08 - Counseling through Separation, with Zoe Olson
The divorce and separation process can cause so much confusion and emotional stress not only to the couples going through divorce but for the kids as well. No matter how old the kids are, they will still have to adjust and adapt as they go through transitions. In this interview, Zoe Olson shares the role of counseling for both kids and adults during the separation process.
Zoe Olson, MA, RCC is a Registered Clinical Counselor, wife and mama to two little ones. She works in private practice in Salmon Arm, BC and believes that families - no matter their shape or size, thrive when supported. At times a family system's changing nature and stress of life require support of a mental health professional and she loves working with clients to feel like they are thriving again.
Your host, Christina Vinters, is a nationally designated Chartered Mediator on a mission to inspire and facilitate healthy family transitions. She is an “ex” Divorce Lawyer (Non-Practicing Member of the Bar), Author of Pathways to Amicable Divorce, and the DIY Divorce Manual, and Peacemaking Business Consultant.
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Christina: Hi everyone! Today I'm talking to Zoe Olson. Zoe is a registered clinical counselor. She works in private practice working with families going through transitions such as separation. In our conversation, she talks about warning signs to look out for, for both adults and kids. She dispels some myths about counseling and explains what the process might look like for you. Check out this interview for some of the benefits to both adults and children of getting some counseling during the process of separation. Here we go.
Christina: Welcome, Zoe! Thanks a lot for talking to me today.
Zoe: Thank you so much for having me!
Christina: Well, I'm excited to have you share a little bit about yourself, and how you got into working with people experiencing separation.
Zoe: OK, so I'm a registered clinical counselor, and I work with families and individual people who are going through a number of concerns. But I often end up working with separating couples when one member of the partnership ends up coming to a place of contemplation of having a separation. So this person is experiencing a lot of distress and just not sure of next steps and kind of where to go with the relationship. So it kind of naturally just takes its course and some people end up deciding to have a separation and some don't. But it usually starts with one member of that partnership.
Christina: OK. And do you also work with children?
Zoe: I do. Yeah. So I work with children who are about age 10 and up so I definitely work with more youth than middle teeny ones. But I do some parenting support work as well so parents will often come through a separation and say, 'Hey, my child is having a hard time. I'm just noticing some big changes in their life and... so can you support me with that?' And so I would work with the parents in supporting that child to the transition of separating and perhaps going through divorce.
Christina: Oh, great. Are there any tips that you can share for how parents can think about helping their children with all of those new emotions that are probably coming up for them around the separation?
Zoe: Yeah, so... I think that biggest guideline for parents is to remember that for your child, no matter how old they are, it's a loss. And families end up finding a new balance after a separation and divorce for sure. But for that child it's a really huge change that they will have to adjust to, and so to be really aware of how you present that change to your child. So just really being appropriate around what's discussed around the children and making sure that any negative comments about the other parent are gonna kept to yourself or to your grown-up support people and really creating space for that child to grieve in any way they need to, whether that's through talking, or for little ones sometimes it comes out in some interesting behaviors that are not as fun. And just really try to create much stability as you can and continuing on with routine as you can.
Christina: It brings to mind the question of 'Is it ever appropriate to talk to children?' I'm thinking you know, older teenagers, maybe even children in their twenties. Any kind of details about sort of the why behind the separation. I've had some clients come in very distressed that the other parent has shared with a teenager or a young adult some details that you know, of course, didn't provide the whole story. Is that ever a healthy thing?
Zoe: Oh, that's a good question. I'm just trying to think how best to answer that. Because it's very family dependent. But kind of involving a child in a grown-up issue... you know in psychology we call that parentification. And for a youth... if that youth is still living within the family home or maybe, part-time with one parent and part-time with another parent, then I think it's, in that case, it would likely not be appropriate. And kids and youth and adults to it. Adults have more resources to cope with it. They're just very aligned to both parents regardless of the separation scenario. And so to really just kind of see a teen as a child emotionally rather than someone who's ready to hear all of those details. But I know one thing I hear from parents a lot is 'Well, why wouldn't I? You know they're grown up, they're 17.. or they're 15.' And although they may look like an adult, they still need that guidance from both parents and it really puts kids or youth in a bind of who to align with and who to get support with; and their sense of safety, for their emotional well-being can be impacted by that. And then as far as young adults... yeah there could be cases where that may be appropriate and I always think of scenarios with abuse and stuff. And you know I think I would encourage families to speak to that adult together and see if you can share both sides of the story together and have it be, you know a family conversation rather than a one-parent-versus-the-other.
