I spoke to Alex Georgakopoulos, MFT, founder and Executive Director of Coyote Coast providing therapeutic support services to teens and families experiencing emotional, behavioral, and substance-related difficulties. Coyote Coast specializes in providing support to families who are considering out-of-home placements and whose teens are returning from therapeutic boarding schools, residential treatment centers, and rehabilitation programs.
Q: What is the focus of Coyote Coast?
A: In 2005 we started the agency by helping kids who were transitioning home from residential treatment, therapeutic boarding schools, wilderness, and rehabilitation programs. A lot of the teens said that they had this incredible experience when they were away and worked really hard in treatment programs. They learned a lot about themselves and when they came home nothing changed. So that was the idea, talking to the parents and teens about coming home.Seven years ago there weren’t a lot of at-home options. Now, there are. We offer a really comprehensive program. We work on the front end to try to slow kids in crisis. More of us are being mindful of an early intervention program. There are more options at home. There’s an eating disorder program in Lafayette and a substance abuse program.
Q: Do you think there are advantages in sending the young person away?
A: I do. It depends on the acuity of the situation. We’ve noticed that when we work with a teen on the front end and they need to go treatment, there is an advantage. The teen sees that the parents are involved and trying to make it work at home. In our first 3-4 years we heard from teens that when they came home from treatment, part of them realized that was good for them. They realized they needed a level of containment and intervention. They were still pissed off at their parents for sending them away. Most kids will say things like, “I wish my parents would have worked on themselves rather than pointing the finger at me.” In the case of an at-home option, even if the person goes away to treatment, the teen sees that there’s an attempt made by the parents to do things differently.
Q: What services do you provide?
A: We offer family therapy, group therapy, and activities for teens and young adults. We also do family coaching. If there’s a situation that arises, we’re available by phone to work with the family. We’re in real time and probably a little more assertive than private practice. We try to prevent behavior relapses in the family. When people fall back into old patterns, we see that as an opportunity to really explore and work on these as they emerge. We don’t want people to avoid old patterns, we just want to help families move through them and make adaptations.
Q: Can you say more about that?
A: Sometimes families get stuck in old behaviors. When kids come home they’re in a much more receptive place. The more parents understand how they were relating to their teen before they come home, the more ready they are going to be to receive their teen in a different way. The big thing that hasn’t happened in this teen industry is there hasn’t been a family systems approach. We help parents reflect on what they’ve done and how they want to do things differently.
Q: Can you give me an example?
A: The family therapist is the family coach. He or she is available from 9 am to 9 pm Monday through Friday to work with the family. More often than not when the teen is in the group, the teen may call the person running the group. The idea is when things come up in real time, not to wait a week for time to elapse, but to be there with the young person and family when they are in a difficult situation to help them slow down and connect in a different way.
We do weekly family therapy, weekly group therapy and activities every six weeks, and parenting or family coaching depending upon who needs what. Sometimes teen will call and say I’m really struggling and I just need to talk. We do mentoring as well. We can add that in. Like in the South Bay we do family therapy and mentoring. Here in the East Bay we do family therapy and group therapy and we might layer in mentoring. For example at 1:00 pm I’m going to drive over to Berkeley to help a young man connect with a volunteer experience.Mentoring can be helping connect a young person with a volunteer experience, helping them connect from point A to point B in terms of finding a job. A lot of the young people need help identifying what the game plan is, going out there and hitting the streets. How do you follow up from point A to point Z? How do you do interviews? We film interviews downstairs. We do mock interviews and work on presentation.
Q: What the profile of a typical client?
A: We have the teen that’s acting out in the world showing his or her anger by outward behaviors, and then we have the teen that’s shut down. The first teen who is acting out in the world is also acting out at home. We also see the teen who regresses in the home and is shutting down, maybe more of a depressive reaction. Across the board what we see is anxiety and depression in our teens. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a teen who didn’t come home with some level of anxiety and depression that was also part of the symptoms before they went to treatment.
Q: What is the age range of your clients?
A: We see kids as young as 12 through young adults. The young adult population is increasing in terms of failure to launch. Perhaps they aged out of the program and are not quite sure how to move forward. We are getting phone calls for kids in their mid to late twenties who are getting stuck. So it may be something like, “I’m scared I don’t know how to move forward in life. I don’t have the problem solving capacity at this point.”
Q: Do you have a different approach for kids that are adopted?
A: One of the things is be mindful of is where the young person is in relation to exploration of their birth parents. We’ve done some timelines to help kids form a more cohesive narrative around their lives.You have to be careful about where they are in their process. What contact have they had with their biological parent over time? Where are they currently in relation to their biological parent? Has the young person had any contact during treatment with their biological parents? Are they in adoption groups? Are they exploring with their peers in treatment; what’s going on?
Q: What distinguishes Coyote Coast’s treatment approach from other transition programs?
A: We take a collaborative approach to treatment helping parents navigate the different parts of the system that they are involved in. We have multi-disciplinary team meetings. The idea is to wrap the community around the family, to reduce stress and create a greater sense of community support. Here’s an example. There might be a psychiatrist involved which is important because if the psychiatrist sees a client once a month, but does a medication switch, we can get back and say, “Okay, here’s what we’re seeing.” There could be a psychologist involved who is doing testing. There could be a resource specialist, or a tutor, or a probation officer. If we can work with a probation officer to come from a place of holding a limit rather than being punitive, that works well. We’ve worked with clergy. It depends on the situation.
Q: Can you talk about helping parents prepare for their teen to return home?
A: We work with parents to develop a home agreement. A lot of families can be loose with agreements or overly tight around agreements. Typically when we see contracts coming out of treatment, they can be eleven page documents. If we have an 11-page document and the parents are trying to manage that, what does that do to their ability to drop into a relationship? You’re trying to manage your home as if you’re a residential treatment center.We call them home agreements because it is an agreement between the parents and the teen. The teen’s voice is important developmentally because you want them to think about how to problem solve, how to negotiate with their parents. Not slamming doors or punching holes in the walls, shutting down, getting on the computer, smoking pot. How do you keep them connected to that wise part of themselves and a mature response within their family? So it really is collaboration. The parent may have some non-negotiables, like no drug use. In the day-to-day life we ask the family, how do you want to arrange your lives together?