Family retreats are a highlight of the Shelterwood year. In the spring and fall, families gather at Shelterwood to learn, reconnect and grow together. Boys’ and girls’ families meet on separate weekends in April and October over four days of intentional activities and quality downtime together.

Why Family Retreats?

The retreats give families time to stretch together as a unit and practice things they’ve been learning separately.

“The goal is to highlight some of the issues we’ve been talking about in individual and family therapy,” Shelterwood therapist Nate Rayburn says. “We use creative activities and intentional one-on-one time to give parents and clients an opportunity to focus on what they’ve discussed about changing in the future.”

The retreats are structured to help families work on their communication skills and rebuild family dynamics. The carefully programmed long weekends give families time to both bond together and break apart to process.

Some of the time is simply fun—free of therapeutic goals or expectations. When a child is placed in residential care, the family has often gone through an extended period of very stressful interactions. It might have been a very long time since they just laughed together.

“We very intentionally create light, fun things,” Nate says. “A lot of it is trying to teach the family how to have healthy, normative interaction again.”

Practically, family retreats also give parents and siblings time to get to know the Shelterwood staff, including teachers, and each other.

“Families going through the journey with us can feel very isolated,” says Jane Lawrence, Shelterwood Registrar. “When they get to meet other families going through similar things, it is encouraging. They get to meet people they don’t have to constantly be explaining themselves to.”

Intentional Time Together

Retreats are scheduled to help both teens and their families get the most out of their time together. No two weekends are alike. In fact, every family retreat is re-created based on the overall needs of the current families. New activities will be added; others will be taken away, depending on what everyone is working on.

“You see a concerted effort within the staff to make these four days special,” Jane says. “It’s all hands on deck. We strive to be excellent in everything we do, but you can tell that during family retreats, we give it an extra kick.”

“We create activities and interactions very intentionally to get parents and kids to face the thing they just haven’t been talking about,” Nate says. For example, at a recent retreat, families sculpted portraits of themselves. The way family members represent each other can highlight fears and challenges with an immediacy that just talking about it can’t.

“There’s no place to hide there. You get a very clear picture…and now parents are forced to stare at it,” Nate says. “If you sit down with a therapist, some parents have this way of dissociating and making it very heady. Or they might take over the conversation, so they don’t have to talk about feelings. But you do those activities, and you’ve got to look at it.”

These experiential activities are interspersed with more traditional family therapy sessions, teacher conferences, parent groups, seminars and more. Special events give families some extra one-on-one bonding time, like father-daughter and mother-son dinners, team art-creation sessions, or even paintball battles.

There’s also always an alumni family on hand to share their experiences, pass on wisdom and give some much-needed perspective. “It’s never a perfect road,” Jane says. “Everybody is going to go through bumps and potholes. Alumni parents can share what saw them through.”

Emotional Processing

The retreats make space for parents and kids to feel all their emotions. Many parents find themselves grieving during this weekend—for needing help, for mistakes they may have made, for how hard it is to engage with their child right now. Parents can feel a lot of frustration and confusion as they learn new ways of interacting with their child.

On the other hand, teens can be pensive, cautious and even tentative during family retreats, especially during their first weekend back together as a family unit. They might be more passive or more aggressive as they feel out new family dynamics.

“We intentionally design a come-together/withdraw pattern into the weekend,” Nate says. “During those withdraw moments, it gives us a lot of time for kids and parents to process through everything they’re getting slapped with.”

At the end of the retreat, Shelterwood saves time for families to process together. Newer families might get questions to talk through or an assignment to complete. Families who have been through retreats before usually know what they need to talk about during their final evening together.

Before families split off for quality time, though, the whole group has an opportunity to share together. Parents, kids and staff have an open mic to talk about whatever they might have learned over the past four days. It can be a really powerful, Jane says.

“You can see the healing start to happen,” Jane says. “This is why we do what we do—to see the hope become tangible. The restoration of the family is really happening. That’s why retreats are my favorite time.”

Is your family looking for restoration? Contact Shelterwood admissions to learn more about our multi-generational, multi-disciplinary approach to healing.