Christina: Because that... the parent who feels that it's not appropriate to bring the child into it is in a position of well, 'either I tell my side of the story, or they only have the other side of the story,' so that can be tricky. OK, but stepping back a bit... So what are some of the benefits that you would say somebody going through that really overwhelming experience in separation and trying to figure out you know, not only their emotional details, their legal details – how are they gonna handle parenting arrangements; what are the benefits that you see of, including a counselling piece at that time?
Zoe: For a parent or you know, one of the adults in a partnership, I see counseling as a really important piece. If the person feels like they're struggling to cope at all in that you know, if you're parenting, it gives you that outlet to be able to express whatever you're going through in a safe place – a confidential space – that's you know, healthy and not to their children. You're not venting anything to the children but it's very separate. And then having that support to cope, and as healthy away as possible. And I think really just getting to that sort of evaluation of 'OK, what's happening to me in this separation?' You know it's not uncommon for people to go through an episode of depression or experience anxiety. You know people who have been through an abusive relationship, there's also some pieces that can be healed through the counseling process with that or people who have a trauma history and really just having support to be able to close that chapter and move forward in some sort of a new way.
Christina: Are there particular challenges or issues that you see come up fairly frequently?
Zoe: Yeah. Something that's been coming up... I've been working privately for three years, and kind of working in mental health for the past nine. And a big piece that comes up a lot is parental alienation. So that's sort of you know... when a family system kind of separates and the parents are no longer together and then that's kind of this abusive pattern where one parent tries to align the children against the other parent. Then that's something that comes up quite a bit and it's you know, it's definitely challenging to work with and support people through. But in that case, you know if any of our listeners are feeling like that maybe a part of their separation or divorce story then I think some counseling support through that, that would absolutely be a great idea.
Christina: And so that can arise from what we were just talking about before, whereas one parent might be sharing details that are really inappropriate and one-sided. And then the child aligns their emotions with them.
Zoe: Absolutely. Yeah, and it goes you know... it's on a spectrum for sure but it's... I think definitely go to the end of 'Your dad's not safe. He's not... He's crazy. He did this to us. He's not a good person...' And it's really putting those seeds of the other parent is a terrible being into that child and that just really ends up with a child who is confused. Because they thought his person was safe in their life, and it can really interrupt that attachment with the other parent.
Christina: And cause the stress within the child. Because both mom and dad are part of the child. 'So if mom is bad, maybe I am bad, too.'
Zoe: Absolutely. Yeah, and kids internalize the messages that they hear around them. They're very egocentric. Their brains are wired to be you know, self-focused and they don't have the ability to see a whole scenario in a really objective way. And so they perceive their environment as a fault of their own. So that's absolutely right. They will often blame themselves for what is happening within the family.
Christina: OK so if you see the child being one-sided that that's one red flag, are there some other warning signs that people can look out for? Or if they see something happening that that should trigger them to think 'Maybe I should consider counseling?'
Zoe: So with children, you wanna look for any sort of major behavioral change. It's different kind of, depending on the developmental age. But you know, it you're thinking of a really small child, some maybe a kiddo who's 2 or 3. Maybe they were potty trained and then after the separation process then you notice that they're having lots of pee accidents and the potty training has slipped. So then you know, that's a good little note that maybe your child is struggling with the change a bit. Or sleep disturbances or something that come up quite a bit. For older kids and teens, that could be mood differences. So things like depression, or all of a sudden you know, spending all of their time with peers or shutting out one parent, and maybe not communicating as much. But really just going with your gut and you know, I think every parent knows their kid. And so if you're noticing a big shift in them just really kind of evaluate in that and wondering if counseling could be a good piece for them.
Christina: Yeah. You just made me think that moodiness with teenagers, that might be easy to slip under the rug and figure, well it's just you now, oh my gosh, the terrible teenage years.
Zoe: Right. Yeah, and all those hormones and stuff. And you know, I think with teens especially, it's important how those conversations and be really open with them and using your judgment about the details to share. By just saying 'How this has affected you? You know, or a family is taking a different shape, how are you doing with that? Is there anything I can do that will help you through this transition?' And have those conversations with them and involve them as much as you can.
