CYC-Online 61 FEBRUARY 2004
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Adventure boosts empowerment

Jack Howell

Adolescent rebellion is not an inevitable phase in human development, according to psychologist Anne Wilson Schaef. She asserts that the power struggle between generations, which seems impossible to avoid, is a result of a patriarchal pecking order in our society which keeps teenagers at the bottom of the chain of command at the very time in their lives when the individuation process and the need for autonomy are at full bore.

When we take a careful look at the issue, it seems clear that parents – and adults in general – tend to set both themselves and the adolescents in their life up for unnecessary battles which, though usually beginning over a relatively insignificant issue, can often escalate into full scale war ultimately resulting in a domestic apocalypse. When such conflict continues to escalate without intervention, alienated, angry, frustrated youth may run away from home, become delinquent, turn to substance abuse, and/or require psychiatric hospitalization.

While the failure of adults to properly respond to their adolescents' individuation process and autonomy needs is only one of many factors which can lead to delinquency, substance abuse and psychiatric disorders among adolescents, it may be the most common – and is certainly the most preventable.

The prevention strategy is simple: as adolescents begin to carve out their own space in the world, the adults who have controlled, sustained, and protected them begin to let go. In fact they do more than gradual passive concession; they pro-actively challenge their youth to challenge themselves. The reflex reaction of adults who are used to being in charge is to hold on harder when their youngsters begin to push the boundaries. This happens in part because adults, who have appropriately kept tight reins on their children in the past, are unable to adjust quickly enough to the rapid and often instantaneous changes as their children pass into puberty – and become adults in process. Teenagers sense instinctively that they are ready for a gradual increase in freedom, autonomy and responsibility. Adults have to be hit over the head with the same realization. Adults often tend to increase their teenager’s responsibilities (such as adding more and more household chores) without increasing their autonomy. When teens defy the added expectations, parents assume they cannot handle added autonomy, when in reality it is likely that the expectations would have been fulfilled had added autonomy come with the package.

Once adolescents are in crisis and require clinical and/or judicial intervention, the traditional approach is also to hold on even harder, to break their will, to take the fight out of them, to wear them down into compliance, using rigidly structured behavior modification programmes. These programmes may often appear to be effective with many youth in the short term in the sense that they become “manageable” – but at what cost to their self-actualization? This is not to suggest that behaviourally oriented clinical programmes don’t have their place, but rather to say that an attempt to control inappropriate behaviour without at the same time addressing the adolescent’s need and right to develop autonomy and individuality is doomed to fail.

The movement to empower
There is growing momentum in the movement to empower youth as a means of prevention and intervention. The student volunteer movement is spreading rapidly across the country, making community service of some sort a prerequisite for high school graduation. Progressive leaders in youth ministry in many churches are changing the format of their programmes from education and entertainment to inter-generational integration and leadership training. While initial results are non-conclusive, it would appear that when adolescents are offered progressively more control over their lives, more input into decisions and policies directly affecting them, more room to risk and more respect for their evolving beliefs and ideas, they are willing and able to accept more responsibility, achieve more academically, and contribute more to their families and their society.

Application to child care
Assuming other factors continue to be helpful for healthy development, it would appear that adolescent rebellion can be avoided or minimized by offering appropriate opportunities for autonomy, individual expression and responsibility. This strategy seems equally premising as an intervention with youth already in crisis once other psychiatric issues, if possible, have been addressed. Empowerment programmes such as those used by the Eckerd Therapeutic Wilderness Camping System, for example, serve to interrupt the cycle of adolescent acting out by offering them the very things they have struggled so violently to achieve. Instead of bearing down harder on residents as they struggle harder, and instead of simply letting them go to wreak havoc upon themselves and others, such an adventure offers a third alternative: the opportunity to take control of their lives within an appropriate structure. The structure serves as a wooden frame or mould might serve when cement is being poured. As the soft, malleable character forms and solidifies, the structure is there to offer support. Once the concrete is firm the external supports are extraneous and are removed. Once the programme succeeds, the structure is removed and the youth is able to use autonomy appropriately and become a functional and productive citizen. The structure in this case is composed of the confines and methods of the Eckerd camping programme. By removing young people from their homes and community environments and placing them in therapeutic residential wilderness settings, their potential for inappropriate behaviour is limited and the negative factors of poor family dynamics and home-peer influences are removed. Then, rather than making the emphasis of the programme on rules and restrictions, the focus shifts to challenges and opportunities.

Giving responsibility
On extended wilderness trips, residents are responsible for meeting many of their own needs. By placing them in a vulnerable position in a safe but uncontrolled environment alien to them, and giving them the responsibility for providing for their own comfort and safety, three things occur. First, there is a shift in their own sense of priorities. Other things which previously seemed important to them, issues over which they were willing to fight to any extreme, suddenly seem quite insignificant when their own “perceived" survival is on their own shoulders. Then, by being challenged to care for their basic needs, residents experience true autonomy for the first time and realize they have been given what they had been fighting for. Yet it wasn’t by “fighting" that they gained it, and only by co-operation and appropriate behaviour will they keep it. Finally, because the role of staff in the camping programme is to work side by side with the residents as team-members (rather than direct them as authority figures) the residents begin to learn to trust adults, and are further reinforced in their sense of autonomy and individuality. This reinforcement by caring adults of the adolescent’s newly-acquired sense of autonomy must not be minimized or confused with his or her capacity of knowing autonomy and translating it into action. In fact, after an empowering river trip (or any other wilderness adventure experience) residents still need help in interpreting the meanings and implications associated with being more fully in charge of their own lives.

