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February 2, 2018

Pacific Quest’s Young Adult Family Program: Breathing Life Into Relationships

By: Dr. John Souza, Young Adult Family Program Therapist

Ohana

In Hawaiian culture the taro plant symbolizes family or “Ohana”.  The word Ohana itself comes from the taro.  The “Oha” are the new growth emerging from the corm, an underground storage organ that is the foundation of the taro.  Adding the word “na” pluralizes the Oha, thereby creating a group growing together or an “Ohana”.

Dr. John Souza

Within the word Ohana are the words “Ha” and “Hana”.  “Ha” is the sacred breath of life carried by all and which joins us.  “Hana” is the work into which we breathe our life; and in which we engage with joy knowing it is through our shared work that we make our family relationships healthy and vibrant.

Breathing Life Into Families

Pacific Quest’s Young Adult Family Program has become a haven in which families come to practice joyfully breathing life into their relationships. In 2017, our Family Program had the privilege of hosting 316 students and caregivers. With over 90% of our students participating in Family Program, PQ is an Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare (OBH) program that continues to emphasize integration and diversity, something the garden teaches us is essential for resiliency.  In a time of environmental and social stress, the opportunity for families to have such a place of respite is essential for them to engage in what we call the Corrective Relational Experience.

The Corrective Relational Experience

The Corrective Relational Experience (CRE) is about rebuilding trust and increasing mutual empathy. During Family Program the CRE is achieved by students, parents, and staff embracing two main responsibilities: Practicing Differentiation and Congruence.

Differentiation is being able to separate one’s own thoughts and feelings, both intra-personally (i.e., within one’s self) and interpersonally (i.e., between one’s self and someone else). Additionally, differentiation involves the ability to enter into or exit from a given emotional relationship by choice. Differentiation means not losing one’s emotional self in a relationship, yet also not cutting one’s emotional self off from a relationship: to stay flexibly connected, yet separate.

Congruence is how reflective your values/beliefs (intra-personal) are in a given relationship (interpersonal). That is to say how closely does what you say reflect what you actually want, need,, and feel in a given relationship? For example, if you don’t like a behavior, do you say, “I don’t really like that” or do you only think that, but actually verbalize, “That’s great!”? To be congruent increases authenticity, a critical component of trust and accurate empathy, the heart of the Corrective Relational Experience.

Professional to Personal: Being Part of a Larger Change Process

As a research-informed clinician, I often wonder about the application of research in practice and practice in research. What I’ve found is that the research on Wilderness Therapy and OBH that continues to point to the importance of family involvement in the development and maintenance of gains made by youth in such programs is spot-on. These gains are being supported by the development of mutual trust and empathy between parents and their sons and daughters. Moreover, for me as a clinician, being able to work with entire families in person only enhances the sense of shared trust and empathy within the therapeutic/clinical relationship (between therapist, student, and parents), itself a major predictor of successful therapeutic outcomes.. This mutual influence between clinician and client becomes the nucleus of a much larger change process.  As I the professional, experience greater trust and empathy, it becomes part of my personal experience, which I take home to my family and to my community. As parents experience this CRE, they too take it back to their families and communities. In this way we become like the taro or Ohana, breathing life into our relationships, born of the same source of trust and empathy.

Having Your Own Corrective Relational Experience: Breathing Life Into Your Relationships

There are many ways to have a Corrective Relational Experience. Below are just a few suggestions of specific skills PQ families have used to foster their own CRE’s. Feel free to modify these or make up your own!

  • Breath: It sounds simple, but this rhythmic, sensory-based activity will help keep you regulated and better able to relate to another person. I like to inhale for four counts, pause for one, exhale for eight, pause for one, and repeat. Feels great!
  • Listen: Again, it sounds simple, but really listening to someone with total openness and suspension of judgment or an agenda is challenging. Try inviting someone to share with you for five minutes while you listen; fully open yourself up to hearing whatever they have to share. Be sure to thank them for sharing!
  • Reflect: This is a great skill to use in tandem with listening. However, try to limit your reflections to only those words used by the speaker. Not only will this minimize you inadvertently inserting your own opinions or judgments about what the speaker was sharing, but will also let the speaker know the correct message was conveyed and received.
  • Share: Related to listening and reflecting (and essential for building trust and empathy) is the art of sharing your own struggles. This involves knowing if you need to share more or if you need to share less. If you need to share, be sure that what you share is focused on the relationship in the present moment and involves feeling words such as happy, mad, scared, confused, etc. If you need to share less, let the listener know that you’re practicing creating more space for them to share.
  • Ask for Feedback: A great way to not only practice vulnerability, but also truly honor your relationship with another person, is to ask them for feedback on the relationship. Ask them to share how they feel in the relationship, if there are realistic ways they see that you could more effectively support the relationship, if they have ways that they want to better support the relationship. The key is to remain curious and focused on improving your bond with the other person. Should you find yourself struggling to do either of these two things, repeat the above skills, beginning with breathing or simply request to take a break and return to the conversation at an agreed upon time in the not-too-distant future.

The most important element in any CRE is a genuine desire to improve the relationship. This includes listening, sharing struggles, and setting clear boundaries.

I wish you and your relationships all the best.

A Hui Hou (until we meet again)!

For more information on Pacific Quest’s Young Adult Family Program, please email drjohn@pacficquest.org.