Harmonious Families: Using Family Counseling and Adventure Based Learning Opportunities to Enhance Growth

J. Scott Glass
East Carolina University

Mary Allen Mann
Elon University


Family functioning may impact individual family members both positively and negatively with regards to one's identity, perceptions, and ways of understanding the surrounding environment. The helping professions have dedicated much time and research in an effort to design and implement programs which are effective at dealing with issues directly related to family systems. One such approach to this type of helping relationship is Family Counseling. Family counseling aims to reduce familial conflict and improve communication among family members. These objectives are in line with the expectations of another approach designed to work with systems or groups, adventure based counseling. Adventure based counseling seeks to reduce conflict among participants while at the same time improving communication. It is suggested that a low-element adventure based counseling program, in conjunction with family counseling, will encourage an increased sense of family cohesion through the facilitation of group activities and thus, promote more effective communication and enhance growth among family members.

Harmonious Families: Using Family Counseling and Adventure Based Learning Opportunities to Enhance Growth

      The field of Adventure Based Counseling (ABC) offers an alternative approach of working with persons who desire to receive help in an unconventional means. This form of working with groups is relatively new but has been shown to facilitate positive results for clients. While much of the research regarding ABC is focused on results with delinquent youth, little research has been done to examine its effects on family systems. However, therapeutic adventure with families has experienced significant growth over the past couple of decades, and two authors at the forefront of this growth are Michael Gass and Lee Gillis, who have coined the phrase “adventure family therapy” to refer to this specialty area (Burg, 2001). The use of ABC within family counseling allows clients to experientially engage in skill development while also providing opportunities to verbalize issues. For example, as part of a low-element challenge course, clients are provided opportunities to self-disclose and open the lines of communication among participants. Therefore, clients are encouraged to engage in the therapeutic process in order to learn new skills that will enable growth. The program attempts to facilitate the participation of all family members in order to facilitate and encourage personal development.

Family Counseling

       When conducting family counseling, individuals can best be understood from a systemic approach, which entails viewing the interaction of family members and how their behaviors influence communication patterns, homeostasis, and systems of hierarchy and power (Neukrug, 2000). Family therapy also focuses on the balances of power, the process of conflict resolution, and the operation of a family as a system (Atwood, 1992).

       A basic principle of the family systems theory is, with regards to the family, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, which encourages helpers to focus on relationships and family relations rather than solely on the individuals' actions (Guldner, 1990). Within a family there are interdependent reactions. Therefore, any event that affects one member of the family can affect other family members as well (Leveton, 1984). While family therapists desire to see change within the individual, another goal of family therapy is to influence change in the structure of the family and the progression of their behaviors (Atwood, 1992; Guldner, 1990). In the past, families that have participated in family counseling reported an increase in functioning, which was defined as how well the clients were able to maintain the ability to complete daily tasks (Fischer, 2004). These same participants were also noted for reporting an increase in emotional coping, which was defined as how well the clients felt they were able to emotionally deal with life circumstances (Fischer). Facilitating a healthier level of functioning and coping suggests that family therapy produces tangible results that benefit the overall family environment.

      Family counseling is a commonly used modality for interventions (Fischer, 2004). In the past, family based interventions have spotlighted behaviors such as communication skills and family management skills through behavioral, cognitive, and affective approaches (Etz, Robertson, & Ashery, 1998). These family based interventions focus on developing the necessary skills to successfully function as a family unit rather than simply educating parents about parenting techniques (Etz, et al.). Therefore, an effective intervention program employs interactive strategies to present skills to the parents and children, allowing for application of these practices through homework and feedback, which will, in turn, help families improve upon the skills needed to change current behaviors (Etz, et al.; Guldner, 1990). Interactive strategies can incorporate a variety of methods that steer away from solely relying on verbal communication in counseling sessions (Guldner). Active therapy techniques produce a form of therapy that is more lively and perhaps more comfortable for adolescents (Guldner, 1990). Based on the research related to active therapy techniques, it would seem a natural fit that family therapy would be well suited to incorporate ABC as a component of therapy.

Adventure Based Counseling

       Therapeutic adventure activities can be an important tool for intervention when working with individual and group concerns (Burg, 2001). ABC is defined by a variety of topics and techniques and the term is often used interchangeably with wilderness therapy, challenge courses, and wilderness experience programs (Russell, 2001). Due to the variety of adventure therapy options, it is a flexible process that can incorporate numerous theories and be used in collaboration with other approaches such as cognitive, reality, behavior, and gestalt theories (Fletcher & Hinkle, 2002). This characteristic also permits the activities and techniques of ABC to be used as the principal means of treatment or in adjunct with various forms of counseling like family counseling (Fletcher & Hinkle).

