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Family Therapy for the Young Adult: Walking the Road to Independence Together


Ryan Price, MA, LPC, MAC | Primary Therapist, Young Adults at Deschutes Wilderness Therapy


Brenda Zane is a Sky’s the Limit Fund board member, Founder of Hopestream Community, and podcast host of Hopestream

About the episode:

In this episode, Ryan Price discusses an alternative approach to working with young adults and their families that focuses on relational repair and healing as a means of resourcing the young adult to step boldly into adult life. This is in contrast with some approaches that reduce focus on family therapy and parental involvement in the therapy process for young adults. Parent involvement in family therapy with their young adult child does not have to feel stifling to the young adult. When done well, the reinforced secure attachment with their parents creates a solid “home base” from which the young adult can embrace independent life with confidence.

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Brenda 0:00
Hey, welcome back to the Sky’s the Limit Fund podcast. I’m Brenda Zane, I am hosting this podcast. And I’m also lucky enough to be a board member of Sky’s the Limit Fund, which means I get to help this amazing nonprofit, find ways to help families who are in crisis. So Sky’s the Limit Fund if you don’t know, is a nonprofit that helps families when they have selected wilderness therapy as an option for their young person, whether that’s a teen or young adult, to get some help to have a timeout to get some just world class therapy. And unfortunately, it is a very expensive model for therapy. And so we help fund that for families as well as wraparound services when their young person comes home. So it’s a very big honor for me to be on the board and to host this podcast. And today, I get to have the pleasure of talking with Ryan Price, who is primary therapist at Deschutes Wilderness Therapy. We’re going to be talking about young adults, that tricky time once they turn 18. And what what you kind of do when you’ve had some struggles, and you’ve engaged some help in that time period. So let’s just bring Ryan on and we’ll have a wonderful conversation.

Ryan 1:27
Yeah, I’m so glad to have you here. A lot of times when we’re here on the podcast, we’re talking about teens, you know, younger, even tween sometimes, but much younger. And so I’m excited to talk with you about young adults, because as a parent of these creatures myself, it’s really tricky to know what to do what not to do, when to sort of let the reins go, when to tighten them up. So I’m thrilled to have you here as a therapist who works with young adults. Why don’t you give us just a quick background on you? How did you become interested in becoming a wilderness therapy therapist? Yeah, so I got my start about five years ago, working with young adults in the college counseling setting, and have since worked in private practice and kind of general community mental health work, working with addictions and substance abuse and kind of made my way to the, to the wilderness therapy world through the addictions work. And kind of getting connected with some of the wilderness programs that are addictions focused. And as I found Deschutes, it was really because of their trauma model and their relational attachment focused approach that really stood out to me about the shoots. And so within within the shoots, I’ve kind of worked with all of the different populations from you know, from the little 1213 year olds all the way up through, like 28 is the oldest young adult that I’ve worked with so far to shoots. And you’re you’re totally right. It’s a it can be a tricky age, I have a blast doing it, though. I love young adults, I love that.

Just that stage of life, where they’re asking a lot of really good questions, and what a young adult is in front of me in the wilderness setting saying, I need help, I gotta figure this stuff out. It’s just such a such a cool opportunity to be able to get to work with with that student and their family. And helping them make sense of work can feel like a really crazy time.

Brenda 3:43
Yeah, it is a crazy time. And, and the interesting thing, too, about what you’re doing with them in wilderness is that they have chosen and I put chosen in air quotes, because there’s lots of degrees of chosen, but they’re there because they have chosen to be there. Whether that was with some strong encouragement from outside forces, but it’s not like a 12 or 13 year old or 15 year old, who’s really like the parents have said you will be here. So that must kind of change the dynamic of the work that you’re doing, where they’re really wanting to engage and wanting to get some help. And at the same time, it must feel weird because you’re young adult, and I think there’s so much pressure today to say oh gosh, you’re 18 you should be in this college and you should be doing this. You know, is there some of that dissonance that you feel with these young people?

Ryan 4:38
Yeah, definitely. I think it really does kind of accelerate the process in some ways when a young adult is coming in on board and and you know, signing themselves into treatment in recognition that they have some stuff that they need to work on. At the same time, though, I think you bring up a really good point there’s there’s a ton of shame.

issue that I see with the young adults that sit in front of me, where they’re, you know, they’re in their early 20s. And they’re, they’re launching into adult life has not gone the way that they envisioned it would. And oftentimes they have other other siblings who’ve made that transition well, and there’s all these expectations that they either have for themself or that, you know, they perceive others have for them. And so it can, it can feel really defeating. And I think I see a lot of hopelessness and shame, with a lot of the young adults that I work with, for that reason.

