Unapologetically Themselves: Why Mark Sobel Loves Working with Early Adolescents
FEATURED AUTHOR: Mark Sobel, LCSW
Mark Sobel is the clinical therapist for early adolescent boys. Get to know Mark in the Q&A below!
I struggled as a kid dealing with my own depression and anxiety, and it often felt like something was missing. I didn’t have an outlet that felt healthy and grounding. Growing up next to a major eastern city, Philadelphia, I didn’t have much access to nature. I wasn’t raised in a particularly outdoorsy family, so wilderness felt foreign and intimidating when I was younger. During college, I surrounded myself with a community of friends who stretched me outside of my comfort zone and introduced me to wilderness. The moment when it all of a sudden felt accessible and I really understood its importance was during a backpacking trip when I summitted my first peak: Mt. Marcy, the tallest point in New York state. That was pivotal. It was the first time I’d reached a place of such solitude and beauty that you can only reach by going through the struggle on your own two feet. I had never seen the world from that vantage point, and that combination of the quietness of nature and this feeling of pride was so powerful.
I’ve been working with early adolescents for the last 14-15 years. During the end of high school and beginning of college, I worked at an overnight camp in New Hampshire. I was 17 or 18 interacting with kids 10 to 12 years old. They were curious about growing up and figuring out who they were, and I guided them through a lot of natural conversations about that. At the time, it just felt like I was hanging out with kids, but now I realize that was when my interest in working with this age group started.
In college, I volunteered in public middle and elementary schools helping kids with their homework and reading. After college, I moved to a small town in Costa Rica and taught English to first through sixth grade kids for a year. I’m a theater kid at heart, so I liked teaching through humor and action and getting kids out of their chairs and interacting with each other. Then I went to graduate school for clinical social work and did my internship doing school counseling. Prior to that, I did a brief stint as a wilderness therapist in Maine for five to six months. It all started coalescing, pushing me in this direction of realizing I really liked working with kids in that younger age range, and I really liked doing it in an active, experiential, and connective way.
Early adolescents are unique because they still have one foot in childhood. At the same time, they’re starting to dip a toe into being a teenager. They’re individuating and discovering self-identify and self-concept. There’s excitement, along with this inevitable apprehension of walking the road of figuring out who they are. They also have such a sense of playfulness and childlike wonder. Even though their identities are in in this huge state of flux, they are unapologetically themselves. They’re able to self-reflect in a way that younger kids can’t, but they’re not so caught up in trying to fit in and impress their peers the way older kids are. They’re in this formative time that’s difficult and confusing and yet, so important. It’s a time that kids recognize that their voices have impact. When they realize that someone really wants to listen to and understand them, that’s really powerful.
Before moving to Durango, I lived in Denver working for a therapeutic residential program for boys ages 9 to 15. I was one of the therapists and I also managed the admissions department there. All the kids on my case load had come directly from wilderness programs, and it was apparent that they were coming in with a unique skillset. They had already done so much work on themselves and their relationships and were very intentional in their interactions with their peers. I was also working as a clinical mentor for a separate program, supporting adolescents transitioning back home from out-of-home placement, including wilderness therapy. I’ve always been fascinated by wilderness therapy, and this felt like a natural time to relight that fire and continue my passion for working in this modality.
If I had to sum up what brought me to Open Sky in one word, that word would be intentionality. From the day-to-day milieu to the overall philosophy of the approach, everything is done with such thoughtfulness, specifically around the family work. It can’t be overstated how much it matters for a young person who is away from home – often for the very first time – doing this deep, powerful, and complex work on themselves to see that their family is engaged in a parallel process. For real, lasting change to occur, it’s got to be happening on all sides of the family system. Open Sky creates a space that takes shame and blame out of the equation. It isn’t anyone’s burden to carry the responsibility, but rather a shared effort to improve relationships and communication within the parent-child dynamic.
Wilderness therapy is just so in the here and now. It’s unflinchingly honest and real. The opportunities to struggle through adversity, face insecurity, and come through the other side to experience growth and success are constant. And, they’re not contrived by anyone; the students get to make these opportunities for themselves. For many students in the field, success is something they’re sadly not used to. The chance to experience micro-successes and build their confidence and self-esteem is so important.
In terms of modalities, I incorporate a lot of tenants of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), emotions focused therapy (EFT), internal family systems therapy (IFS), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and narrative therapy. While all of these are individual modalities, I see a through line between them: they all relate to the story we tell ourselves about who we are. Not just how our thoughts, feelings, and actions relate, but also how they relate to our values and our motivations and ultimately, our relationships. I think a lot of dissonance can come from living outside our values, and for early adolescents, they’re kind of at the edge. They’re at the precipice of individuating from their parents and finding out what they care about. They’re realizing, “Oh, I have values? It’s not just what my parents think that matters? What are my values? What matters to me?”
My approach is also informed by my own understanding and relationship with nature. For the students, it can be a powerfully positive and healing environment, and it can also be really intimidating. For a lot of them, this could be their first time engaging in nature like this. I keep that dual understanding in mind and maintain empathy for their experience, especially when they first get to the field. Like I said, I’m just a grown-up theater kid, so I also incorporate a lot of storytelling and even improv into my treatment approach. I think they are powerful tools to help get young people out of their heads through laughter, teamwork, and being creative.
Maintaining a healthy sense of adventure has always been important to me. I like having a challenge on the horizon, especially with running. I’m starting to dip a toe into the world of ultrarunning and trail running. It’s so humbling and terrifying but also exciting. I like biking as well. It’s been really meditative for me ever since I was a kid. I also like snowboarding in the winter. At the end of the day, if I’m going to get really excited about doing something outdoors, I come back to backpacking and hiking and climbing summits, as that’s the thing that ignited my love for the outdoors.
Aside from outdoorsy stuff, I love road trips. I love that special feeling of spontaneity and freedom that’s accompanied by a full tank of gas and an empty itinerary. I especially like driving through beautiful places with a friend. I also like music and performing. Singing, especially in groups, is one of my favorite things to do. It’s such good medicine. I feel at home locking in with other people and creating beautiful music. It’s my favorite kind of conversation.