I had the pleasure of meeting John Souza, young adult therapist at Pacific Quest (HI) at the Young Adult Transition Association (YATA) conference in Boulder, CO that focused on “Building Resilience” this month. He has both a Master's and Doctorate in Marriage and Family Therapy, as well as a Licensed Clinical Fellow and Approved Supervisor in the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). After spending 48 hours just thinking about Young Adults and their needs in treatment and community at this conference, I realized more blogs were needed about the over-18 population. The communication with the client and family and the treatment goals can be vastly different than when a student has not hit the magic age of 18.
John, thanks for talking to me about young adults, emerging adults, or what some are calling the Leap Generation.
What do you think is the biggest difference about working with a young adult vs. a teen, who developmentally might be the same age, except they have the magic biological age of 18 (or older) attached?
First, Jenney, thank you for giving a forum to share my emerging thoughts about this population. I’ve been “eyeing” them for years, reading about this emerging trend of extended young adulthood, myself perhaps falling into that category, as well. What I have found most relevant to working with young adults (as opposed to adolescents) is the need to be honest about what being an “adult” means. Since the establishment of the United States, being an “adult” has changed greatly, shifting from a behaviorally-based role to a legally-based concept. That is to say, being an adult in 1776 was dictated not so much by age, but by one’s ability to care for one’s self and/or others. However, in 2015, while being an adult still has some behaviorally-based indicators, such as the right to vote, enlist in the military, and enter into legally-binding contracts, it has become a concept based on the magic number to which you referred earlier (age 18). This seems to have led to a disconnect between actions and expectations. That is to say ,young adults are not acting as adults, yet are expected to be adults almost literally overnight at the age of 18. It’s the distance between the lived experience of being an adult and the expectation of becoming an adult that seems to cause stress on students (who we at Pacific Quest call clients) and their families.
Has there been a difference in terms of how you approach the work with families versus students? It gets complex with parents because they are your “customer”, but in fact so is the student. How has this played out?
The great thing about being trained as a family therapist is that from day one you practice moving people from a paradigm of linearity to one of circularity. That is to say, moving away from the formula A + B = C to the formula A + B + C = A…. This can be a tough sell and requires that within the family system I establish a sense of safety. In order to do this, I have to believe (which I do) that all people are doing their best to protect and love themselves or someone else. I also try to move away from an either/or paradigm to one of both/and, in which there is more flexibility, less divisiveness, and greater chance that the family will stay present for the conversation. Given that 90% of success comes simply from showing up, if I can keep all the family engaged throughout treatment, I’ve already stacked the deck in favor of a successful outcome.
Eating three healthy meals a day, sleeping eight hours a night, focusing on wellness, struggling and getting through hard emotional and behavioral moments are huge pieces of an outdoor/wilderness experience. What has surprised you the most about working in this setting?
How well the process works. In family systems training circles, we are always reminding ourselves to trust in the process. In the case of the whole-person wellness approach we offer at Pacific Quest, it’s true. Any given student is hard-pressed to not be positively impacted by the regulation of their biology/physiology through diet, sleep, and exercise. You add to this a positive peer culture in which it’s cool to hold each other accountable, program guides who are old enough to be wise yet young enough to be cool, and oversight of it all by trained professionals in a natural, outdoor setting such as Hawai’i… forget about it! A student would have to be actively working against the program to not benefit from it.
You mentioned there were “A-HA” moments that you have had while working with young adults. Can you share some of those?
I have found a deep connection between students, families, myself and the work we’re are all doing in this sacred archipelago labeled Hawai’i. There have been moments where a student and I see a butterfly and I ask a question that allows him to discover something about himself. Or watching with wonder and horror the death throes of a moth in a spider’s web as a student is struggling with giving up his old identity or being enveloped by a mist rising from the water as I am talking with a student about the mysteries in his life and how frightening it can be to enter the unknown.
Equally ineffable experiences have occurred with families visiting the island being enraptured by the beauty of a flower or discovering the deeper, existential meaning in the transplanting of bananas. I don’t know that it is unique to Hawai’i, but the Big Island is an active and growing island; the energy is palpable. Pacific Quest offers students and their families a chance to experience that energy by taking away all the distractions and focusing them on being in the moment. The entire experience is one of “A-ha”.
It is true that the outdoors and being outdoors helps the young adults grow, even if they are in a wilderness therapy program in Utah, Oregon, Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona, or Idaho. Is there anything else that you want to share?
I would love to know what other people want to hear about. Therefore, I would invite your readers to send comments and questions and I will be happy to respond. Thank you again for the opportunity, or as we say on the Islands, “Mahalo” and “A Hui Hou” (Till next we meet!)