The following is a transcript of Billie Tarascio of I Do Over and Modern Law talking with Family Therapist Erik Gagnon about how to help teens manage the emotions and issues that come as a part of divorce.
Erik has recently joined I Do Over to help families survive and thrive during and after divorce. I Do Over is working to make therapy accessible for families that need it by adding Erik to the organization and with the addition of affordable group therapy sessions in the near future.
Should I Make My Teen Go To Therapy?
Billie Tarascio (00:01):
Hi, this is Billie Tarascio from Modern Law. and today I am so excited to have with me, Erik Gagnon, and this is super exciting. So he has recently joined the, the team of Modern Law through I Do Over, Modern Law’s sister company, to offer therapeutic services because, if you’ve been listening to this podcast, then you know I’m a big fan of therapy. I personally have gone through therapy. My kids have gone through therapy and I think almost every single client needs therapy. So I’m so excited to introduce him. How are you doing today?
Erik Gagnon (00:39):
I’m doing terrific. Billie. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Billie Tarascio (00:43):
Absolutely. So I have so many things that I want to talk to you about, but let’s start super-high level with your background and maybe what brought you to being a therapist.
Erik Gagnon (00:55):
Wow, that’s a loaded question. Well, I would say probably the first thing that intrigued me about therapy is my mother’s a therapist. She was certainly one of my heroes growing up. She worked in New Hampshire. She worked for a local community mental health center, and there are times as a working mom where she had to bring me to work. And there were times I would kind of sit in the lobby at the community mental health center. And I would encounter folks who had severe mental illness; people who thought they were other people or heard voices or things of that nature. And it almost seemed like, almost like Halloween every day. You meet really interesting people who were very different from everyone else in your walk of life.
Erik Gagnon (01:42):
And I found that my mother had just an amazing rapport and ability with people and she was a problem solver. She was a fixer. She could help people do things. She was a case manager as well as a therapist. And I just thought if I could, in some way, bring that to maybe adolescents and families that don’t have someone like my mother at home. That that would be very valuable. So I would say that’s probably what, peaked my interest. And I started taking psychology class even in high school just because I found it fascinating. Let’s see. So I went to college, got out, and my initial degree was in anthropology and sociology. And I found out there wasn’t a whole lot of jobs working in anthropology and sociology. You get your precious degree and you’re like, great. Now what? So I got my first job at a residential group home for adolescents and I found that I had similar attributes to my mother and being able to put people at ease, make people feel comfortable, talking about very serious matters. I began doing that. And I was moving to other mental health agencies, where I’ve worked in locked psychiatric units. I’ve worked residential, I’ve worked, inpatient, outpatient, uh, individuals, families and couples.
Erik Gagnon (03:11):
My specialty is addictions. I’m a licensed substance abuse counselor. But I found that certainly a lot of that goes hand in hand with depression, anxiety. There’s something called comorbidity where roughly 75% of folks who have mental health issues also have substance abuse issues and vice versa. So that’s just kind of a, a little bit of what I’ve been doing. I’ve spent the last 21 years working for large, nonprofit companies where we treat disadvantaged inner city youth for a long time. That was the best use of my time. And a good way to give back to unity was helping kids who really suffered from some inequities and needed help.
Billie Tarascio (03:58):
So let’s talk about that. How is treating adolescents or children different from treating or working with adults?
Erik Gagnon (04:12):
Tell you what, it’s much more difficult. Working with adults is very easy by comparison. Teenagers are, are often by nature, not great at communication. They’re not always interested in discussing their feelings. They often feel awkward about that. So it is a lot of, uh, prying. I have to ask a lot of questions. I have to say, it’s almost like dentistry and I’m pulling teeth to get information beause they’re not really wanting to engage in that for the most part. There are a few exceptions and some adolescents want to engage, but for the most part they don’t. And over the years, a lot of my clients were coming to see me by, uh, coaches. So there’s, school systems, a lot of times due to their acting out, they will be kind of forced into a therapeutic situation.
Billie Tarascio (05:02):
Well, I want to talk about that. So for parents who have gone through a divorce or maybe going through a divorce and have teenagers many times, I see very angry teenagers, and parents force their children to go to therapy.
