Interview by Emma Compeau, Student-at-Law
I have been a therapist for over 30 years, and I have developed a number of programs for individuals, couples, and families. My real passion is in developing ‘here and now’ personalized strategies that allow us to make real changes in our lives that make a difference. We often WANT to improve our lives but we can easily get in our own way, even if we have good intentions. In my opinion, it’s important to look at: how we take care of ourselves, how we talk to ourselves under stress (CBT, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), how we regulate our emotions (DBT, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) and heal at deeper levels. In addition, I’ve created specialized programs which have been adapted for both children and adults including a unique combined couples’ cognitive behavioural and imago therapy process and a family CBT program.
The deeper healing components include looking at the root causes of our issues, learning how to shift the meanings we associate with the painful experiences in our lives, and figuring out how to use those shifts towards a happier more fulfilling current life. I want the time in therapy to be meaningful AND translatable, and this aspect is very important.
I meet with families who are wanting to work things out and save the marriage, families who are separating, and also those couples who are already divorced. I also work with blended families, where one or both parents are already divorced. Some families need support in reducing conflicts and improving relationships, parenting, or dealing with illness and loss.
The number one issue I see is that one or both partners are caught up in the grief of the lost marriage. We have to remember that divorce is the second most stressful life event that any of us could encounter. Even the highest functioning people go into a state of crisis where they are overwhelmed with grief, betrayal, anger, anxiety, depression, or loss of control.
When we are mismanaging our grief, we can get locked into blaming the other person, or shaming ourselves too much. The emotions attached to those experiences can become quite heightened and interfere in our lives. When we mismanage grief, it can affect our physical and mental health. This can lead to issues such as absenteeism from work, difficulty regulating emotions, problems with sleeping or eating, anxiety attacks, loss of focus, concentration or motivation, over use of alcohol or drugs, or strained relationships.
Nesting works best when conflict is low in the family, and the separated parents have a good co-parenting relationship for planning, transitions and sharing space. It can be beneficial for all family members, when parents realize that the divorce happened for an authentic reason, let go of the shame and blame, and work through the emotional “take aways” so they can grow from the breakdown. This is good for any divorcing family, and necessary, in my opinion, for nesting to work at its very best. This not only works towards alleviating symptoms; it optimizes communication with the other parent and with the children. Also, when children have a higher level of need, they may benefit more from having one place to live.
Fear and anxiety were initially seen in higher levels, but over time the anxiety and fear trended more towards higher levels of depression, as the pandemic wore on and the fall/winter of 2020/21 approached with cooler weather and the inevitable increasing time indoors. The other trends seen included: addiction to alcohol, drugs, internet, and food. There is also a higher increase of conflict, relationship breakdowns, and domestic violence.
Another trend I have noticed with young children is a heightened level of separation anxiety. Children were likely immediately removed from school or daycare settings at the beginning of the pandemic, and often without a lot of time for processing, at times, creating regression to a younger stage of emotional development including clinginess to parents and caregivers, and anxiety in separating from their parents at bedtime, parents leaving the home etc. Also, children are demonstrating increased fear and anxiety which can lead to phobias, including agoraphobia.
Communication is key. Children need to be able to express their concerns so that they feel understood.
I always encourage families to ask closed-ended questions with their children which will elicit fuller responses. Things like:
This allows children to really respond and communicate more effectively. Sometimes, parents can offer “ multiple choice questions” if they are still having a hard time getting their child to talk.
With younger children, I encourage making the feelings visual. Drawing pictures and using different colors for different feelings is helpful. In my office, I have a feeling jar where children can show visually with chalk/sand/pom poms, what they are experiencing. This can easily be adapted for parents to use at home.
Another important thing is to have a coordinated family plan. This includes things like having a plan on how to use the space in the house, how to allocate parenting responsibilities, and how to approach problem solving. I like the idea of empowering children with choice, wherever parents are comfortable, such as allowing them to pick out/ decorate their own masks.
I was doing virtual sessions before COVID and have continued to do virtual sessions throughout COVID with all ages. Children and teens are generally the most comfortable with this format. We can share screens, pictures, videos, and be creative to make the therapy accessible and useful.
With respect to family therapy, we can still do the therapy! There is a freedom that comes with being in our own home environment which I think can work really quite well. I have not seen any problems with virtual settings. That being said, it is not everyone’s cup of tea, and some people will prefer in-person sessions.
In order to reduce stress, we have to take good care of ourselves physically. Sleep, nourishment, exercise, and leisure are the four pillars of daily routine. Restorative sleep, clean eating, exercise and regular leisure are very important….we need to get creative with these during COVID.
We also need to focus on where our heads go when we are triggered. Whenever something is happening that triggers something from our past that isn’t resolved, we will overreact. We need to remember that we own our brain; it doesn’t own us. We need to find strategies to help us gain control of our thinking. As long as our thinking is negative, our behaviour will be reactive.
The last important piece for stress management is to understand where you come from. Knowing what has affected you and why, and what to do about these is key. Until we can work through the pains from our past, the risk for reactivity is high.
As we get into fall and winter is approaching, I am starting to think about how we will manage the isolation. We have to be planful about to adapt our exercising /eating and socializing over the next few months. I encourage people to think about “the re-do”, …. most of us were unprepared when COVID-19 hit in March. What did we learn about how we (mal) adapted? …What bad habits did we pick up? What do we know about ourselves now that we didn’t know then, that we can fix or improve on this winter? What would it look like if we benefitted in some way from the pandemic?
Karen Goslin is a registered clinical social worker and psychotherapist. She received her undergraduate Social Work degree from McMaster University in 1986 and graduated from the University of Toronto with her MSW in 1990.
Karen opened her private practice 22 year ago and specializes in helping children, teens and adults in their own lives, in their relationships and in their families. She is well respected for her 3-stage program of recovery, including self-care, CBT and DBT and deeper healing approaches, as well as her unique stress management and couple/family counseling programs. She is a sought-out speaker for professional groups and is often asked for her viewpoints by the media. Karen has been acknowledged in her community for her dedication to the well-being of families, adults and youth and is known for her specific strategic style of work, and respectful straight talk towards making real changes in the lives of her clients.
NOTE: The featured experts in our Talk to An Expert series do not practice in association and are not in any way affiliated with MUNERA. MUNERA assumes no responsibility for actions or omissions of individuals that are not considered officially MUNERA’s staff.
This article has been written for general information purposes only and does NOT constitute legal advice. For further questions and/or legal advice please consult a qualified lawyer.