Tag Archives: emerging adulthood blog

The difference a year makes…going back to college


As Onward Transitions looks to the fall and the beginning of the school year, one current member stands out as an individual working his way back into a more traditional academic routine. In addition to the rigors of living independently, holding down jobs and or volunteer roles in the community, maintaining a consistent fitness regimens, practicing budgeting, designing and maintaining a schedule to keep appointments and commitments, learning more about reciprocity in peer relationships, and managing his own transportation to and from commitments, this member has an eye on being a full time student in the very near future.

Member Profile

  • Male, early twenties
  • Highly intelligent, anxiety and depression due in part to a chronic health issue
  • Came to us from home after a brief hospitalization and struggling in the first semester of his small college
  • Embraced in vivo exposure therapy with an academic slant with us
  • Started with adult community/continuing education classes in his desired field of study
  • Next took two community college classes in his first semester and was successful
  • Next tried to take four community college classes and despite illness was able to complete two successfully
  • Serving as a tutor for both his college and a community adult education program
  • Registering again for four classes this fall
  • Contrast:
    • one year ago – living at home, participating in individual therapy, engaged in self-study in his chosen major, medication and health care managed by family members, being driven by family members to his appointments, etc.
    • today – living on his own, engaged in individual, group and family therapy, engaged in life coaching, registered for his third college semester, tutoring for two different institutions, managing his apartment, managing his own medication and health care, training in the performing arts, exercising daily, involved in a long-term relationship, navigating public transportation on his own

Success after wilderness

Transitioning Backcountry Durability to the Front Country

Many practitioners take part in the opportunity to explore best and future practices at the each year at the Wilderness Therapy Symposium in Park City, Utah. One interesting area for continued growth was highlighted in a journal article co-authored by a group of notable past and present wilderness therapists in the Journal of Counseling and Development. As part of their longitudinal assessment of young adults having participated in wilderness therapy (Roberts, et. al., 2017), the study confirmed previous Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council findings about the efficacy of wilderness programs in areas like psychosocial functioning, symptom reduction, etc. Researching-practitioners like these professionals truly lend credence and credibility to the field and deserve our collective thanks.

Their research also highlights previous suggestions that some of the success in maintaining gains made in wilderness treatment may be due to the focus on relapse prevention and transition planning towards the end of participation. The authors at the same time acknowledge that there has been historical criticism about client gains being lost post-treatment in residential settings. However, the study gave encouraging results that even 18 months post-treatment, study participants were maintaining their successful gains. 

Where wilderness “graduates” go after program completion can and does make a difference. The authors recommend further study for future assessment. Onward Transitions’ Clinical Director Darrell Fraize offers that in his anecdotal experience, wilderness therapy participants tend to identify their own strengths and capabilities that were either hidden or forgotten. “Clients tend to become more durable as they overcome pre-conceived limitations, and eventually some actual, historical limitations related to their mental health. They cope with stressors they cannot negotiate with like the weather, distance or elevation gain and loss. They build tolerance in delaying gratification, sustaining focus and simply following-through. They learn empathy and to put others’ needs ahead of their own, but doing this after exiting the wilderness can really be difficult to implement,” he adds.

Many programs teach and reinforce the Leave No Trace ethic, and yet post-treatment, many young adults struggle with the process of keeping their living spaces clean. They can recite the benefits, tell you why they have been able to do it in the past, but figuring out how to consistently do it on their own is a significant hurdle.  Onward Transitions relies on its clinical team of Fraize, Austin Melhorn and Andy Derstine to utilize their wilderness backgrounds to help program members transition this and other backcountry skills into the front country.

With more than half of Onward Transitions’ current and past populations having wilderness therapy experience it makes sense to provide specific focus on this aspect of transition.  “When in the backcountry, therapists have experience with both back and front country challenges. It makes sense to us that our therapists here in the front country have experience with both too,” adds Fraize. “We often find ourselves in sessions relating something that is happening now in the front country with an experience that the member had in the wilderness. A therapist having years of wilderness experience in the back pocket can really help in relating to the members’ struggle, and in identifying potential solutions.”

“Being able to sit with our members and help them recall that they have faced these types of challenges before and found solutions, often leads them to a greater sense of personal power and initiative.” Where wilderness therapy graduates transition to after program completion is determined by a multitude of factors (financial resources, clinical complexity, etc.) However, one factor that might benefit from future study is the efficacy of working with a former wilderness therapist, post-treatment. “As one member said to me after coming to Portland, ‘there’s getting it, and then there’s GETTING it’” Fraize recalled. “We have actually walked a mile in their shoes, or boots if you will.”

Roberts, S., et. al.  (2017, January). Outdoor Behavioral Health Care: A Longitudinal Assessment of Young Adult Outcomes. Journal of Counseling & Development, 45-55.

Durability continues to emerge at Onward Transitions



Durability (noun)-the ability to withstand wear, pressure, or damage
Durable-(adjective)-able to resist wear, decay, etc., well; lasting; enduring.

Many stressors serve as impediments to emerging adults as they make their way in the world. Their ability to manage those stressors, over time and in real time is critical to their effectiveness in coping with the multi-faceted lives they are compelled to live. Depression may keep them from getting out of bed to go to work. Executive functioning challenges might lead to losing track of assignments and due dates in a course of study. Anxiety could cause them to overthink, well, everything actually. And yet, what they are looking for, and what their families are hoping for are in many ways the same thing—durability.

