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February 2, 2018

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Breathing Life Into Relationships

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

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


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

July 27, 2017

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Family + Rites of Passage: A Unified Approach

By: Mike McGee, BS
Family Program Manager

For anyone who has participated in a Rites of Passage experience, structured or otherwise, one of the toughest tasks is explaining the significance to loved ones. The feeling of transformation or the significance of a falling leaf or animal encounter can be easily lost in translation. For students in wilderness therapy, the lack of words to express the significance can be frustrating. Having a Rites of Passage experience that includes an examination of the family unit and the family system itself allows for shared language, experience, and growth.

Rites of Passage at PQ

At Pacific Quest, our Family Program is an extension of our Rites of Passage experience. By examining our families through the lens of the Four Shields Model (an approach overviewed below), we are able to see the value and viewpoints of each phase of life. The Four Shields Model examines the joys and naiveté of childhood in the south shield, the identity formation and differentiation of adolescence in the west, the responsibility and drive found in adulthood in the north, and the simplicity and wisdom found in elder-hood in the east. Without a holistic view of the human experience, adolescent Rites of Passage can end up an extension of the unintended selfishness of childhood. And the true intent of a Rite of Passage is to not only benefit the individual but the community at large as well.

This is not just work for the adolescent. Our society often fails to see the value of viewpoints from our children, adolescents, and elders. Who hasn’t been moved by the joy and honesty found in children? Our music and art stems from the passion and pain found in our teenage years or the wisdom and strength of an elder who can listen and share from a place of experience. When we, as adults, fail to see the value of knowledge from the entirety of human existence, we can fall into the trap of monotony, money, and the mundane. One of my teachers shared that our primary purpose of adulthood is to show adolescents that being an adult is ‘worth it’. Adulthood and responsibility, when viewed through a nonlinear model are a choice, and why would anyone choose to be miserable?

Mike McGee, Family Program Manager

When I ask our students who the most impactful person in their life is, the most common response is a grandparent. They often see their parents as independent of their grandparents. Students often fail to see that their parents most likely had issues with their parents, and sought solace with their grandparents.

We work with our families to highlight the strengths and acknowledge the flaws in each generation’s way of thinking. I cannot count the amount of times a family has come back from their experience blown away by the newly articulated views of their children. Many parents and adults have lost the language of expression found in those tumultuous years. The rawness of feeling that has been tampered down to be polite and acceptable in all settings. And our students can walk away knowing that their voice has been heard and that the adults in their lives have their best interest in mind. Only by listening, are we able to finally hear the value in the other’s words.

July 11, 2017

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Severance and Intention – A Family Rite of Passage

By Mike Sullivan, Alumni & Family Services Director

I recently presented at the Rocky Mountain Regional NATSAP conference in Whitefish, Montana. Before I continue, I will have to profess that this was one of the most beautiful settings for a conference – situated in a lush mountain valley near the entrance to Glacier National Park.  Further, the conference drew many attendees from therapeutic programs scattered throughout Northern Idaho and Montana, lending to an intimate and rich networking event.  The seminars were stellar and I hope to return to this conference again next year.

Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC

The conference specifically targeted the theme of “addressing family systems work,” which especially piqued my interest due to my career focus in family therapy and parent involvement in the treatment process.  I chose to present on experiential techniques for promoting a “rite of passage” experience for families, wherein, the family collaborates in deepening awareness into maladaptive patterns and ruts that they wish to sever from, and works together to set goals and intentions of positive characteristics and communication styles they want to work toward.  I opened the presentation by defining aspects of a rite of passage. I then shared a case vignette, and highlighted a particular families’ process engaging in family therapy and an actual garden ceremony.  The presentation concluded with the audience breaking into small groups where I assigned them to brainstorm experiential approaches that they utilize to engage families in ROP type experiences, and report back to the group at large with ideas generated.  It ended up being a neat combination of networking and idea sharing across models, allowing each professional to walk away with applicable tools.

I have always been intrigued with the role a rite of passage can play on a family systems level. Outdoor therapy provides a seemingly paradoxical model.  The identified patient (adolescent or young adult) is sent thousands of miles from home, isolated from access to family.  The child’s parents describe the deterioration of communication, care, and respect within the family, and trust that the outdoor model will enhance family relationships.  Some would question how effective this model can be; that sequestering a child in the woods can’t possibly address the complexity of the family system.  So therein lay the paradox – how does the outdoor program address the family system, with members of the family spread out across the country?

