There is hope for treatment resistant teens!

By Stephen C.  Schultz


I fondly recall a conversation I had in the car with an Educator as we were visiting treatment programs for troubled teenagers. RedCliff is one of the original founding members of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council (OBH) and I mentioned some of the recent research that had been done. This Educator made a comment based on her perception of RedCliff.

She stated, “… RedCliff has the reputation for working with the clinically complicated cases…and you should embrace that reputation.” That comment started me thinking.


Why does RedCliff have that reputation? Is it a reputation RedCliff has fostered and promoted? Is it a good thing or bad thing being known for your ability to work with “Clinically Complicated” kids? What does that say about the clinical expertise of the therapists? If RedCliff really does excel with these families, why is that?

So, I traveled to RedCliff and started asking questions. I made a point to meet with the clinical team of RedCliff Ascent. It was apparent, through cards, letters and emails from families that RedCliff really does an excellent job with the students as well as the families. Families’ lives are changed…but why? As I started asking questions and attending some of the family seminars for the parents, it became clear that all of the old wilderness stereotypes don’t really apply to RedCliff. (For example; if you don’t build a shelter and it rains you get wet…Wilderness programs are about Natural Consequences… that type of stuff.) RedCliff Ascent was not about natural consequences or hard survival skills training. Yes, students did participate in some of those activities, but over the years, RedCliff has actually established a clinically sophisticated treatment model based on research and best practices that reinserts these teens back into the adolescent stages of development.

The students RedCliff accepts to the program are Developmentally Delayed in any number of ways. They are stuck at a certain point in the process of developing into healthy, well-adjusted, productive members of society. This can be a result of depression, anxiety, adoption issues or substance use. There are usually family and relationship issues as well. The student stuck in this situation lacks the coping mechanisms, competencies and discipline necessary to manage their life at an age appropriate level. The reasons for this are as varied as the diagnosis and family dynamics they come to the program with. However, all the therapy in the world won’t do a thing until the treatment program can “disrupt the pattern” of thinking, manipulation and family dynamics that enable the student to continue in this developmental rut. Once the patterns of destructive thinking, manipulation and attitudes are disrupted, it takes a skilled clinician and staff to assist the student in “interpreting” and internalizing healthy ways of dealing with life. This is done through helping the student identify the thoughts and actions that keep them emotionally stuck and assist them in acquiring the competencies necessary to continue their developmental process.



Many Wilderness Treatment programs pride themselves on “High Adventure” activities or they claim to have a “diagnostic” approach and their main goal is to “prepare” the student for further residential treatment. The idea is that these students will replace the negative behaviors with a more healthy “thrilling” experience or that the wilderness will be a “Wake up Call” to assist the student in realizing they do need help.

While these are all secondary benefits of RedCliff Ascent, it is not the main emphasis. A student engaged in treatment at RedCliff Ascent does not struggle with a lack of entertainment or thrill in her life. What she lacks is the ability to master the mundane responsibilities that come with school, work and family relationships. At RedCliff, the goal is to assist students in finding meaning in those daily activities, rather than search for an outside “thrill”. It is through the disruption of manipulative and dependent patterns; the skillful, sophisticated therapeutic efforts of clinicians; and personal accomplishment and insight by the students themselves that changes start to take place. Students who attend RedCliff Ascent begin taking those steps that put them back on the path to healthy adolescent development.

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