Brenda 5:36
Yeah, especially think if there’s an I know, you have a specialization in addictions that if there have been substances involved, that adds just a whole nother layer of shame. And so let’s talk a little bit about sort of relational repair relational healing within families.

It’s hard to know, when you have somebody who is maybe 2021, like, do we do family therapy? Or do we just kind of let them go and be on their own? So I’d love to get your thoughts on that being somebody who’s doing this work every single day, kind of what is the what is the approach of family work when it comes to young adult?

Ryan 6:19

So one of the things that that I see for a lot of my students who are kind of just at that transition age, so you know, just turned 1819, even 20 can sometimes be this mentality where they’ve, they’ve had a lot of conflict with their parents, there’s been relational wounds that have happened there that aren’t repaired, and maybe some hopelessness there that it could ever get better. And so sort of a giving up on the parent child relationship from the standpoint of the young adult, they’ve made it to 18, they’re starting to push away disconnect more from their parents, and they want to focus on themselves being independent, they’re not that interested in family therapy, and they want to move on and, and be independent. And so one of the things that, as a therapist that I very much come at a therapy from a family attachment based perspective, but always kind of encouraging adults I work with to, to kind of pump the brakes on that a little bit. And explore, you know, if, if for a second, if you could imagine if it could be fixed, if it could be healed, if it could be repaired? Would you want that? Can you even imagine what that would look like or what that would feel like. And oftentimes, the wounds are so deep, or this happened long enough ago that they’ve kind of lost sight of that. And

it’s hard for them to imagine what that would look like it could look like. And so, you know, as we start peeling back some of the layers, and I share with them how deeply those family attachments go into just our development of our identity and who we are, then as young adults, they’re still very much playing out

who they are in the through that lens of their early attachment to their, to their family. And so it’s important, and I encourage them to look at that. And at the same time, I’m working with the parents, working with the rest of the family, to help mobilize the whole family system towards a place that’s more open, more accepting, more able to step vulnerably into those hard conversations. And I find that more often than not, that that attachment system is still very much alive, no matter how many layers of hurt and frustration and irritation are there that that at the heart, most young adults,

Brenda 8:54
at a deep level do want to be loved and cared for by their parents. They’re just really struggling know how, right? Well, there’s a, like you said, that 18 age and even earlier, but there really is that like, oh, I should be pulling away, I should be able to do all this stuff by myself. And even down to some of the basic just executive functioning stuff might not be there. But then also to know, well, what does independence look like? Does it look like me? Like never having relationships with my parents? Like it’s it’s complicated to know that.

And as parents we feel I think sometimes really sad, like, Oh, does this mean I don’t get to have this relationship anymore? Or, you know, it’s, it’s complex to know I kind of see a rubber band like how far do we stretch this without it breaking? And then how do we stay sober? Not too close. Does that make sense?

Ryan 9:55
Yeah, it’s it’s tricky, and I think my encouragement

A lot of parents that I work with is,

is really tough to do their own therapeutic work and grapple with some of the grief and loss that comes for parents during this stage with their kids, where they are having to come to terms with more distance. And, and sometimes, you know, what really is, I think a developmental stage of kind of that, that pulling away that’s really natural, can bring up a lot of parents deep work from years ago, in their own lives and development and attachment. And so as parents are willing and able to face into those, those layers of their own work, it really can free them up to be a support for their young adult that is, is committed is there is, is available and approachable. But not, too, you know, we can tell almost over and evolve to a point where the young adult feels smothered or feels, feels that that you know, that drive to kind of pull away even further in that kind of pursuer withdrawal dynamic that I see so commonly. Yeah, definitely the overparenting impulse can be very strong, especially if, and I speak from experience with this, you know, if you’re, if your young adult has had a lot of substance use, sometimes developmentally, they’re not, you know, their body may be 21 or 20. That developmentally they may not be there. So it gets really confusing to know who my parents are my parenting a 21 year old or my parenting a 17 year old.

