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Adventure Therapy

Family Adventure Therapy
Overview, Theory & Research

James Neill
Last updated:
03 May 2004

Quick Guide

Family Adventure Therapy - Overview

Adventure therapy programs for families (also known as Family Adventure Therapy and Wilderness Family Therapy) emerged in the United States during the 1980's and 1990's.

Adventure therapy programs for families are typically conducted to improve trust and communication between adolescent and parent. 

Programs often involve trust-based and problem-solving initiative tasks and ropes course activities.  Some programs are conducted as a one-off session for a couple of hours, others are conducted over multiple-sessions, while others are intensive, residential programs, such as wilderness-based expedition programs.

Family adventure therapy programs are also conducted for adult relationship counseling and for families with young children.

Family adventure therapy programs were a natural progression from adventure therapy programs which initially focused on youth at risk.  Family adventure therapy programs also evolved because adventure activities commonly relate to common therapeutic goals sought by families in therapy, such as communication, trust, and problem solving.

As family systems theories became more widely used in mainstream therapy, so too adventure-based organizations working with youth at risk came to realize the potential of involving both parents and youths in adventure programming.  By making positives in both parents and youths, as well as they dyadic relationships and the family system, much greater long-term prospects for change are fostered.

However, the challenging dynamics, logistics, and expertise to effectively provide such potentially powerful experiences is hard to come by.  Hence, despite the promising theory and limited research, family adventure therapy is not common.

Key proponents of adventure therapy for families have been US academic-practitioners, Michael Gass, Lee Gillis, Dene Berman, and Scott Bandoroff.

The most recent contribution has been by Bandoroff who explored the theoretical foundations of adventure family therapy and its application to the therapy office, outpatient multiple family groups, and wilderness therapy at the 3rd International Adventure Therapy Conference, "Family Matters: Adventure Programming with Families" (for more information see the description of Family Adventures on Bandoroff's Peak Experience website).

Family Adventure Therapy - Types

Four types of family adventure therapy programs were identified by a 1991 survey of 44 programs in the USA (Gillis, Gass, Bandoroff, Rudolph, Clapp, & Nadler, 1991)


Adventure activities at a recreation level are typically a single session designed to leave the family with a positive experience. Adventure programming at this level is not generally therapeutic in nature, but benefits may occur according to the nature of participation by the family and the type of  activity.


Adventure activities at the enrichment level are designed to supplement a skill building session designed to address common family issues, such as trust, communication, problem solving, and dealing with control issues.


Adventure activities at an adjunctive therapy level typically complement more traditional treatment modalities.  The activities can occur as multi-day adventure experience, and be designed to highlight and improve family system issues.


Adventure activities at a primary therapy level occur are designed as the main therapeutic intervention for the familyís issues. The adventure activities are used to create lasting change in the family structure.

Family Adventure Therapy - Theory

Family Adventure Therapy theory draws on tenets from:

  • Family systems theory

  • Experiential theory

  • Solution-focused theory

  • Wilderness as a healing place theory

This amounts to an action-centered therapy which provides opportunities for genuine, guided interaction between family members.  By putting families in unfamiliar environments, disequilibrium is created, allowing the underlying family dynamics to be revealed.  Just as importantly, activities are structured for success, such that families develop more positive dynamics.  Family members are encouraged to experiment with new roles within their family structure.

For more information, see Bandoroff and Parrish (1997), Gass (1993), and Gillis and Gass (1993).

Family Adventure Therapy - Research

A survey of families participating in one of 44 different adventure programs in the USA revealed the following (Gillis, Gass, Bandoroff, Rudolph, Clapp, & Nadler, 1991):

  • step-families were the most common family structure

  • families were usually referred by a mental health or medical facility

  • the most common goal was to improve communication

  • approximately two-thirds of the time was spent engaged with ropes course activities

  • programs were usually around 1 to 4 hours in length, sometimes for 1 session, other times for up to 5 sessions

The outcome research evidence is generally supportive of the claim that family adventure programs can improve the interpersonal relations among adolescents and their parents, particularly with regard to:

  • communication

  • conflict resolution

  • problem solving, and

  • dysfunctional behavior

However, this is drawn from a handful of studies of diverse types of adventure therapy programs - thorough evidence is lacking.