Yes, maybe they have a history of starting strong, like at the beginning of a semester. But then, over time, a corrosive effect takes over that wears away at them. They lose track of things, life piles on, the pressure mounts and they continue a long-standing pattern of succumbing and ending up with some damage to their psyche.  Unlearning this pattern takes time, effort and the support of a long tether. One which allows emerging adults to dust themselves off, expose their inner grit and not feel the current of a circling helicopter care giver from above. This autonomy of the long tether helps them to feel greater ownership of their situation. They know the help is there, but that the expectation (by everyone) is that they will be able to, mostly, figure it out. According to Berk (2013), this helicopter style “likely interferes with emerging adults’ ability to acquire the skills they need to act on their own.” Our colleagues, Clay Garrett and Andrew Moskovitz at Urban Edge (2017) talk about the importance of grit as a predictor of achievement in multiple domains for emerging adults.

In the six months before we opened Onward Transitions, and in the year since, we have spoken with nearly 100 families about how they hope that their emerging adult could come to Portland, put their therapeutic growth to some reality testing, and become more durable in the face of the business of life. One mother said it outright:

We just hope he can continue to become more durable, over time.”

This was early on in our process, and did not know it at the time. She was the voice of her generation of parents, speaking plainly about her hopes for her emerging adult. He had done the “heavy lifting” in therapy, had tried college, tried volunteering at home, and none of it had really come together for him. The team they had put together as a family helped them to recognize that getting out, without a net, but with a tether, might be the right thing. 

We have been able to be part of the lives of a small sample of young adults who have built up their durability through working, going to school, volunteering, cooking meals, exercising, budgeting, paying bills, refilling prescriptions, making appointments, and most importantly—bouncing back after making a mistake. The members of our Pine House, and our step-down “Neighbors” here in Maine talk openly about adding on another “layer of complexity” to their lives, as they gain mastery over the preceding ones. They relish the fact that they are working through their struggles, and report feeling “grown up” when they do.  They report feeling better able to endure, and not collapse when old emotions rise up or life drama takes the stage.

Lots to think about…Thanks for your time. 


Berk, Laura E., 2013, Lifespan Development Series, 6th Ed., Pearson, ISBN: 9780205957606

Garrett, Clay M., and Moskovitz, A., 2017, Autonomous Programming: The Benefits and Challenges of Emerging Mentorship Models, The Journal of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, Vol. IX, Number 1. 

Every Four Years


Every four years, the worldwide calendar reminds us of a secret.


Leaping powers innovation, it is the engine of not only our economy, but of a thrilling and generous life.

–Seth Godin, Blog



So my question that follows is “Are the other three years failing because they don’t leap?” Yes, yes it’s rhetorical, because we know that the other years have actually leapt about a quarter of a day each. We don’t have an effective way to measure that with our calendar other than to ignore, and then recognize it on the fourth year. Now I’m no expert on the calendar or the measurement of time, or all that much really for that matter. And at the same time I do believe there’s a metaphor in there for Emerging Adults.


I’m still having trouble with the term “Failure to Launch” (see my last blog: http://onwardtransitions.com/blog/) and would ask you to think about this process like we do Leap Year. 2015 wasn’t a failure because it didn’t have a 365th day. It got somewhere. It accomplished some things. Probably not all that we hoped it would, but there was some progress. Some backpedaling for sure, but also progress.


Likewise, undergraduate programs are typically structured on a four-year schedule. Some of us take more time, some take less. But we don’t look at sophomores as college failures simply because they don’t have a degree after year two. We trust in the process, and recognize they are moving forward towards an outcome that is on the horizon. An outcome that is easily defined, measured and communicated to the masses: BA, BS, BFA, BSW, we know what it is, we can read the letters on the diploma. Being an adult and performing like one is different and less concrete than being a college graduate.


Having the piece of paper in hand from Positive State University may be part of the “Launch”, but does it define someone as an adult? Research (personally I like the work of Jeffrey Jensen Arnett) has shown us that there are multiple criteria for being viewed as and viewing yourself as an adult (career attainment, financial independence, accepting personal responsibility, building life-long relationships, equal footing with parents, etc.) There really isn’t a degree program for these variables, just a whole lot of experience, demonstration and follow-through.


So maybe someone has tried to get out of the basement two or three times, or had two challenging goes of it in post-secondary school. Maybe things were learned along the way, and they actually became more proficient at some things as they emerged from each launch out into the adult world. And then the same types of themes brought about the same types of struggles, and they needed to go back to the drawing board.


Friend and colleague Jake Weld, from the Mansfield Hall program on the campus of the University of Vermont, describes it beautifully when he talks about some folks needing a “longer runway” for their launches. So maybe we shouldn’t look solely at the takeoff as the measurement tool. Let’s think about the tarmac and how icy and crowded it might be. Let’s consider the types of air traffic controllers who are overseeing the journey after takeoff. And after all, if we stick with the metaphor, we’re really talking about multiple launches probably to multiple destinations.


So to bring it back, the problem is not with launch, it’s with the word “failure.” Jake might encourage us all to see that the launch is emerging from the longer runway. Can you fail to emerge? Maybe. But I think it’s more likely that it will just be prolonged. There might not be a whole lot to brag about when it comes to an emerging adult on a long runway, at least in measurable terms. But it could be that the last experience helped them leap one quarter closer to where they really are trying to get to. We leap forward and backward throughout our lifetimes. Maybe those leaps are critical to each of our ensuing launches.


I promise I won’t try to measure yours.



Let’s talk soon,