Opening Doors and Building Connection: A Conversation with Clinical Therapist Nick Lenderking-Brill
FEATURED AUTHOR: Nick Lenderking-Brill, MA, LPC
Get to know Nick Lenderking-Brill, therapist for adolescent boys! Nick began his time at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy as a Family Services intern while pursuing his Master’s degree at Naropa University. With family services, guiding, transport, operations, and clinical experience, Nick’s depth of knowledge and expertise is a huge asset in his work with students and their families. Learn more about Nick in the Q&A below!
Well, I was born extroverted, and ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always been social and outgoing. From day one, I just wanted to hang around my friends and family. Human interactions and relationships are still the pulp of my days – I couldn’t get by without the connections I have with others.
When I was 10, my parents split, and that proved to be really challenging for me. I went through my own struggles in high school—like substance use and opposition—similar to what some of my students are going through. At the time, I had no desire or interest in becoming a therapist. I thought I had been to enough therapy already!
But during the summer between high school and college, I worked at an outdoor summer camp, leading a cabin of adolescent boys. The thing that really stuck with me from that summer is the bedtime conversation: talking about family, past experiences, the struggles of being a teenager…looking back, I realize that this was my first team of adolescent boys. I’m still doing it! My career trajectory really blossomed after that.
Without really knowing it, I just gravitated towards helping professions. In college I lived in Brazil and spent lots of time volunteering. I worked with kids at an orphanage and with moms at a shelter for battered women, and I taught English, music, and art. A couple years later I moved to Thailand to work as an English teacher. But teaching wasn’t quite right for me. Somewhere along the line, it clicked that I wanted to be of service in a more emotional capacity. Through my own personal work healing some wounds from childhood with my own family, I realized I wanted to help others do the same. Becoming a therapist suddenly became clear and obvious.
I grew up backpacking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This was actually one of the things that helped me cope with my parents’ divorce—and really the beginning of my own personal experience with “wilderness therapy.” In 2013, I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. During these six months of being in the woods both alone and in groups, I worked out many of my own demons. This was a time of adventure and healing, and I wanted to share that powerful blend with others.
In 2015, I finally decided to take the plunge into this world. I Googled “family therapy nature meditation” and surprise surprise, Open Sky popped up. I thought, wow, there’s already a place doing exactly what I want to do. Further searches led me to discover the wilderness therapy graduate program at Naropa University—the only such program in the world. From then on, my path has been clear, and I’m still on it!
I believe you can’t separate therapy from the wilderness. Introspection, connection, and growth are inherent to any experience in nature. Wilderness therapy is the most effective intervention I’ve come across, personally and professionally. It just makes sense.
My time as a full-time intern was completely essential to my overall growth as a therapist. I had the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of the entire programmatic structure at Open Sky. I dove into facilitating Family Quests, Parent Coaching calls, Wellness Weekends, graduations, and transports. I even worked a couple shifts as a field guide and did four months of clinical coverage, working alongside primary therapists, and taking their caseloads during time off.
I learned so much working under the expert senior clinicians, Family Services Director Matthew Krugh, and veteran senior guides. I shadowed almost every primary therapist for weeks at a time.
The abundant time I spent in the teams, in sessions with students, and on Family Quests with families was the bridge between my experiential wilderness skills and my academic knowledge…between being a therapist and being an outdoorsman. It was through my internship that I really solidified my skills as a wilderness therapist.
I’m a doer; that’s how I learn. There was no better way to gain experience, grow in my clinical expertise, gain confidence, and hone my therapeutic skills. I also used that time to really begin utilizing the wilderness as a co-facilitator, with interventions that simply can’t be done in an office.
Working in Family Services was a natural progression from my internship. I believe I wouldn’t be the therapist I am today without that experience. I came to Open Sky largely because I share the company’s family systems approach, which is absolutely the foundation of my work today with adolescent boys.
I facilitated more than 60 Family Quests, which gave me a rich appreciation for family systems playing out their patterns in the present moment. Family Quests spurred in me deep respect for the work parents do and how important it is to walk alongside their child on this journey. I couldn’t imagine filling my role as a primary therapist without bringing family into the work. In Family Services I learned when and how to push families into disrupting patterns, all through a lens of compassion and non-judgment.