Outdoor programs nationwide have invested significant resources in bolstering family treatment, recognizing that individual treatment gains quickly diminish if the primary caregivers aren’t growing alongside their child. Outdoor therapy, when applied correctly, leverages the geographical distance to first foster individual growth and then reunite the family in an intentional manner to facilitate growth needed to sustain therapeutic gains.

As the NATSAP outcome study gains momentum and the sample size continues to grow, quantitative data supports claims that family systems benefit from outdoor therapy.  The Family Assessment Device, a trusted measure developed to identify problem areas in family functioning (Epstein, et. al, 1983), has demonstrated that families engaging in outdoor therapy make clinically significant progress.  This is remarkable and leads to the question – what factors contribute to that success? Having worked in outdoor therapy for 10+ years, I have observed the power of engaging families in a rite of passage experience.

A traditional “rite of passage” entails a ceremony, clearly marking the transition from one life stage to another. Individuals identify “severance,” or an “old story” that they wish to leave behind.  This includes limiting self-beliefs and maladaptive behaviors.  The individual then focuses on cultivating the best version of themselves, their “new story,” or “intention.”  The process of identifying “severance” and “intention” increases insight and allows for specific goals to emerge.  Individual growth is critical, and this same phenomenon can be applied on a family level. Families collaborating in identifying maladaptive family patterns informs the process of family “severance,” and working together to name a shared vision of how the family strives to function creates a family “intention.”

Types of family “rite of passage” experiences may vary.  Valuable approaches include exploring themes of severance and intention in a family therapy context, followed with a ceremony to mark the transition.  The ceremony may be creating an art project, hiking a mountain, or overhauling an overgrown garden bed and planting seeds.  Many approaches exist. The activity itself is not important per se, but the meaning assigned to it.  The family should collaborate in identifying what the actual rite is, and assign meaning within a guided context.  The process of guiding a family rite of passage is extremely powerful and programs would benefit from continued dialog about family interventions to use in the short duration of outdoor therapy journey.

August 18, 2016

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PQ Presents at Annual AANP Conference

By: Sharon Findlay

Dr. Britta Zimmer, Dr. Ryan Shelton, and Dr. John Souza were selected to present at the 2016 American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) Annual Conference in Salt Lake City. Hundreds of NDs, MDs, and DOs gathered to learn about the newest research in the field and practice skills, tools, and exchange ideas. The Pacific Quest team presented “Integrated Management for Adolescents and Young Adults with Psychiatric Diagnoses: The Role of Naturopathic Medicine, Psychopharmacological Agents and Family Dynamics.” This included two cases that showcased our integrated model that is based on naturopathic modalities with a family systems approach. Throughout the session, our talented group demonstrated how we are able to address the totality of the whole case, by implementing the naturopathic philosophy of treating the whole person as well as underlying causes by addressing family system issues.

PQ Presents at Annual AANP Conference on Integrative Model

Dr. John Souza, Dr. Britta Zimmer, and Dr. Ryan Shelton

Each presenter brought different areas of specialization to the session. Dr. Britta Zimmer focused on integrative psychiatry, Dr. Ryan Shelton presented on our naturopathic treatment modalities, and Dr. John Souza spoke to the family systems approach as it relates to whole-patient care. With these three separate perspectives, our team showcased how our model is truly integrated.

With each case study, before and after videos were shared. Audience members were impressed with the significant changes that were clearly apparent by viewing actual clients share their experiences in their own words. Others expressed the desire to learn more about integrative psychiatry in order to help their clients in this integrative way. The overwhelming feedback is that Pacific Quest is really pioneering this part in the industry and people are looking to us as a leader in the field of integrative psychiatry.

Of the presentation, Dr. Britta says “We were able to share this model that we have been creating over the last eight years with our colleagues in the field. Being able to show the progression and success we have been able to achieve since this model has developed was really inspiring. The partnership that we have showed easily because we always work together as a team and side by side – implementing an integrative approach that benefits the client and the treatment team as well.”

To learn more about Pacific Quest and our integrative, whole person approach, please visit the following links:

July 5, 2016

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Sportsmanship: Positive Role Modeling for Youth

Pacific Quest is supporting Mike Sullivan in his 2016 race and triathlon training. In this series of posts, Mike will share insights and perspectives throughout his races and training, and drawing parallels between the mind-body connection and wellness – important themes at Pacific Quest Wilderness Program. In his first two posts, Mike shared his insights before and after the Hilo Marathon. Mike parallels navigating transitions in racing, wilderness therapy, and life in his third post. His fourth post looks at acceptance, on and off the course.  Today, Mike explores sportsmanship and how we play the game. 

