We all know that obesity is increasingly a problem for our youth. And certainly the families with whom we work are not immune to the challenges of nutrition and activity in our society right now.
When families ask about this issue, we talk about with families about what else is going on for the child.
How is she (or he) doing in school?
What is her social life like?
How does she cope with difficult or challenging situations?
Is she able to express and cope with emotions in an age appropriate manner?
Sometimes, the weight issue is merely the canary in the mine. Children, like any of us, may be use food to cope with difficult emotions or struggle to get proper nutrition in a busy world. Teens with ADHD or other executive functioning issues may have challenges with proper nutrition as they can struggle to manage timely or balanced meals– for example, allowing themselves to become ravenously hungry and then overeating. We especially become concerned when kids have a poor self image which may impact their involvement with friends or activities they once enjoyed. We want young people (and all people!) to feel good about themselves and have positive relationships with their bodies, regardless of weight.
A child will likely need extra help when his or her happiness and well-being are compromised.
A child will likely need extra help when his or her happiness and well-being are compromised. This is an area in which I have seen great success with outdoor behavioral health programs, e.g wilderness therapy or therapeutic wilderness programs. (Note: I highly recommend families to engage with an educational consultant before placing their child in such a program to set the child up for the highest quality experience possible).
Interestingly, in my experience, kids who are underweight will put on healthy pounds in the right outdoor program, and those who need to lose weight also do so at a safe rate. Although these programs are not designed as weight loss (or gain) settings, students almost universally emerge stronger, fitter, and more confident. I had a teenage client recently who lost between 15-20 lbs. This young man felt very good about his physical abilities upon program completion, and his experience laid the groundwork for a more active lifestyle on his graduation. He knew he was stronger and wanted to keep that going, and he also felt more confident in his abilities — and empowered with respect to weaknesses– when exercising, especially in group settings.
There are several reasons that I posit for the success stories I see.
One of the first shifts for students at wilderness is the regulation of circadian rhythms. In the absence of technology and the presence of a group schedule, students’ rhythms begin to align with the natural world. Students fall asleep soon after the sun goes down and wake with the sunlight. Proper sleep, as we all know, is really the cornerstone for good physical and mental health.
Secondly, students are physically active every day. Whether walking around the campsite, rock climbing, gardening or hiking, students are moving. Many programs also include calisthenics or yoga. Students not only increase caloric expenditure but also develop muscle mass and, most importantly, confidence in their physical abilities. They can develop a more positive self-image of their body as a wonderful being that allows them to do incredible feats. The sense of self-efficacy grows.
Additionally, dieticians and nutritionists ensure that food is rationed appropriately. While all programs have nutritional oversight, many have gone an extra mile and now serve kids organic and/ or exclusively whole foods. Nutrient-dense foods become the cornerstone of the diest. Fruits and vegetables are incorporated and students learn to cook. Many kids report that they never really understood correct portions before this experience. Much time is also spent ensuring students are properly hydrated (with water, not soda!). Meals are social occasions and a time for connection. The relationship with food will hopefully evolve in positive ways with all these changes.
Finally, one of the most important pieces of the puzzle: well-trained adults are always present to 1) observe an issue if it arises and 2) compassionately intervene. One of the primary goals of a therapeutic wilderness experience is to work with children to identify what’s going on for them emotionally in a developmentally appropriate way — whether it’s in a food-related or another moment of stress. Qualified therapists and guides will work with a student to express and process this emotion in healthy ways. Often times issues around trauma and bullying arise which can be therapeutically addressed. Of note: families are very much involved in this process, with tons of parent communication and support so you can know what’s happening and what you can do to keep the momentum after program graduation.
Our philosophy as educational consultants is to try to understand and serve the “whole child.” When a child is unhappy, we want to learn from the parents and other professionals how we can support the child’s growth across the domains of life. And sometimes, an outdoor therapeutic program is just right fit.
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