Erik Gagnon (05:22):
Uh, yes. In short that you can’t force a child to participate in therapy, but as a parent, I can certainly bring my child to the office of a therapist and say, well, for the next hour, you’re going to sit in the the office with this person and hopefully get something out of it. And whether you choose to or not, it’s totally up to you.
Billie Tarascio (05:40):
Okay. So this is really great information because you have been treating adolescents who have been forced into therapy for a lot of years. What does that process typically look like? They show up, they don’t want to be there. How does it, how does it work?
Erik Gagnon (05:58):
There’s this strange, but I actually, I enjoy that, that challenge over the years. That’s become a lot of fun for me – getting past your idea preconceptions of what therapy is or who a therapist is supposed to be. People consider therapy and they think of somebody who’s very aloof and sits and just says, “How do you feel about that.” I try to do things a little different. I try and be much more conversational with my clients. I mean, it’s all in some building rapport and there were adolescents I’ve worked with over the years that might have taken me three or four months old, even a decent rapport with, breaking through that is, is really something. Because a lot of times, once you do, they’re in, they want to come back.
Erik Gagnon (06:52):
They want to see you. They want to talk about things, even if it’s something that they didn’t anticipate wanting, needing, or benefiting from, they end up doing. So a lot of times it’s just kind of breaking down their resistance and getting them to see you as just a person like anyone else. I’m not here to analyze your thoughts or tell you what to do or control your life in any way. I always say, I’m going to maybe make a few suggestions and you determine if those suggestions are going to be good for you, beneficial for you, helpful and you, you either choose to try them or not. And that’s okay. , therapy is very much a process and it has a lot to do with readiness and willingness to accept that I need some help and I need to learn some new skills.
Erik Gagnon (07:34):
And unfortunately some folks are, later in life, by the time they reached that. But what I mentioned, it’s easier to work with adults. It’s usually because someone has had decades to think about things and, they’re coming to you because they want help and they maybe have some dysfunction in their lives or things that just have reached a boiling point. Whereas adolescents, they can ignore a lot of things for a long time, but I enjoy, like I said, working on breaking down the resistance. I find that very challenging and I enjoy it quite a bit.
Billie Tarascio (08:09):
Well, and it seems like either kids or adolescents process what they’re experiencing now, or it’ll play out in their relationships in the future and one day they’ll decide to process it. Is that something that you see?
Erik Gagnon (08:25):
Yes, absolutely. And that has to be everybody’s choice. There were sessions where I’ve worked with adolescents and they just utterly refused to speak, not a word and we’ll sit there sometimes for an hour and we’ll stare at each other, , and maybe I’ll try one of the tactics I’ve used over the years where I’ll play some music that I enjoy, but they probably don’t like. I once had a client who refused to speak with me. So I just put on my phone and I played some miles Davis and we sat and listened to jazz music for about an hour. This client returned to me the following week and began speaking almost immediately.
Billie Tarascio (09:07):
So what I’m hearing is you may also be able to give us parents some tips on getting our teens to open up.
Erik Gagnon (09:15):
Yeah. And I said to this young man, I said, well, clearly you didn’t enjoy miles Davis last week because now you want to talk instead of sit and listen to music. And so we had a good laugh about that and that’s kinda how we started the, the rapport and the relationship. And we began to talk about, but I found that a lot of my clients that were “forced” to come and see me by one person or another ended up enjoying our time together and wanting to come even when their obligation was over. So it was about just breaking through the initial ice.
Billie Tarascio (09:44):
So, and how long does that take? I mean, you said that sometimes it can take months, but on average, how long does it take? Just, just generally for an adolescent to connect, engage, and then how long should a parent plan for a child to be in therapy if they’re dealing with a divorce or another major transition.
Erik Gagnon (10:06):
Right. Well, and I would say it certainly varies, uh, in part based on the therapist, because if you’re kind of very set and they’re not willing to break and maybe improvise a little bit, then you could be stuck. I allow a lot of the time for my clients to guide what they need – this isn’t about me. And a lot of times it’s about fit and rapport. So I would say if your child is seeing a therapist on a few occasions and they haven’t built a rapport, I would talk to you with your child about that: “What do you think is holding you back from that? Is there something you dislike about this therapist?” Sometimes gender can be an issue. There are a lot of young ladies that would prefer to see a female therapist and that’s totally okay.
