Treating Peter Pan Syndrome

By: Meghan Vivo

“I won’t grow up. I don’t want to wear a tie, and a serious expression in the middle of July.” As charming as the song is, parents all across America are desperately concerned, “Will my son or daughter ever grow up?”

The “Peter Pan Syndrome” is a common phenomenon witnessed by parents: young people in their late teens and twenties who look like adults on the outside, but are still teenagers on the inside. Often, these young adults get caught up with “partying” and staying out all hours of the night, resisting the responsibilities of adulthood and glorifying the “freedom” of adolescence.

There are a few options for individuals at this stage of life, who often are simultaneously struggling with behavioral problems, substance abuse, or addiction. But one of the most effective interventions is one that may not come to mind at first: therapeutic wilderness programs.

Wilderness therapy programs appeal to the adventurous adolescent side while offering highly effective treatment for emotional and behavioral problems, as well as substance abuse issues. Four Circles Recovery Center in North Carolina offers wilderness therapy that is integrated with traditional counseling and 12-step programming to young adults ages 18 to 28 who are struggling with addiction, substance abuse, and co-occurring issues.

“Recovery is what we do,” said Heather Schnoebelen, the clinical manager at Four Circles. “Many of our staff members are in recovery themselves, our therapists are master’s level and are licensed or working toward licensure as substance abuse counselors, and our client workbook is heavily focused on a drug-free lifestyle and recovery.”

Experts In Helping Troubled Youth

Wilderness therapy speaks to young adults in a way that other programs cannot. One of the primary reasons is the staff of field instructors and therapists, all of whom are approachable, relatable, and understanding of the issues facing today’s youth.

Field instructors enter the field of wilderness therapy because they are passionate about the healing power of nature, recovery, and turning around the lives of young people. These are individuals who do this work for no other reason but that they believe in it and because they see that it works.

“I wouldn’t be here if this program wasn’t effective,” said one Four Circles field instructor. “This kind of intensive immersion speeds up the healing process because the clients are receiving therapy 24 hours a day. It’s rewarding when clients tell me they trust me more than the therapist they’ve seen for years at home.”

In addition to an outstanding field staff, Four Circles’ clinical team consists of caring, highly trained therapists who specialize in a wide range of areas, including cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodrama, transpersonal counseling, strength-based therapies, solution-focused therapy, family therapy, and other disciplines. Wilderness therapy participants spend time with all of the therapists, not just their primary therapist, and are exposed to the full spectrum of therapeutic modalities. Once they learn what works best for them, Four Circles works to ensure the participant is exposed to more of that particular therapeutic approach.
“Even without the therapy and introduction to the 12 steps, just being in the wilderness can be transformative,” said Four Circles field director, Todd Ransdell. “When you add in all of the counseling, peer support, and substance abuse treatment, you’ve got an intervention that really makes a difference.”

The Healing Sound of Silence

For young adults today, it’s easy to live unconsciously. Instead of dealing with emotions and responsibilities they don’t feel prepared to handle, they can turn to an endless variety of distractions like watching television, playing video games, or drowning the internal noise with drugs or alcohol.

“Addicts, in particular, are really good at focusing away from what’s going on inside,” noted Ransdell. “When you take away the ability to distract yourself from the real issues, you have no choice but to take an honest look. That’s what wilderness does. You get back to basics – get up, eat, pack, hike, unpack, eat, go to sleep – and learn to take good care of yourself in the process.”

“Wilderness therapy will test your limits physically, emotionally, and spiritually better than any person or therapist could,” added Four Circles therapist Corinne Brown. “It also brings about a sense of solitude and peace you just can’t find in other places.”

Embracing the 12-Step Philosophy

At Four Circles, participants spend one to two weeks hiking and camping in the wilderness and then return to base camp to shower, discuss their experiences, and prepare for the next wilderness expedition. The 12-step model is integrated into the program – attending meetings at base camp, in the field, and in the community – to help young people familiarize themselves with the extensive support available to them through the 12-step program.

By being introduced to the 12-step program during wilderness therapy, young people take their first steps on the road to recovery. The 12 steps also provide a template for continued recovery outside the wilderness program, along with the ability to give and receive support anywhere in the world.

Through therapy and adventure-based counseling, individuals who used to be intensely focused on themselves begin to acknowledge the natural consequences of their actions. In the wilderness, if a group member chooses not to help pack up camp or prepare a meal, the rest of the group holds him accountable for that decision. If a participant fails to set up a shelter, he learns a valuable lesson in self-care. Eventually, the participants realize they are part of a cohesive unit, which mirrors the structure of a family, and learn the importance of contributing and cooperating both in the field and at home.

Becoming an Effective Adult

Wilderness therapy appeals to many families as the “wake-up call” they’ve been looking for. With a goal of maintaining each young adult’s Peter Pan-like creativity and youthfulness, tempered by the rewards and responsibilities of becoming a dependable adult, Four Circles has been effective in reaching hundreds of young adults struggling to transition between adolescence and adulthood.

As one Four Circles field instructor described, “There’s nothing like seeing a young person with no self-respect or motivation become a leader who reaches out and cares for other members of the group, and is better prepared to be an effective adult after just five or six weeks in the wilderness.”

We are affiliated with the following organizations, which provide accreditation, education, and training to ensure quality behavioral health and addiction treatment.
  • Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF)
  • National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP)
  • National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP)
  • Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council
  • The Jason Foundation