Because of my experience in Family Services, I know the Open Sky Family Pathway inside and out. I became very familiar with the assignments, concepts, and skills inside the workbook. I know exactly what my students’ parents are working on in their own process and integrate that into the goals I set for students each week. They truly become parallel experiences that are then integrated at Family Quest or graduation.
My family systems approach is always in the forefront. I include a “family goals” section every week in my students’ Individual Goals Plans. I create interventions to enact familial patterns in the team. That could be anything from having a student create a family sculpture or role-playing family dynamics with other students in the team.
Beyond my emphasis on family, my approach is always about relationship. It’s possible to relate to any human being—we all share the pains and joys of being alive. I come to each new student (or any person I meet) with curiosity and openness. I still have that adolescent boy energy in me, and I find it really easy to relate to them. Every time I meet a new student, I start by asking about their friends, what they do in their spare time, music, sports, their interests and passions. Even if we don’t share many common interests, I’m still able to connect. For instance, I am not a video gamer. We may not connect on specific details of Fortnite but I can easily relate to the passion with which he talks about it, because I am in touch with my own passions and how they make me feel.
The therapy flows from this rapport and trust that we build together. To me, connection is not a “game” or a “strategy.” I truly care about these kids and want to help them. That connection opens doors and lays the foundation to work on communication with their family and peers, learn what it’s like to be in healthy relationship, heal from their past, and practice coping skills that will help them work through their present and future challenges. My students are not “damaged” or “broken.” They’re acting out because they are struggling or in pain. I work with them to get to the feelings and experiences underneath the surface.
I’m assertive, transparent, and compassionate. I know these boys can be and need to be pushed. I try to model authenticity and let the humor, laughter, and even tears flow. I’m not a therapist robot; I’m a human, feeling alongside another human. I just have some extra skills, training, and experience.
I respect how deeply personal this work is for families. This is a big deal! It’s important to form personal connections with family members and involve them as much as possible. As soon as it’s clinically appropriate, I get parents and students on a phone call together, often to go over an impact letter or letter of responsibility.
I’m a big sports guy. I think of wilderness therapy as “spring training,” and reuniting with the family at Family Quest or Graduation (and beyond) is like the World Series. At Open Sky, we are practicing for the big show, which is family! I encourage Family Quest whenever appropriate as well, so that families can implement the skills they’ve been practicing.
My heart is in this work and I’m willing to get creative with families to find solutions. I go the extra mile to communicate with parents, be available, and get my families the answers they need. It may sound corny, but I’m here for the people I work with.
My greatest passion in this work is utilizing the wilderness as an intervention. I love creatively incorporating nature into students’ individual goals plans with things like family sculptures, tandem bow drilling for work on relationships, and fire-busting for working through dragon and gem cycles.
I’m also a strong believer in the power of the group. Wilderness therapy wouldn’t be so effective without the team environment. Peers influence each other more than I can as a therapist. Team culture is important to me and I love working with the boys to shape it. It’s so dynamic…each week I enter the team and think, “what will I be walking into this time?” It’s like paddling – I’m following the river and adjusting the boat accordingly.
A: Music is a huge part of my life. Writing songs, playing music, listening to music, live music, singing, dancing, talking about music… I love how a song or an album takes me on a journey, in a different way than the more conventional sense of “adventure.”
In the winter, I love to snowboard. In the summer, I’m often on or in or alongside the water: kayaking, canoeing, and swimming. But the outdoor activity I probably come back to the most is walking and backpacking. I think it’s because that’s what I did every summer with my dad from age 9 through high school. When I do this, I’m essentially going on my own “expo” by taking time to slow down and re-center, whether with friends, my wife Jenny, or on my own.
I love writing (I was an English major!) and I’m always in the midst of some creative writing pursuits. I am also passionate about sports – I watch every Red Sox game and am a die-hard fan of all Boston teams. How could I not be?