By: Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC
Alumni and Family Services Director

In my quest to raise awareness for the connection between fitness and mental health, I am reeling in the glory of two appearances in the newspaper this week! A dramatic finish in the Kona Half Marathon last Sunday drew significant attention, allowing me to practice what I often teach: good sportsmanship. Despite a knee injury and a laid back approach to the Kona Half Marathon, I found myself in a fierce battle in the final stretch of the race. The young man I was battling enjoyed a solid lead throughout the majority of the race, and in the final mile I closed the gap. He beat me across the finish line, finishing one second before me, clinching first place. We congratulated each other, both grinning about how close I came to passing him in the final stretch. I am a good loser, and respect that he beat me.

Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC

Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC

Thirty minutes later, while hydrating at the Gatorade coolers, the local newspaper approached me. “Michael Sullivan, you won the race and we would like to interview you for an article we are writing for the Hawaii Tribune-Herald.” WAIT, WHAT? That other guy won. I told the reporter he had the wrong person. “Actually, that young man was disqualified for running under someone else’s name and you are now technically the winner.” My stomach turned; I encountered a strange mix of emotions. I wasn’t happy about winning on a technicality. I was surprised and dismayed, as my gut told me that it wasn’t right being awarded first place when I was second across the finish line.

The young man surfaced during the interview with the paper and congratulated me for winning. I immediately rectified the situation and employed my moral compass. “While I may have won on paper due to a technicality,” I told him, “You really won the race.”  He smiled and gave me a sweaty hug, and then disappeared into the crowd of people.

Mike Sullivan and Bree Wee, first place male and female finishers in the Kona Half Marathon

Mike Sullivan and Bree Wee, first place male and female finishers in the Kona Half Marathon

It is experiences like this that remind me of yet another aspect of what I appreciate about sports -they serve as a window into human character. According to Miriam Webster’s Dictionary, sportsmanship is defined as “fair play, respect for opponents, and polite behavior by someone who is competing in a sport or other competition.” I strive to inspire youth through sports, and will always convey the age-old lesson: it isn’t about winning or losing, but how you play the game. I feel great about my second place victory, and furthermore, feel even better about the flurry of attention it created in the media, as it allowed me to highlight my sponsor Pacific Quest, and the importance of positive role models for youth.

Check out the two newspaper articles about the event: Half Distance, Full Drama from West Hawaii Today and Athlete of the Week from the Hawaii Tribune-Herald to read more about Mike Sullivan’s race and role as an upstanding leader in the Hilo running community.

May 30, 2016

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Teresa Bertoncin joins PQ Clinical Team!

Pacific Quest is excited to welcome Teresa Bertoncin to the Clinical Team! Teresa is a licensed Professional Clinical Counselor and a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She is a certified EMDR Therapist, and also has advanced training in Emotionally Focused Couples and Family Therapy (EFT). Teresa earned her undergraduate degree from University of Michigan, and her Masters degree in Counseling Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute, and her thesis focused on trauma and rites of passage work.

Teresa Bertoncin Clinical Team

Teresa Bertoncin, LPCC, LMFT

Teresa has worked with adolescents and young adults for most of her twenty-year career. Her areas of skill & expertise include families with struggling teens and phase-of-life transitions; grief, loss, trauma and PTSD; relationships in crisis and family readjustment issues; stepfamilies; substance use disorders; generalized & social anxiety; ADHD; parenting, child development & attachment Issues; cultural issues & intergenerational family systems. In addition to EMDR and Emotionally Focused Therapy, Teresa also has extensive experience with play therapy, biofeedback, neuropsychology, and permaculture techniques – a perfect blend for her role at Pacific Quest!

Dr. Lorraine Freedle, Clinical Director, says “I have known Teresa for many years and could not be happier that she chose to join our clinical team. She brings generosity of spirit, international experience, and exceptional clinical skills — particularly in EMDR, relationally-based modalities, and family therapy.”

Teresa recently returned from two years of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa where she worked as a psychosocial trainer and consultant. She developed and established a young program with a strong emphasis in wilderness leadership programming. Teresa has also conducted psychotherapy training and consulting for trauma-based organizations in Swaziland, and provided trauma-based therapy and life-skills training for Zimbabwean refugees. She believes that connection and relationship is the cornerstone of all progress and healing.

Formerly a collegiate gymnast, Teresa owned and operated a gymnastics academy for 20 years, and incorporates strength-based psychotherapy with positive coaching techniques for a mind-body approach to establishing resiliency, empowerment and sustainable life skills. Teresa enjoys gardening, beekeeping, outdoor activities, travel, writing and spending time with her family.

