Why ‘Rites of Passage’ & Wilderness Therapy Matter So Much

‘Traditional societies know what we are rediscovering – marking the significant passages of our life brings focus to the journey … and a realization that life is not one continuum but a series of meaningful steps.” – Stan Crow, 1939 – 2009

What is a “coming of age” moment, or a rite of passage?

A rite of passage is a ceremony, ritual or set of activities that marks the transition from one phase of life to another. It also encompasses the activities that help the process takes place. ‘Rite of passage’ may also refer to the process of change an individual goes through while moving from one stage or role in life to another. They define the roles and responsibilities that are to be taken on. A rite of passage formalizes the process of moving from childhood to adolescence to adulthood—in other words, growing up.

Why are rites of passage important?

A rite of passage is important because it is an event that marks a transition into a new phase of life. Habitual patterns do not change on their own. Something needs to happen to spark the change. Roles and responsibilities are not automatically defined. There has to be a marked event. This is why a rite of passage is especially important during the rehab stages of high-risk youth. 

In initiation rites, roles are defined and redefined and help carve out a place in the world for the individual. In contemporary North American life, the tradition of intentional rites of passage is all but lost, often leaving youth to initiate themselves. When youth are left without a conscious marking and exploration of life transitions, they have difficulty creating positive change and growth in their own lives, not to mention taking that positive change into the world around them. Providing rite of passage experiences strengthens individuals, families and communities as a whole. The individual learns what it means to be a responsible community member while exploring unique, personal gifts that can be used to serve themselves as well as others.

How is wilderness therapy a rite of passage?

Wilderness therapy is an intense program that aims to transition participants from adolescence into adulthood. It provides participants with challenges in a safe and appropriate way, facilitating an environment for someone to have that “self-discovery”. Parents cannot always provide the environment or the tools to facilitate a positive transition. Wilderness therapy allows for: the removal from one’s normal environment, stillness and quiet, self-reflection, physical activity and routine. In an unfamiliar environment, participants must become self-reliant. They can explore new ways to overcoming current and future obstacles. 

Participants leave wilderness therapy with:

  • Self-awareness
  • Maturity and self-reliance
  • A desire to engage in family and community life
  • The ability to manage stressful situations
  • The aspiration to make correct choices 

The most important take-away from wilderness therapy is that participants leave with a positive direction in life.  Individuals are better able to foster meaningful relationships with friends and family when they return home. Academic performance improves, physical and social activity becomes important and employment is taken seriously. Participants of a wilderness therapy program graduate with the ability to self manage their lives in a mature and responsible way.