Teens with Substance Abuse Develop Self Efficacy in Wilderness Therapy
How many times have we seen someone we love refuse to do something without ever trying? In our
hearts, we know that if they would just give it a try, there is a good chance that they would succeed. We
may think, “They lack self-esteem or self-worth”' this is partially correct, but it is missing the most
important part of the equation: Self Efficacy.
Self-efficacy is one’s belief in the ability to accomplish a particular task. Self-efficacy differs from self-
esteem, which is the respect one has for oneself; this is an important distinction when dealing with
adolescents. For the pre-teen and teen population, the general confidence adolescents have in their
ability to accomplish a task correlates directly to whether they are successful in that task or not. At Blue
Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness we find it particularly true while working with individuals suffering from
substance use problems.
Self-efficacy or increased confidence in the ability to sustain recovery was the strongest predictor of
This may be a moment of “well, no duh”, but the truth is, individuals suffering from substance abuse
grow accustomed to “failure”. They often become the person “who does and can do nothing right”. The
truth is many individuals will try and sustain recovery multiple times before it clicks and each time they
fail the story becomes more and more concrete- “I can’t do this”.
So let’s just believe? (Not so fast)
Individuals with a diminished sense of self-efficacy - “The I can’t do it attitude”:
Perceive difficult tasks/problems as impossible
Take fewer risks, if any
Set the bar lower for themselves
Tend to be less committed to their goals
Tend to give up as tasks become more challenging
Recover less quickly, if at all, from failures or setbacks
Individuals with a strong sense of self-efficacy - “The I can do it attitude”:
Perceive difficult tasks or problems as manageable
Take more risks
Set the bar higher for themselves
Tend to be more committed to their goals
Increase efforts as tasks become more challenging
Recover more quickly and fully from setbacks
Approach situations or tasks with more confidence
Developing self-efficacy is a skill. There are four types of experiences that help individuals increase their
ability to succeed: Mastering Experiences, Social modeling, social persuasion, and psychological
Why Blue Ridge increases your child’s self-efficacy.
1) Mastering Experience: Accomplishing tasks and overcoming obstacles in pressuring situations.
"Try again" - The wilderness demands that you try again, not just once or twice but every day.
You have to keep hiking, even when your body tells you to sit. You have to communicate with your
group to coordinate meals, even when your mind tells you to isolate. When the rain wets all the wood,
you still have to keep working until the fire starts so that you have heat for comfort and cooking. The
wilderness and wilderness therapy provides a plethora of difficult circumstances and the program at
Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness can help your child learn to persevere and power through to master
2) Social Modeling: Seeing people similar to oneself manage the demands of tasks successfully
“If they can do it I can do it too” - One of the most powerful experiences one can have is watching the
pride and accomplishments of their in-group peers. This is really the power of the group at its best.
Social modeling is the most important developer of self-efficacy in teens. Watching your peers complete
hikes with ease after weeks of struggle, seeing someone get a coal after weeks of trying. These moments
allow your child to gain self-efficacy, while simultaneously building self-efficacy in their peers.
3) Social persuasion: Social persuasions relate to encouragements/discouragements. Getting verbal
encouragement from others helps people overcome self-doubt and instead focus on giving their best
effort to the task at hand.
“I know you can do it”- There is nothing better than having your peers cheer you on as smoke billows
from your feet and you succeed in making fire from a coal. Peers challenge each other to become better
group members because they “know you can,” but also because the success of the group is measured by
the successes of each member. Working together to set up and maintain camps and to achieve daily
goals builds camaraderie so that at the end of the day there’s a whole group of people coming together
to tell each other, and themselves, that they are “worth it.”
4) Psychological Responses: Our own responses and emotional reactions to situations also play an
important role in self-efficacy
“I need to work on me” - In the wilderness old patterns and behaviors persist. Perhaps your child uses
peers of family as a scapegoat for certain patterns of behavior. In the wilderness, those behaviors
manifest but the alleged cause has been removed. There are no parents or cell phones or anything else.
Being in the wilderness allows you to recognize the causes for these behavior patterns as an internal
force that can be explored through therapeutic intervention.
Self-Efficacy in and of itself is not the only way to promote growth and change, but it can provide a
framework to begin to develop a new perspective on what has been occurring for your loved one and
ways to help empower them moving forward.
At Blue Ridge the wilderness therapy programs are developed to support self-efficacy and set a
foundation for success. Contact our Admissions Team today to learn more.
Mathew O’Connor MA, LCAS, ICAADC