May 6, 2016

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A letter of appreciation: Our son’s growth and our journey as parents

We are thankful to the entire Pacific Quest team who have chosen to help others in such a meaningful way. Our son graduated the program and has entered a new and healthier chapter in his life. While we know our son’s journey will continue to have ups and downs, it is nice to know he is moving on in a good place.parent_testimonial

We enjoyed reconnecting with our son when he transitioned out of Pacific Quest. He was in great spirits, very talkative and open and surprisingly, not very anxious (wow, what a change!). We talked about his experience at PQ and he shared some fine memories, including cooking chili for everyone. He shared some of the growth that he experienced, and importantly, demonstrated it through his mood and demeanor. He continues to be in a good mood and a joy to be around. Wow.

Integral to our son’s experience, and our’s as parents, was his primary therapist, Erin Gustin. We must admit that this has been a journey for us as parents as well. testimonial pic 2We feel like we have welcomed Erin into our homes and our family these past three months. We will miss those Wednesday evening pre-dinner phone sessions. It has been so instructive, helpful and insightful, including the ‘ups and downs’ of our son’s journey, sharing hopes and triumphs and frustrations. We want to thank Erin more than she can know for all she has done for our family!

April 8, 2016

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A Story of Hope: My Daughter’s Journey of Healing

By: Alumni Parent

My daughter spent three and a half months on the Big Island in your program and I will be forever grateful for all that she gained from being part of your program. I am writing this review in the hopes that other parents can gain a sense of hope.

My daughter started her life as a happy, dynamic, strong kid.  She had plenty of friends and was always engaged in whatever life had to offer her with a smile on her face. Her father and I divorced when she was 13, and she started to lose her ability to cope with life the following year. Her first negative coping mechanism was anorexia. Her weight went from 145 to 95 in a matter of three months. After many eating disorder programs, she turned to self harm by cutting herself. Extensive therapy helped but she still had a need to be numb from her pain of not being able to cope. She then turned to alcohol and lastly drugs. She had five psychiatric hospitalizations when she was 16. Her fifth hospitalization was when her dad and I knew she would not live if we kept her in regular society.  We needed help but did not know how to help her or us in finding help. Internet research and an educational consultant, pointed us in the direction of Pacific Quest.  I remember the first phone call and hearing the costs and feeling like it was so impossible to come up with that amount of money. We knew we needed to do everything in order to help our daughter.

I asked her father to bring her to PQ because I knew that drop off would be tough. I had no idea just how tough the first part of her PQ journey would be until we were in that first week together. She was stripped of every single negative coping mechanism that had carried her for the past two years. I knew she needed to go through that period but I also knew how hard it would be for her. That week was the first week in two years that I was able to really sleep. I knew we were starting a profound journey.PQ alumni review

As the PQ process continued, we were asked to participate in parenting therapy sessions.  We thought our divorce had gone so smoothly because we didn’t yell or hire expensive lawyers to fight anything out in court. We were very wrong. All of our anger had been under the surface and needed to be expressed. It was during this process where I started to realize that our way of coping with our divorce of not expressing feelings…had been passed on to our daughter.

Flying to PQ for parents’ weekend was another hurdle for us: we knew it would benefit her, but neither of us really wanted to do it.  We did though… and it did help our daughter. The lessons of how to talk to teenagers in a healthier space so that the words can actually be heard, was invaluable to me. Thank you so much PQ! Later, my youngest daughter has benefited greatly from that lesson. We were also faced with the realization that she could not be brought back to mainstream society yet.  After attending a longer term therapeutic program, she graduated from high school in December and is now a full time college student living in off campus housing with five other girls in her suite. She has a job and is taking classes to get her Bachelors in Sociology. She now says how grateful she is for going to PQ, and talks about working at PQ someday to give back to kids who have gone off course.

I cannot stress enough how close to leaving this earth my daughter was. The only coping skill that soothed her was to be numb from drugs. Pacific Quest not only saved my daughter but it saved me too. PQ provided a much needed basis of removing all the negative coping mechanisms and beginning to chip away at my daughter’s inability to find healthy coping skills. She was also taught the very important lesson at PQ that there is no such thing as normal. There are many different ways to be a human being and express the feelings that we all experience. My daughter was part of a program that encouraged health for her body and her mind when she was with PQ.

The appreciation for PQ can been seen in her most recent Facebook profile picture. Thank you PQ!

