Joanna Bettmann Schaefer, Ph.D, LCSW Research Director Open Sky Wilderness Therapy
Principles for letter writing to your child What makes an effective letter What makes a less effective letter Writing therapeutic letters (impact letters, responses to responsibility letter)
Write at least one letter weekly (preferably two) – this refers to all involved parents Be honest when you can Share what you are feeling Use “I feel” statements in every letter I feel (feeling) When (event) I imagine I feel this way because (reason) In the future, (request/hope/wish) Focus on the present Respond to the issues they raise – don’t just ignore them
Be honest, direct, and tactful Be genuine and sincere Be descriptive yet succinct Speak from your heart. Let your child see your humanity Focus on clarity Apologize when appropriate Acknowledge what they have written – explain why you can’t answer some questions or provide some information
Don’t moralize, preach, or lecture Don’t use derogatory words or name calling Don’t shame or blame Don’t psychoanalyze or offer theories of why your child does what he/she does Don’t make promises you can’t keep Don’t say things you feel guilt-tripped into saying Don’t promise gifts or privileges in exchange for their work at Open Sky
Don’t focus on the future – help your child to stay in the present Don’t address graduation date – this should be determined by you and your Open Sky treatment team Don’t address aftercare until directed to by Open Sky therapist Don’t just be chatty – talk about substantive issues (connect to what they wrote about in their letters)
At least weekly – preferably 2 times a week Whenever you are missing your child or wanting to feel close to your child
Encourage letters from siblings, but not from peers Remember: the goal is to help your loved one focus on treatment – too many letters from too many people can get distracting Letters from peers are often not helpful – talk with your Open Sky therapist about this
The impact letter is a therapeutic tool used to describe the reasons why you believe it is important for your child to be at Open Sky. Impact letters are meant to help your loved one gain perspective on his/her life and how he/she has impacted others. Receiving impact letter(s) is a pivotal event in your loved one’s growth process at Open Sky. Each involved parent writes one and siblings may as well (ask your Open Sky therapist about this)
Start writing it immediately – it’s best for your loved one to receive it 2 weeks into their Open Sky treatment. You may need to work through several drafts first with your Open Sky therapist and this takes time. Send it no later than 1 week after your loved one’s enrollment at Open Sky. Do not send impact letters to student mail. Email the impact letter to the attention of your Open Sky therapist.
1. Describe why you believe it was necessary for your child to come to Open Sky and how the issues impacted you (1.5-2 pages) Describe your perspective on why your child is at Open Sky Describe how these incidents/behaviors impacted you on an emotional level Include validating statements 2. Your regrets and commitments (2 paragraphs) Incidents/behaviors that you regret (1 paragraph) Changes you are committed to (1 paragraph) 3. Positives and hopes (3 paragraphs) Strengths/positives you see in your child (2 paragraphs) Times you felt close to your child (1 paragraph) Hopes for your child (a few sentences)
Reflect what your loved one has written Do not explain or justify your actions Take some time to respond – don’t respond quickly out of anger Understand that it may be difficult for your loved one to write this letter to you
Practice reflective listening skills in your letter back: Acknowledge what you heard Take some time to respond – don’t respond quickly out of anger Try not to respond with judgment and outrage – this may not be productive for treatment. Instead process these feelings first with your home therapist and then write your loved one If you need more than a few days to compose a response to your loved one, then write a briefer letter first – saying that you received the letter and are processing it Recognize that your loved ones are often writing about things they themselves judge and are nervous to share – respond appropriately
Write often and whenever you are feeling like communicating with your loved one in wilderness. Know that it is hard for students when they don’t get letters in the field! Be honest and open Address what they wrote about in their letters (don’t just be chatty) Talk about your feelings Share about the things you are doing in the Family Pathway – modeling is important Ask your Open Sky therapist and home therapist for guidance on letters when needed
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