       Adventure or wilderness therapy stemmed in part from Kurt Hahn's Outward Bound program, which implemented an experience and value centered approach (Russell, 2001; Surridge, McKie, Housden, & Whitt, 2004). ABC incorporates experiential learning, group counseling, behavioral, affective, and cognitive strategies (Glass & Myers, 2001). Moreover, Fletcher and Hinkle (2002) believe that ABC is a combination of group counseling, outdoor education, and intrapersonal exploration. Through the experiential learning technique, clients are able to participate in activities that enable them to practice teamwork, self-reliance, and communication (Surridge, et al.). Therefore, when using ABC, a counselor will choose an activity from which an applicable metaphor may be deduced by the client that related to the goals of the counseling group (Fletcher & Hinkle, 2002; Nasser-McMillan & Cashwell, 1997). The aims of the various activities is to create a connection between the therapeutic activity and the client's life (Fletcher & Hinkle)

       A goal of ABC “is the creation of a group process that encourages the development of individuals who are able to discover and create healthy relationships” (Schoel & Maizell, 2002, p. 10). Generally speaking, this type of counseling is characterized by a group process and the implementation of a series of challenges that are high in perceived risk but low in actual risk (Russell, 2001). The risks involved are not always physical in nature, but may also involve self-disclosure or emotional vulnerability. In addition, ABC is founded on a group centered technique that enables participants to develop a range of skills such as cooperation, responsibility, problem solving capabilities, and increased self-confidence (Glass & Myers, 2001). It is assumed that developing these positive behaviors will prove helpful to the individual's coping abilities and daily routine, as well as, the interaction between family members.

      The majority of outdoor adventure therapy programs are based on experiential learning, which implies that individuals learn from direct contact with other participants and interaction with the learning environment (Garst, Scheider, & Baker, 2001). Previous research findings suggest that the benefits of this hands-on approach included an increase in a positive self-perception, knowledge, abilities, skills, and in adolescents' ability to form positive peer relationships, as well as, social skills (Garst, et al., 2001). This same study noted that the participants felt as if they were able to escape from their negative home environment, daily family pressures, and peer influences during a weekend adventure trip (Garst, et al., 2001). In addition to the previously mentioned results, another study found that the benefits of an adventure program which encourages psychological, sociological, educational, and spiritual growth, include an enhanced sense of self-concept, self-confidence, efficacy, and well-being (Fletcher & Hinkle, 2002).

        Concerning individual growth, an adventure program may encourage the betterment of social skills, problem solving abilities, and teamwork (Garst, et al., 2001). Furthermore, a therapeutic outdoor experience can provide opportunities for clients to observe the natural environment in a new and different light, which could in turn influence additional perceptions about their social environments (Garst, et al.). The peaceful atmosphere of nature can be used as a therapeutic tool because it immerses the client in a healing environment; thus, allowing the healing environment to lend itself to an increased sense of self-awareness, attention to physical surroundings, and feelings of peacefulness (Fletcher & Hinkle, 2002). These emotions and feelings could potentially carry over to the client's home environment.

      Glass and Benshoff (2002) responded to the lack of experiential research related to ABC by conducting a study to determine the effects of a challenge course program on perceptions of group cohesion. They found that the structured activities fostered an increased sense of cohesion among group members. These results were due to the fact that challenge courses encourage group interaction, self-disclosure, and provide for group discussions (Glass & Benshoff). Other benefits of low-element challenge courses were noted as encouraging group cooperation, communication, trust, and collaborative work (Glass & Benshoff; Fletcher & Hinkle, 2002). Not only does the completion of an adventure program encourage these behaviors, but it also allows a client to experience a concrete and real sense of accomplishment (Russell, 2001).

       In addition to these benefits, ABC has also been shown to encourage an increased sense of self-esteem (Nassar-McMillan & Cashwell, 1997; Surridge, et al., 2004; Russell, 2001). The potential increase in one's self-esteem can be extremely beneficial to ABC's goal of facilitating healthy relationships among group members. Research has found an association between higher self-esteem and fewer emotional problems including depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts (Nassar-McMillan & Cashwell).