Brenda 11:44
I’m curious, I would love to have you kind of take us out into the wilderness and be, I would say, a fly on the wall, but there’s no walls. So maybe a fly on the edge of the tent or whatever. What are some of the main kind of struggles that the young people are talking to you about when it comes to their parents? I know, there’s a lot of other struggles as well. But are there some themes that kind of come up over and over about young people and their adults that you’re hearing when you’re working with them?

Ryan 12:17
Yeah, I think you bring up substance use, which is, you know, there’s so much, you know, I could talk for hours upon hours about this topic. But I think one of the things that I see one of the, the dynamics I see play out a lot with young adults, when I’m working with with substance abuse issues is that oftentimes, there’s these really destructive behavior patterns, that are really just damaging the whole family and the family gets caught up in this kind of reactive cycle or the spiral, responding to those behaviors in in, they get really stuck, because it can, it can turn into sort of a behavioral modification. You know, we’re just trying to limit the damage here, we’re trying to, you know,

I’m trying to insulate us from the wreckage of this addiction is having on the family in so they end up in these, you know, really just difficult situations of having to, you know, there’s no trust. And so having to, you know, navigate a relationship with your young adult without a foundation of trust,

you can end up kind of

ended up kind of increasing that space of shame that that young adult was living in, that fuels that addiction even further, when they feel like they’re constantly disappointing their parents or constantly letting them down. They’re aware that their behavior is causing wreckage in the family. And oftentimes that drives them to withdraw even further. And so in that, in that spiral, in that stuckness, it can be really, really difficult for parents to navigate. You know, how do we address boundaries in this situation? How do we be, you know, relationally, attuned? How do we navigate what our young adult is telling us they need, versus you know, what of that is the addiction speaking, and one of that is really that, that cry for help. And that can be really, really tricky to navigate.

And so one of the places where we start is

with the young adult who comes into wilderness therapy is beginning to just really slow everything down. A lot of times families are moving out just a million miles a second. And so learning to slow down in the absence of substances and begin to look at and face What do you eat? What are you even those feelings in your body that you feel when you have the urge to go get high and slow that way down? And as we begin to peel back the layers of the addiction to

uncover more of the hurts and the wounds that almost always underlie addiction.

It then begins to allow the family to step back into conversations about substance use for more of a compassionate

Brenda 15:15
frame of reference, rather than a self protective one, because of typically that that spiral, but they’re caught in, right? Are you is is it common that a young adult will sort of unearth the root of that addiction and that that addictive cycle while they’re in therapy, and then that has to become a conversation with parents, because I imagine that has to be tricky.

You know, I think, hopefully, a lot of people today understand that the substance use really is the solution, not the problem. So once you uncover that problem, then you need to share that with the parents, and then that adds a whole nother layer. So I can imagine those are some very complex and emotional conversations

is that pretty common, that that young people are kind of figuring that out while they’re in wilderness, because it’s just such a perfect environment for it’s like, quiet, and there’s not all the technology, and there’s not all the friends and it seems like it could be a very, you know, an environment that’s really conducive to doing some of that deep work.

Ryan 16:32
It really is, it’s, it’s challenging work, especially for folks who are caught in that that avoidance cycle where these are things that they haven’t wanted to face, often for years. And so it can be really tough, but, but it is an environment that’s just perfect for that. And you’re right, it does bring up often some really tough conversations with parents as often there are, you know, really painful experiences underneath that, that have been buried and been hidden for years, you know, sometimes there’s stories of abuse or things that the parents had no idea about, or,

or sometimes patterns of you feeling really lost and disconnected from parents for years and years. And in those conversations can bring up a lot of shame for parents a lot of guilt or regret, or the, you know, I should have protected my child more I should have done this or should have done that. And, and so there’s this whole other side of this that’s working with the parents and really holding that space with a lot of compassion,

and a lot of empathy for what those parents are going through. Because it can be easy to get pretty hard on yourself as a parent, when you’re when you’re young at the oldest struggling in that way. Especially when you start to go back and look at those, those roots that often. You know, they lie in those earlier childhood years.

