Kellie Kaufman: Outdoor Adventure Therapy Rebuilding Bully Victims

As a result of being victimized by bullying, young children and teens develop emotional and mental issues that obstruct their interactions with others; outdoor adventure therapy provides alternative methods for these types of participants to regain emotional strength. The stigma surrounding therapy and mental illness deters a child from reaching out for help from teachers, friends, and even family. Since these victims have naturally isolated themselves, sharing their feelings to a stranger could present a larger battle. The alternative therapy method of outdoor adventure therapy (OAT), displays promise in peaking the interest of children is in its prime for research. These programs focus on rebuilding areas such as trust, teamwork, and self-confidence.

The possibility for self harm and even ending one’s life is always present in victims of bullying. Suicide rates have overwhelmingly increased continuously throughout the years. In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death among the age group of 12-18. When children and teens are victimized by a group or even just one person, their overall health deteriorates. These victims lose trust in themselves and others, which can often lead to difficulty in team activities. The camaraderie that is supposedly natural between humans is broken down until the child feels alone. Bullying can affect a child’s desire to wake up each day and set goals for themselves. This inhumanity can also destroy the relationships children have developed with others and themselves during their young lives.

I have witnessed the effects of bullying first-hand. I grew up right behind my older brother, just two years younger. There were always small instances of being picked on when we attended elementary school together, but kids that young are still learning how to treat others with respect and kindness. Unfortunately, some continue into middle school and high school with malicious attitudes that were never halted.

My brother was first seriously bullied in sixth grade, when we were no longer in the same school. From then on he was labeled and purposefully isolated by his peers. In response, he withdrew himself from friendships and family. At home, he would lose control when one small thing would go wrong and distance himself further. Once in high school, he stopped getting out of bed each day, breaking attendance policies and appearing before a judge multiple times. He stopped playing the violin, a longtime passion of his and the only thing that really had seemed to make him happy. After being bullied for years, he was left with apathy and a disinterest in life.

Over the summer after his sophomore year of high school, my parents sent him to a camp in Georgia that was known for outdoor therapy activities. He had little to no contact with his family since he was living in a cabin with no electricity or water with the other participants. Over this trip he partook in hikes, horseback riding, and other outdoor adventures. Being his sister, I did not get a thorough description, but I overheard his excitement upon return. To me, he seemed revived and maybe even happy in that moment. Following his excursion, he shared more. He smiled more. He laughed more. He even went to school a little more when the new year started. I have personally witnessed the positivity that can evoke from programs like OAT.

Programs focus on the concept of rebuilding broken self-esteem. Robert Thornberg studies and outlines the reasoning behind bullying and the effects on the victims, writing, “being repetitively harassed by peers over time challenged the victimised children’s identity and self-esteem. At the same time, self-blaming was built into the victim’s understanding of the bullying and the related self-image.” Through observation of the natural social structure in an elementary school, Thornberg lays out the direct effects of bullying: lowered self-esteem and negative self-image. OAT programs involve activities where these children can learn to trust and believe in themselves regardless of others. Psychologist Steve DeBois utilized a specialized method to give a shy participant confidence. The doctor gave him the spotlight as the child realized there was nothing to fear. Ultimately, the simple, personalized activities provided in OAT has the promise to improve the confidence in oneself.

Not only are the activities specified for the participants, the entire program is able to tap into their emotions and thoughts when classic therapeutic methods cause children and young teens to close themselves off. When I was still in preschool, my mom took me to a therapist because I was extremely shy and would not talk to my classmates. I recall hating every second spent with a strange woman that was at least 10 times my age. Refusing to talk each session, this mechanism proved unsuccessful for a young child. Scholars have recognized that these traditional methods must be altered to fit the needs of youth patients. Goals of therapeutic programs for teens should promote growth in a way that defies the stigma built around seeking help and promotes engagement. OAT successfully eliminates the worry of judgement by creating a safe environment with enjoyable activities for patients.

Bully victims are left broken and lost. They feel alone and constantly judged. Outdoor adventure therapy programs work on reinstating trust, self-esteem, and confidence. These children and teens can only benefit from working with others that have gone through similar experiences and deserve more than just one therapist on their road to recovery.