January 8, 2016

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Working Through Compassion Fatigue

theresa-hasting-450By Theresa Hasting, LMHC

You’ve given everything you had; sleepless nights making sure your son stayed in his room, missing work to ensure he went to school, constant vigilance to ensure his safety.  You’ve got him in a safe place where he is able to work on these issues.  Now what?  As we work with parents of adolescents who come to treatment, we hear so many stories of parents being at the end of their rope.  Treatment offers not only their child a chance to reset, but also a chance for parents to reset.  Before this can happen, parents express feeling exhausted, relieved, sad, guilty, and angry.

Compassion Fatigue is a term to define this state; when parents feel that they have little, if nothing left to give in offering help and support to those in need.  The work of healing from compassion burnout requires finding time for one’s self each day, creating space for healing in the family/spouse relationship, asking for and receiving support, and self compassion.  Setting realistic and reasonable goals is necessary for healing to happen in a way that honors the depth of pain parents are experiencing.

At Pacific Quest, therapists support the family through these emotions during weekly family therapy sessions.  As we work with our students on the Five Pillars of Health, we encourage parents to examine their process in keeping with these pillars through journaling exercises.  In addition, we offer parents a PQ cookbook that allows them to experience an anti-inflammatory, whole food diet – similar to what their child prepares and eats while at Pacific Quest.  In assisting parents process their emotional response, parents are provided with journal topics that focus on the family system, parenting styles, emotional awareness, and negative thought patterns. Additionally, the communication process between adolescents and their parents is slowed significantly through the letter writing process to allow the creation of emotional boundaries and help students and parents process their emotional response with others before responding.  Parents are asked to write a letter to their child and express the emotional, physical, social, and spiritual exhaustion they’ve experienced in trying to support their son or daughter.

While this process may seem daunting and it may be difficult to find time for self care and self compassion, here are a few tips to consider: take a five minute thought break, turn off the background noise (music/tv/podcast), schedule time for yourself/spouse/family, weekly review of goals and projects, close your door, journal, and meditate.

December 10, 2015

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Experience Family Counseling, The Pacific Quest Way!

The “nature of the family” or family life, can feel like its own ecosystem sometimes, rife with all the flora and fauna, predators and prey one would find in nature, and in this way, family counseling can be an equally confusing and intimidating venture. In his defining work challenging the modern understanding of family dynamics, Dr. Murray Bowen introduced a core set of concepts to help define and understand these complex relationships.

Now referred to as “Family Systems Theory,” this method has begun to supplant traditional family therapy (that tends to focus on the individual family members) by focusing on the family as a wholly connected unit. This way of approaching various contentions within the group allows the family to heal itself organically through shared learning, and to really get at the root of discovering the kinds of behaviors and personality types that may be causing issues to arise.

Into the Wild

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “Psychologist Scott Bandoroff, PhD, launched the field of ‘wilderness family therapy’ in 1990 when he observed that young people who had made great gains on wilderness therapy trips tended to lose ground when they got home, the result of returning to negative family dynamics.”

However, Wilderness Therapy has been shown to be highly effective not only for the individual, but also for family groups—and it seems these results tend to be long lasting for the families involved as well. Studies of the effectiveness of wilderness therapy performed at the Menninger Residential Treatment Program in 2001 determined that “parents and youth reported a significant decline in problems from admission to three months after completing the program, and these gains from treatment lasted up to 12 months after completing the program (Leichtman, Leichtman, Barber, & Neese, 2001).” A later study at the Alpine Academy in 2005 found “families reported significant improvement in child behavior, parental effectiveness, and parent–child relationships when compared with similar difficulties in families who were referred for the service but not served (Lewis, 2005)”.

Blazing a Trail Together

To put this approach into practice, organizations such as Pacific Quest have led the way in founding Wilderness Therapy programs to offer help to struggling families. Many of these families may be seeking a break in the negative cycles of their own family dynamics, and the therapeutic models of “sustainable growth” as cultivated in Pacific Quest’s family therapy programs seek to address this through targeted aims such as:

  • Enhancing Communication
  • Increasing Empathy
  • Developing Usable Conflict Resolution Skills
  • Increasing Awareness
  • Sustaining Familial Growth

Untangling the knots in family relationships can be difficult and painful, and the environment can sometimes seem to make things worse.  Allowing for a change in locations alone can be a powerful instrument for change, and taking the steps to learn and accept the family dynamic as a whole just may be the natural catalyst a family needs for positive growth. If you believe your family may need help, feel free to reach out to us at 808.937.5806.

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