Christina: Yeah. I think having an open communication is really key. And what about for adults? So a lot of adults may never have considered counseling for themselves. But if they find themselves going through a hard time during a separation, what are some things they should be aware of within their own experience that might be an indicator they should seek out a counselor?
Zoe: Yeah, good question. A really good kind of frame to go on is your ability to cope day to day. So you know, I often get a call for someone to begin the counseling process when they feel like all of their resources is to cope with life as it is, heavily strapped. So that could mean that you know, you're experiencing some depressive symptoms or anxiety symptoms in grief and loss – it's all a huge change. But things like no longer sleeping as well, or sleeping too much, a very low mood, appetite changes, just noticing irritability. Yeah, lots of those mood changes or withdrawing from others. Anything that kinda makes you wonder that you're having a hard time coming and going from day to day and keeping up with the expectations of life.
Christina: OK, and so if somebody decides that they would like to try some counseling, what does that experience actually look like and involve? I know a lot of people don't wanna know the whole going back to what happened in their childhood. So if these types of counseling around a specific issue, what could people expect?
Zoe: OK. Well, I won't make people lay down on a couch. So that's a bit. And it's really kind of goal-dependent. So I typically will try and be as client-centered as I can, so that means that I'm really you know, being attuned with the client in listening to what their main concerns are and what their goals are. And so if that goal is something like 'I would like to get through this separation without withdrawing from my friends and family', then we're going to look at a direct sort of actions that can be taken to that. If someone comes and says, 'You know, I experienced abuse as a child... I experienced abuse within this partnership and I think that maybe a big part of why this relationship has broken down and I want to heal that', then it would be a more long-term thing and we would just act a bit more. But I think it's important for people to know that you know, for going back into childhood stuff, it's not to dwell on it and it's not to just drudge it all up and have you go home really raw. As with the purpose of creating meaning for today and how it's affected you as a functioning adult. And then kind of healing that moving forward.
Christina: If there hasn't been anything particularly traumatic, in addition to the dissolution of the family which of course is traumatic in itself. But if you're looking at that type of situation, is there a number of appointments you might recommend that people start with?
Zoe: Probably you know, at least an intake process where we get a sense of what's happening. And then two to three more sessions after that. And then that type of scenario, we typically look at you know, what are the resources that are supporting you at this current time. So whether that's strength of coping or the other support people that you have in your life like friends and family. So really just creating that support plan, so things continue to go well, mental health-wise for that person. And that's a good point. It doesn't always have to be really long term thing to come to counseling. It can be just you know, an appointment or two, or really dependent on what your needs are.
Christina: So I'm wondering if you can share some of those resources that you're talking about. And maybe just some general tips for self-care that people can consider implementing.
Zoe: Within the counseling realm, we use that term resources to mean the inner resources and skills that we have to you know, go through hardship and foster resilience. So those are things like really being in tune with that self-care, where I'm going through a hard time or just day to day to ensure that our mental health stays well. So those are things you know, the simple kind of building blocks, like having enough sleep and eating well and making sure you have exercise, social engagements. You know, make sure you have a friend at work and family support – whether they're in the same community or at large and making sure that you're involved in your work in a healthy way and engaging in some sort of hobby. So kind of a holistic view of all those resources that you can try and engage in to just make sure that you're functioning the best way that you can.
Christina: All those things that we all know that we should be doing but maybe don't. Make the effort and follow through to actually do all the time.
Zoe: Yeah, and especially you know, when you're used to be in a partnership or maybe you're parenting and you're you know, you're putting other people's needs ahead of your own all of the time. So people kind of, 'Go through the emotions of caring for others and just go into work.' And then as life charges along and then when these big stressors come up in that sort of strong base for coping is a little bit washy and yeah, so having some counseling support can really get back on that track; can be something that's helpful.
Christina: Excellent! So Zoe, what are the best ways for our listeners to get in touch with you if they'd like to find out more?
Zoe: Yeah, so the best way could be either over the phone. So that's area code 250 463 3760 or email. So and that just depends on what people are most comfortable with. I find that a lot of people... if they haven't been into counseling before, maybe feel quite nervous, so send in an email first. And then we can chat over the phone for 15 to 20 minutes and see if I would be a fit to what they're going through. And just kinda take it from there!
Christina: OK, perfect! And we will all of that information in the show notes for people to be able to access you. Alright well, thank you again Zoe! I really appreciate you sharing all of your wisdom with us today.
Zoe: Thanks so much for having me. It was a pleasure!