Brenda 17:54
Yeah, and I love what you said about grieve cuz I think that’s a point that a lot of parents don’t realize and sort of allow themselves to recognize that I do need to grieve, you know, when you’re, when you first have your kids, you just have this vision of what it’s going to be like, and they’re going to go off to college. And you know, there’s just we do a lot of movie making in our minds about what this is going to look like. And so that grieving I think is really important to like to hear from someone like you, you know, if my, if my son was with you to hear that it’s okay, as a parent to grieve that would, I think, feel really reassuring. So I love that you talked about that. And the boundaries and the trust with a young adult coming, either coming out of treatment or command wilderness or wherever it’s complicated if there is no crisis, or no mental health or no substance use and then you layer on that that element to it. It’s really, really tricky, or is there any kind of

insider wisdom that you want to share with us about how we can start to figure out the trust and boundaries with a young adult because it’s, I’m, I’m, I’m kind of turning this into a therapy session for myself, because I would like to know

Ryan 19:22
Well, oftentimes, what I what I encounter with young adults who are getting towards the end of their time and wilderness is they’ve begun to make some really healthy positive changes for themselves. And in yet the parents often they’re still feeling the sting of those old wounds. And so the trust isn’t quite there yet. And so there can almost be this layer of resentment for the young adult towards the parents of what you see I’m making all these changes and I’m growing and I’m doing all this work and you’re not seeing my progress. And so again, it’s an area where I really try to slow that young adult down and, and you know, I talked about how trust

is built through consistency over time. And when we have years of, of dysfunctional patterns where we’re creating damage, and we’re addiction is kind of taking center stage in our relationships, there’s a lot, there’s a lot of time that’s gone into breaking that trust.

And that process of restoring that trust is going to require a lot of consistency and a lot of time.

And so there’s a,

you know, there’s a, there’s a two way communication and transparency about that, where, you know, I encourage the young adults to be open and honest with what it’s like for them to be making these choices, these healthy choices and, and growing and feel like the family is lagging behind a little bit with their trust, and also, our work to help the young adult to have some empathy for the experience of, of, you know, a family member who had been burned, you know, time after time, after time, to, you know, to move the whole family towards a place of having some grace for one another.

As, as we’re healing these wounds that don’t just get healed, and, you know, 60 to 90 days.

Brenda 21:21
Right, right, it seems like 60 to 90 days, that’s, you’re finally just maybe getting to like a baseline of some stability and some, you know, good choices. And so then to lob that back into family dynamics, where maybe the parents haven’t done as much work as the young person, and to start to recalibrate, like how to how do we interact?

Especially if I’m thinking about a young person who goes back and is living in the same home? Now, that might not always be the case. But if it is, Whoa, that is tricky to know. How do we interact? And do I still do this for you? Or do I not do that for you? And just finding the new, the new normal would be really tricky.

Ryan 22:10
Yeah, yeah, sure, is. One of the one of the things that I tell young adults is

to to look for ways that you can demonstrate transparency. And it really entered back into those spaces with a lot of humility. Knowing that there’s been a lot of broken trust,

there, if we, if we step into those spaces, from a perspective of, you know, you can ask me any question, I’m going to be honest with you.

Kind of over communicating

it, it demonstrates basically attunement to the parent experience, or such as parents, it could be siblings or significant others, people who have been wounded by by the addiction and the that destructive spiral.

You know, things like being transparent about where you’re going, and when and what time you’re going to be home. And in that those little things are the things that build and break trust. And we have to be willing to step into that with some humility, to recognize, you know, when something looks like relapse behavior,

Brenda 23:26
it makes sense that it looks that way. And it makes sense that your family member is going to be hoping for some transparency in those spaces. Because there’s, there’s old wounds there. Yeah. And it’s great that you said that is I’m glad that you gave it a kind of a concrete example about that, because I think often we, as parents probably and as a young person, we think about reestablishing trust as this huge, you know, like it’s this gigantic thing. And even just something as simple as saying, where you’re going to be how long you’re going to be there. And when you’re going to be back and then following through on that. Those are the little building blocks that eventually lead up to that bigger trust. But that’s a great example of something that feels doable. And it really has to just, over time start to start to repair because yeah, I mean, I’ve been there myself where you’re looking as the parent, you’re examining everything like an FBI agent, like Well, what did that mean? Well,

and I just heard this and then now he’s in the bathroom too long. And it’s like, there’s just so there’s so much anxiety that builds up that it takes a lot of work on both parts to rebuild that. It’s such a tricky time.

It’s very, very fortunate that there’s people like you that work with these kids and they understand like all of the challenge the three

60 challenge of the family because it really is, you need that you need that view.