Erik Gagnon (10:53):
Like I said, this isn’t about me. It’s about your comfort and about your fit. And if you’re not vibing with your therapist and you don’t feel like it’s a good match for you, then you’re probably not going to engage in the necessary services. So sometimes we have to switch things up and I’ve recommended colleagues of mine who may were younger, feminine, or a variety of things, or maybe just had a different style from myself. But certainly in terms of in the therapeutic process, I wouldn’t want to give a number of sessions or, or months really, because once you engage in therapy, often other issues come up that maybe weren’t the presenting concern for coming in. And then you go off into other kind of areas of exploration. so it can really vary and divorce can absolutely be traumatic for children. So it’s about dealing with unprocessed trauma.
Billie Tarascio (11:45):
And what about broken relationships between parents and teens? Is that something that you’ve seen a lot?
Erik Gagnon (11:54):
Absolutely. That’s a that’s part and parcel to doing therapy with adolescents. I used to be a supervisor of other therapists where I work and I used to tell them, you’re going to have a lot of parents come in and say, my child is broken, fix them. And they often don’t mention themselves or their relationships, in any way, shape or form. And they really lay a lot of it on the adolescent. And then when you maybe sit down with the parents, you go, wow, there’s some other things going on here. So it’s very rare that it’s just the child. It’s almost always a relational issue regardless of what the relationship is, and it can be with a grandparent and a child. There’s a lot of grandparents now raising children. So it’s just that there’s usually there’s a relational issue that’s creating the problems.
Billie Tarascio (12:47):
And so do you see parents and children together?
Erik Gagnon (12:50):
Absolutely. Yes. Yes.
Billie Tarascio (12:53):
That about is that about really helping them develop rapport and new communication? Or how do you break through those, those walls that took years to build up?
Erik Gagnon (13:04):
That’s the thing, there there’ll be occasions where you would see the adolescent alone. There’d be occasions where you’d see the parent alone. And then there would be occasions where you’d have everybody together. But it’s a matter of, sometimes stability. If a client isn’t stable, they’re having suicidal ideation, things of that nature, then that’s not the time to work on the relational problem. So sometimes it’s about the stability of either the parent or the adolescent or both. And there’s also groundwork that needs to be done on an individual basis, either with the parent or the child, because you’re trying to gain access to, their view of the situation. And often you’re not going to get a lot of honest answers from an adolescent. Their parent is sitting across from them. It’s like, I want you to tell me all the things you dislike about your mother who is sitting across from us. It’s probably not going to go very well.
Billie Tarascio (13:56):
My children tell me all the things they don’t like about me.
Erik Gagnon (14:02):
Well, good. So you’ve, uh, you’ve been able to cut that out of the process.
Billie Tarascio (14:09):
(Laughing)I feel like you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t.
Erik Gagnon (14:11):
Oh, that’s right. That’s right.
Billie Tarascio (14:18):
Well, this has been a fantastic chat and I know that it’s so many times when I’m talking to clients and I ask them like, what is your biggest concern about getting a divorce? So many times they tell me “my children.” And, they they’ve come to terms with the fact that their relationship may be over with their spouse. They’ve come to terms with the fact that they’ve done everything they can to fix that relationship. But there is nothing that, that, that is more concerning than “will my kids be okay?” So we’re going to have to do an entire session about how to talk to kids about divorce, but I think for today, this was just great. And I really appreciate all your insight and I can’t wait to have you back and we’re just going to do this regularly so you can help all of us parents. Does that sound good?
Erik Gagnon (15:09):
Of course. I can’t wait. And I just want to thank you again for having me in today.
Billie Tarascio (15:13):
Absolutely. And now Erik, you are available for individual sessions and family sessions and provide this therapy. And so if people want to contact you, all they have to do is reach out to, I Do Over a Modern Law. You guys know how to get ahold of me and we can get you set up with Erik. Thank you so much and have a great day.
Erik Gagnon (15:33):
Thank you so much. I appreciate your time.