Maximising experiences
The understandings that they gain solely from experiencing a “power of life” adventure are simply far from complete and mature. Two secondary extensions help to maximize the academic and therapeutic benefits inherent in the primary adventure:

  1. drawing out from the residents the personal earnings associated with the adventure, and
  2. exposing residents to the ideas and feelings of others who have also participated in the adventure or who have had a related experience in the past.

Both of these secondary experiences extend the first-hand base experience and further strengthen the resident’s understanding of his or her own growing independence. Calling forth and welcoming the residents' personal response is easily achieved by giving them individual time to talk about the experience and to express their ideas and feelings in a variety of ways. This sharing time allows opportunity for the resident to reorder the experience, give it shape, and integrate it into his or her thinking. (It is necessary in this instance to recall that when residents are unable to express their understandings verbally, other avenues of expression must be made available to them, e.g., art, music, drama and writing.) This added “sharing component” complements the “experience component” and further empowers residents who, in the process, also extend and strengthen their personal skills of communication (listening, speaking, writing, reading). “Bathing residents” in a wardrobe of language, ideas, and values from others, takes them beyond themselves to places that are concerned with persons and their capabilities – capabilities that include being more aware of oneself, of being concerned about things in the world, and of ultimately living more authentically. This sense of additional empowerment is promoted as residents have multiple opportunities to hear the ideas and thinking of their counsellor-teachers and peer group members. Through their reactions and responses to one anothers' ideas, a new dynamic for teaching emerges. Learning is transformed and individual “knowing" is expanded as each group member pays attention to what the other has to say. By comparing and contrasting the variation of personal ideas associated with the primary adventure, residents retrieve alternative thoughts about success, recognition and importance, and are exposed to healthy interpretations of power and control. In the process of sharing with one another, residents are influenced as they continue to re-create, clarify, and expand their own personal perspectives. This additional opportunity for reflection represents a vital link to meaning. It is achieved by a two-way process of address and response to what the individual residents and supporting adults have to say about responsibility vs. irresponsibility, about dominance vs. submission, about dependence vs. independence, and, ultimately, about the power of love and compassion. These additional perspectives serve as springboards for ever widening knowledge and give residents options as they try them out in the course of real life challenges and human interactions.

Adventure programmes
The Eckerd camping system pays attention to adolescents' desire and need for greater independence and responsibility. It recognizes that they demand to be treated as adults and that they want and need control over significant portions of their lives. This gaining of independence is, therefore, central in planning for the residents' needs. We believe that there is no easy substitute for primary wilderness experiences (ones that do not require reading and writing to be successful) for providing the raw material or launching pad for empowering young people. These experiences refresh and heighten their consciousness so they really see the things they look at and hear the things they listen to, in interaction with environments rather than in detachment from them. We also believe that caring adults and peers must be readily available to residents so that sharing of experience is facilitated. We recognize that exercises and workbooks are poor substitutes for the “acts" of listening, speaking, singing, dancing, and writing out of experience and within real communication settings. When these efforts are further supported by bringing residents into contact with the wide range of literature that is available, residents discover new dimensions of self hood and confirm and extend existence in relationship to others.

Adult leaders
Pro-actively empowering adolescents in these ways requires adult leaders within the camping system who are sensitive to developmental needs and individual differences among residents, and it entails providing structure when needed, and decreasing structure when it stifles growth. Empowering young people in the “Eckerd Way" involves both caring adults and peers encouraging one another to open environments that open the world. It involves working and talking together, so that experiences and words are exchanged, for it is experience and shared words that are integral and indispensable parts of the process of teaching fuller understanding. It is in sharing that the door is open and the resident discovers new dimensions of his or her own emerging independent selfhood, and is simultaneously awakened to a sense of interdependence with others.

How significant it seems then to recognize that the individual adolescent has something to contribute! What an opportunity exists for the resident in the dialogue with peers! How encouraging and powerful when counsellor-teachers are deeply acquainted with residents and committed to creating conditions and experiences for them that foster human interaction, personal accountability, and boosts of empowerment!


Loughmiller, C. (1965). Wilderness Road. Austin: Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.

Schaef, A.W. (1987). When society becomes an addict. Cambridge: Harper and Row.

Schorr, L.B. (1988). Within our reach: Breaking the cycle of disadvantage. New York: Doubleday.

Acknowledgements to the Journal of Emotional and Behavioural Problems Vol.1 No.3

This feature: Howell, J. (1992). Adventure boosts empowerment. Reclaiming Children and Youth. Vol. 1 No.3

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