"Worse" Kids Than Mine

Posted by Trina Grater on December 14, 2022

Trina 1.5It’s understandable that any parent might worry about “kids that are worse than mine in the group” as a family embarks on a therapeutic journey in the wilderness—it is a common question. As parents, we worry about our children's daily influences in most realms of their lives. With taking the leap into wilderness, and this concept at a deeper level, it can feel as if enrollment itself could be facing us with a bigger question. Is my kid that “bad?” Are we really at this point?

While there are important steps to ensure best fit placements and how an individual will fit into the group, most of these concerns will innately work themselves out on their own. After watching group evolution for more than 14 years, I have confidence that there is so much more to unpack with the questions: What’s the group like? and What if the other kids are “worse” than mine? When I’m on the ground, with the individuals in the group, I’d argue that mental illnesses are not contagious. I’d plead that “the other kids” are actually your children too, and they’re misunderstood and, of course, precious. Especially once you get past the armor.

To any parent who worries about this, you are worrying about other young people who are similar to your child. The symptoms will certainly look different, and it’s possible that your child will share this information, and that their description of the other kids might make you frightened or uncomfortable. I say, the sooner this happens, the better.

Again, the concern of “cross-contamination” among peers who struggle with mental health issues is valid. It is understandably weighing on a parent’s mind when considering sending a loved one to wilderness therapy. And that weight is the parent’s work for their own therapy, because the “what if’s” can be consuming. The most important aspect to this worry is that the concern is likely the starting point toward recognizing perhaps a bigger fear: Is my child one of “them?” Is my child going to become “that?”

One of the ways these fears grow are from letters and during phone calls with your child. At times, it can be reminiscent of a game of telephone, and that in itself is often no coincidence in regards to the individual’s patterns at home as well. Sometimes students speak to parents about peers one way, and feel very differently about them in reality. Parents might find it incredible to hear how another child might describe their child. And yet it’s entirely possible their child is doing a similar thing when describing a peer, especially earlier on in their stay.

As we shift from some tougher thoughts and into the benefits of the milieu, rest assured it is all grist for the therapeutic mill. Subsequent changes in relationship dynamics in the group are often powerful. Not that “BFFs 4 life” are always the case, but a new-found ability to live with roommates, to work together towards a common goal, and not bail at the first chance are typical lessons learned. It is stark how descriptions evolve over time toward seeing more humanity in general in others. It’s also powerful when parents visit the group and meet the “big bad wolves.” Resoundingly, when parents visit their child in the milieu, they find at times very much to their surprise that the group has some remarkable young people. Everyone is different, but very similar too. Mostly, I want to introduce the idea that the group make-up and the individuals are much more fluid than we would like to imagine. There is no “better” or “worse.” Relationships ebb and flow, and how they do in the group are exactly what your child’s therapeutic process needs.

I plant the seed for parents to listen, especially when it’s the hardest, to what your child is feeling behind the words and stories. This is something your child’s therapist will support with, and rest assured there are a few data points beyond letters to compare and aid with an objective lens, like photos and group journals. What I can tell you is that your child will talk about the same peer in many different ways while they’re here. Therefore, our work as parents is taking care of our own sense of self as the stay unfolds. The takeaway is anyone can be described in a negative light and often how it happens within the milieu and families is no coincidence. Not seeing the humanity of others feeds our fears. Simply put, expect some of it, because it is an understandable attempt to avoid tough work. Often, it’s also an important stepping stone.

So, buckle up for the tests ahead. Trust your intuition. Hear your child—really hold space for what they’re saying and see where it leads them. And share your own truth too. 


This is such an amazing post! So insightful and definitely hits home! What a great truth about mental illness not being contagious! For us fear based people who are trying to do our own work, and NOT think "what if" , this has been very helpful! Thank you!

Posted by Terri and Lou Demas

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