course, the hope is that all parties engage in the letter writing process because each person finds some value in expressing themselves in this new way, however sometimes this is not the case. In these moments I encourage you to reflect on ways in which you can practice expressing that desire for connection in a way that feels supportive and caring, instead of taking reactionary actions (if they won’t write me, I won’t write them).
So, what does it mean to transform the letter writing process into an exercise of self-expression? This looks like writing a letter to express thoughts, feelings, work, etc. without the intention of receiving a response. It looks like being able to practice the tools you are using, and allowing your loved one space and time to sit with and digest what is being expressed. It looks like growing through our old, unhealthy communication styles oriented around controlling and influencing outcomes, and instead showing up with insight, self-reflection, and connection.
Again, while setting aside our hopes and expectations and instead writing these letters for ourselves is absolutely challenging, the choice to show up with love and consistent engagement is one of the best things family members can do to improve their communication. It sends the message that your love and investment is unconditional, and that you are there to engage when they are ready. And while it is not an easy path to take, it is definitely one to consider as you work through this process of change!