Ryan 25:07
Yeah, I think one of the things that I am really passionate about helping young adults that I work with understand is that independence doesn’t have to mean alone. And there are, there are ways to have conversations as a family about what kind of support feels supportive, and what kind of support feels like too much. And when that’s done, well, it creates a dynamic where the young adult is not afraid to come and ask for support, because they’re not afraid that they’re going to get more than they asked for more than they bargained for.

Because that can that can play into that sort of withdrawing pursuing dynamic.

But that secure attached to a relationship where I know that you’re my mom, or you’re my dad, and I can come to you and I’m having car trouble, or are struggling with figuring out this adulting thing. And you’re gonna be there and you’re gonna be able to support me through that. And I also know that you’re not going to, you know, show up at my door every day and you know, be checking on why I’m not going to work and those kinds of things that might feel like too much.

And it’s really about kind of Trent transitioning the the type of relationship that you have with your team, towards one that is more of a of a mentor, or almost friendship kind of role moving into young and middle adulthood, there should be this transition from, you know, I’m making decisions for you, or giving you a lot of coaching about decisions that I think are healthy for your life to kind of holding back a little bit and letting that young adult make decisions that you may not always agree with having to watch them fail. And then while also being a support for them to come and say, Hey, Mom, Dad, I screwed up, and this did not work.

Brenda 27:09
And I need some help. Yeah, I like that, that independence is not alone. Because that can feel like a very scary diff, you know, separation. And, and I guess having those conversations, I also like what you said about you know, what feels supportive, versus what feels may be controlling, or like the overparenting because there is no magic, like, Okay, now this is when I start acting like this. There is no magic like formula where that happens. You just as the parent, you have to start just testing it out and watching them fail, which is super hard, especially if they’ve struggled with mental health, especially if they struggled with substances. Every time you you see them headed towards a mistake, you think, Oh, my gosh, is this going to be the thing that leads to a relapse? So it’s so tricky to know, how do I let this young person who has struggled with all these things fail? Because that feels like, you know, maybe I’m doing the wrong thing as a parent, maybe I should be helping more.

So I guess it’s just about having those conversations, right, like, being really open about it, just not easy. I can attest to.

Ryan 28:34
Yeah, and I think honoring, you know, for the parents who have had a teen or young adult go through crisis, honoring the trauma that lives within you, as a parent, is really important and understanding how that affects you and how that affects your decisions and in your relationship with with your young adult. Because that’s, that’s a really scary thing to face in. It adds a whole layer of complexity to this, figuring out where the lines are, where the boundaries should be. When it’s, you know, when it’s a life or death kind of situation, or when you’ve experienced something like that.

It’s really, really hard. And, and I think a lot of the parents that I work with,

you know, they they oftentimes aren’t aware of just how traumatized they are. Yeah, from from everything that they’ve had to go through. And so

I really encourage parents to be seeking out your own individual therapy and it really processing your own hurts and wounds through this. And in doing so, you know, that’s probably the single best thing you can do to love and support your young adult. Is is finding a place for yourself to be held and, and work through your own healing alongside your, your young adults. Absolutely. I would agree with that. 100% and it does take work as a parent. Is there any kind of

Brenda 30:00
Anything that you if you had 500 parents sitting in front of you.

And you could kind of clear up one thing, a myth or a misperception that you think parents often have about their young person who’s struggling in whatever way.

What would you say to a parent in that situation?

Ryan 30:28
I would say it’s, it’s, it’s never too late to repair a wound that happened years ago.

I think it takes courage. And it takes a willingness to, to go back there and in the face, maybe some of your own shame or face something scary or difficult.

But I really believe that when we are able to hold safe spaces,

that kids and young adults are no different that they, they will respond to that.

And so I think that, that sometimes that pulling away that can be natural for a young adult to do can feel to some parents like sort of the closing of a chapter or that they’ve missed their opportunity. And I would, I would really say you haven’t, I don’t believe that for a second.

I think that our our, are deeply ingrained attachment systems are just are wired to connect, and they’re wired to connect with with our family. And so while while you’re still alive, while they’re still alive, there’s hope to repair.

Brenda 31:45
Well, I think that’s a beautiful place to wrap up. Thank you so much, Ryan, for being here and for the work that you do.

There’s some really hurting young people out there and I’m glad that there’s people like you to help them think through this stuff and and work with the families so that when they do get back into that family dynamic that the things are better. So thank you for being here. And we’ll we’ll let you get back out. You probably have some young people to go work with.

Ryan 32:15
Of course, thank you so much, Brenda. Appreciate you having me.



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