      Although Adventure Therapy can be implemented with a variety of populations, adolescents tend to be the highest targeted group of participants (Russell, 2001; Glass & Myers, 2001). The family is sometimes a place of stress and tension, which may be related to negative or rebellious behavior. A goal of adventure therapy is to work directly with parents and family members to guide them through understanding their own roles in family system, which enables families to reach a healthier level of functioning (Russell).

       By completing the therapeutic process clients are left feeling empowered and with a sense of accomplishment (Russell, 2001). This sense of accomplishment will lend itself to an increased sense of efficacy and belonging within the group, thereby having a positive influence on a person's self-esteem. Not only can feelings of accomplishment immediately benefit clients within the ABC setting, the feelings can also carry over into other aspects of their lives.

Using Family Counseling and Adventure Learning Opportunities

       As previously discussed, there are numerous benefits to developing programs based on an adventure model. With these positive results in mind, the authors of this manuscript suggest that family counseling could easily be used in conjunction with an ABC program. Zabriskie and McCormick's (2001) findings concerning family leisure patterns and family functioning offer insight into the potential partnership and complimentary relationship between ABC and family counseling. They found that quality family time together is associated with an increased sense of stability and cohesion among family members (Zabriskie & McCormick). After spending more time together, parents reported an opportunity to communicate, bond, and learn from other members. “The literature indicates that family leisure [time] plays an integral role in family cohesion, adaptability, and communication” (Zabriskie & McCormick, p. 282). It is with the development of greater cohesion, the ability to adapt to various situations and enhanced communication that families will be able to better cope with potentially challenging situations (Zabriskie & McCormick).

       There is a limited amount of research concerning the relationship of family counseling to ABC, and there has yet to be an experiential validation for the treatment of families through this means of therapy (Burg, 2001). Nevertheless, Burg did identify some potential benefits to family adventure therapy. He suggested that ABC would work well with family therapy because both domains promote communication, problem solving, trust, interdependence, and the management of anxiety and fear. The researcher further noted that in order to achieve long-term results, families must alter their manner of functioning so that the disruptive behavior is not supported through the family system (Burg). Adventure therapy can serve as the channel for needed changes in behavior.

       Because of the family's significant influence on a child's development, the family becomes an important factor in determining the prevention and treatment of issues such as behavior problems, substance abuse, and a variety of disorders (Etz, et al., 1998). In order to prevent such problems from occurring, mental health professionals from varying fields need to share knowledge and work collaboratively to develop effective family oriented programs (Kumpfer, et al., 1998). Therefore, the suggestion is that a family focused adventure based program would incorporate two stand-alone entities with the goal of helping clients through the learning process.


       As helpers, it is important to recognize that ABC and family therapy provide environments conducive to the group process and individual growth. By combining these two methods of working with participants, helpers are positioning clients to succeed. From the literature, it can be concluded that the interactive strategies of ABC incorporate elements that encourage group members to communicate, trust one another, and utilize problem solving strategies. Previous findings have also indicated that ABC may increase client self-esteem, communication skills, and cooperation (Glass & Myers, 2001). Through this type of programming, clients learn from direct contact and interaction with other group members (Garst, Scheider, & Baker, 2001); therefore, implying that if family members became a part of the group process, clients would be able to learn and grow from that family interaction.

        As revealed in a review of the literature, families are the primary influential factor in one's life (Kumpfer, et al., 1998). By looking at families' communication patterns, systems of hierarchy, and state of homeostasis, the human service professional can learn a great deal about the condition of the family structure, as well as, the individual client.

        Separately, Family Therapy and ABC have clearly shown their effectiveness when properly facilitated. Therefore, combining the two could provide a well-rounded therapeutic approach. This technique would be grounded in the various tenets and theories of family counseling and used in combination with the unique characteristics of ABC.

        Individual and group participation are important to the implementation of challenge programs because the activities encourage members to contribute and offer insight.

       As mentioned, ABC provides the necessary environment and activities to learn new coping skills that enhance individual and family functioning. Furthermore, a Family-Based Adventure Therapy program would enable clients to practice newly developed skills with family members through the guidance of a trained helping professional.

        Because certain positives are so easily recognized regarding the combination of these two types of helping techniques, it would be advantageous to the field of family services to have future researchers investigate the potential benefits of a Family-Based Adventure Therapy. This would entail using adventure learning experiences as a component of the family therapy approach.



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