The most comprehensive family adventure therapy research to date was conducted by Bandoroff and Scherer (1994). They examined the effects of a family adventure program which complemented a 21-day wilderness therapy program designed to assist troubled adolescents. The adolescent 21-day program was a wilderness adventure which focused on primitive living skills. The program allowed for individual reflection and individual therapy sessions with a therapist.

The family wilderness component was a additional 4-day wilderness experience similar in structure to the adolescentís wilderness experience. Each day was centered on the theme of a particular family resource and was demonstrated experientially through activities and the teaching of survival skills by the adolescent. In small family therapy groups, the day's experiences and themes were discussed.

Bandoroff and Scherer's longitudinal data from several instruments suggested that family functioning improved from a clinical range to a normal range. Six weeks after the program, parents reported less problem behavior and reductions in delinquency. These improvements in self-concepts also held true for adolescents.


Bandoroff, S., & Parrish, A.  (1998).  Families at play:  The dynamics of intervention.  In C. M. Itin (Ed.).  Proceedings of the 1st International Adventure Therapy Conference.  Boulder, CO:  Association for Experiential Education.  (ERIC No.  ED424050)

Bandoroff, S., & Scherer, D. G.  (1994).  Wilderness family therapy:  An innovative treatment approach for problem youth.  Journal of Child and Family Studies, 3, (2), 175-191.

Burg, J. E.  (2001).  Emerging issues with therapeutic adventure with families.  Journal of Experiential Education, 24, (2), 118-122.

Burg, J. E.  (1994).  Exploring adventure family therapy:  A modified Delphi study.  Unpublished doctoral dissertation.  Purdue University.

Gass, M. A.  (1993).  The theoretical foundations for adventure family therapy.  In M. Gass (Ed.)  Adventure therapy:  Therapeutic applications of adventure programming  (pp. 123-138).  Dubuque, IA:  Kendall/Hunt.

Gillis, H. L., & Gass, M. A.  (1993).  Bringing adventure into marriage and family therapy: An innovative experiential approach.  Journal of Marital & Family Therapy, 19(3), 273-287.

Gillis, H. L., Gass, M. A., Bandoroff, S., Rudolph, S., Clapp, C., and Nadler, R.  (1991).  Family adventure questionnaire:  Results and discussion.  In C. Birmingham (Ed.), Association for Experiential Education:  1991 Conference Proceedings and Workshop Summaries Book (pp. 29-39).  Boulder, CO:  Association for Experiential Education.  (ERIC No. ED342584)

Jacobson, S.  (1992).  Family strengths:  Effects of participation in an experiential/adventure-based program for clinically presenting families.  Unpublished masterís thesis, University of Texas at Arlington.

Kugath, S. D.  (1997).  The effects of family participation in an outdoor adventure program.  In Back to the Basics: Proceedings of the International Conference on Outdoor Recreation and Education.  (ERIC No.  ED417050)

Mason, M. J.  (1987).  Wilderness family therapy:  Experiential dimensions.  Contemporary Family Therapy, 9, 90-105.

Mortimer, J. T., & Finch, M. D.  (1996.)  Adolescents, work and family:  An intergenerational developmental analysis.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage.

Mulholland, R., & Williams, A.  (1998).  Exploring together outdoors:  A family therapy approach based in the outdoors.  In C. M. Itin (Ed.).  Proceedings of the 1st International Adventure Therapy Conference.  Boulder, CO:  Association for Experiential Education.  (ERIC No.  ED424050)

Rudolph, S.  (1991).  A naturalistic investigation of the effects of participation in an adventure-based family enrichment and intervention program.  Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb.