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April 29, 2019

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You Can Be Anything You Want to Be

Researchers have been focusing on the tragedy of teenage suicide clusters specifically in Northern California.  One of the confusing variables in these clusters is that the students are originating from families of affluence and high academic backgrounds.  Many kids in these communities comment on the pressure they feel to be “successful”.  Not long ago affluent children were considered to be a low risk group compared to children in lower socioeconomic communities.   Suniya Luthar, Ph.D. conducted research that suggests that children of affluence experience more substance abuse, anxiety and depression than comparison groups of children with lower incomes.  Researchers are reporting evidence in affluent adolescents of guilt, depression or anxiety that comes with “having everything.”  Two sets of potential causes have come forward in the discussion: pressure to achieve and isolation from parents.

Parenting labels have been circulating around the media and it is now common to hear phrases like “helicopter parents”, “tiger moms”, and “bulldozer parents”.  Most recently there have been examples of parents bribing colleges and committing other crimes to help secure their child’s placement into top colleges and universities. Adolescents in this group describe their experience as an “unrelenting” pressure from feeling not only high expectations from a range of adults in their lives (parents, teachers, coaches, etc.) but also as a self-induced burden. There is constant comparing of grades, GPA’s and course level selection with peers.

As parents work long hours to provide the financial resources to fund opportunities for their families and to model work ethic, they often spend time away from their children.  Some research has reported junior high students being left home alone for several hours per day. There is a commonly held belief that isolation can promote self-sufficiency. However, this level of isolation can mean the family is not spending time together perhaps due to parent’s career demands or excessive after school activities. Isolation is considered both literal and emotional. There is the absence of a caregiver, but also a diminishing degree of emotional closeness to a caregiver.

In addition to the clinically significant rates of anxiety and depression found in children and adolescents with affluence, there are also significantly higher levels of substance abuse reported such as drinking to intoxication, e-cigarettes, JUUL, marijuana and other illicit drugs. Some studies suggest using drugs is an effort to self-medicate. Studies also show that these adolescents are using substances in order to manage or reduce their stress. Other studies show there is a pressure to use drugs to try to fit in or be popular.

There is a need to address the pressured academic climate and the emotional struggles that affluent children face today. There is an increase in stress related physical complaints such as headaches, stomachaches, insomnia and exaggerated health problems. Another interesting factor is that many of these adolescents do not feel like they have the right to be sad or scared.  They are feeling extreme gulit when they learn through the media about people with limited or no resources. We believe there is a tremendous burden that is felt by affluent children to do “something special”.  They are constantly told, “You can be anything you want to be,” which adds even more pressure not to waste their opportunity or squander the resources and sacrifices their families have made for them.

At Pacific Quest, we collaboratively come together to support families who are feeling the stress and pressure of their children’s challenges. We delve deeply to understand the complex factors, address them and work on sustainable change. We work to get out of the cycle of over-scheduling and focus on family time, connection and communication. There needs to be a collective shift into balance, personal health and wellbeing.

Psychology Today

National Institute of Health

Brian Konik, Ph.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Kristen McFee, MA, LPCC, LMHC, LPC

March 24, 2017

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Learning Differences at PQ

By Brian Konik, Ph.D. and Kristen McFee, MA, LPCC

I am always inspired and impressed when I watch a student complete his or her legacy garden project: they are beaming with pride, smiling, wiping sweat off their soil-covered faces. And I know how many steps it took them to get here. Managing their schedule to find extra time with all of their other obligations. Days are full of academic work, therapy, yoga, groups, gardening, cooking, cleaning and yet they learn to develop a schedule and make time to create something special. The goal is to find inspiration and work hard to produce something that others who follow will benefit from. To give back to the land and the Ohana (family). I have seen beautifully constructed lava rock walls, medicinal herb gardens, and bamboo furniture pieces, all created by students. Such accomplishments would be great for any student but they are uniquely important for those who have struggled with a lifetime of frustration dealing with learning differences often coupled with executive functioning deficits.

Pacific Quest’s horticultural therapy focus provides a unique environment for students who struggle with a combination of cognitive and emotional/behavioral issues. Pacific Quest utilizes a strength-based, “multiple intelligence” approach to learning. This approach is rewarding for students who may not have achieved acknowledgement for their strengths and abilities in traditional settings. The garden setting especially promotes growth in students’ executive functioning skills like organization, planning, abstract reasoning, memory, and attention.

Gardening provides a soothing environment where the nervous system can become regulated, offering opportunities to “access” cognitive-behavioral interventions. By placing the student in the role of the project manager and creative problem solver in the garden, each is forced to simultaneously engage in visual-spatial organization skills and interpersonal communication. This combination of skills can be particularly challenging for students who struggle with executive functioning deficits.

Many students find that their executive functioning deficits not only impact academics, but just as importantly affect their social relationships. Effort is taken to encourage social relationships, learn and practice social pragmatics and for students to have an integral role in a supportive peer group. A series of therapeutic horticultural experiences are offered with the intention of accessing the biological processes of the garden in order to increase interaction with the non-linear aspect of nature, increasing mental flexibility.Learning Differences at PQ - Pacific Quest: Wilderness Therapy for Teens & Young Adults

Therapists help the family reach an understanding of how learning differences contribute to the the stress response of the student, help the family avoid negative attributions to the student, and create understanding and acceptance within the family system. The family works toward balancing emphasis on both struggles and strengths, as it can be easy to lose sight of the strengths in face of struggles.

It is a unique experience to be apart of how this integrative approach is helpful in understanding and treating those with learning differences and executive functioning deficits. It is rewarding to see students empowered through their success in the garden. I am grateful to be a part of the growth process of so many students who work hard to learn and grow every day, taking one more step to overcome their challenges.

April 29, 2016

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Treating Anxiety: Overcoming the Fear of Fear Itself

By: Brian Konik, Ph.D.
Primary Therapist

As I look forward to working with a new group of students this summer at Pacific Quest, I am reminded of what a unique opportunity the gardens provide when designing individualized interventions. I feel very fortunate that, after spending over 20 or so years researching and designing interventions for individuals struggling with anxiety disorders, I have found an environment that facilitates a comprehensive interdisciplinary approach. I rely heavily on the principles of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) when designing exposure-based intervention. The students at Pacific Quest are immersed in an environment that integrates daily access to meditation, yoga, horticultural therapy, and mindfulness exercises to provide a perfect complement to a CBT and ABA approach.

PQ therapist Brian Konik

Dr. Brian Konik

I often say to parents and students that although problematic anxiety is one of the most prevalent, researched, and reliably treated psychological phenomena, it is also alarmingly underreported and treatment is not regularly pursued. Why is that? We find that those dealing with significant anxiety often avoid the experiences and/or settings that cause the anxiety and they ultimately fall into a pattern of avoidance behavior that stifles their development. Eventually parents and loved ones find themselves in a position where they have to insist on treatment. The PQ setting is unique because we are able to manipulate environmental variables to engage in exposure-based interventions with our students and to subsequently reinforce an evidence-based approach to therapy.  

Our ability to individualize the student experience provides me the opportunity to weave evidence-based practices for anxiety into the overall program. Students who struggle to thrive at home or at school are being challenged in the Pacific Quest gardens to face their fears head-on and to break the cycle of being anxious about being anxious — worrying about worrying — panicking that they may panic. Watching students who experience generalized anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, panic attacks, social anxiety, Tourette Syndrome, selective mutism, body dysmorphic disorder,  and specific phobias overcome their challenges and begin to thrive in the PQ model is an incredibly rewarding experience for me as a Clinical Psychologist. I can’t wait to join another group of students on their journeys to overcome anxiety in whatever form it appears to them!