Category Archives: Teens

Best Tips for Dealing with Back to School Stress

Suggestions for easing Your Teen’s Mind

back to school stress; therapeutic activities for teens; calming resources.

Wow! Once again summer has raced by and back to school time is upon us. It seems that kids have to get back to school earlier and earlier every year, which sometimes seems to correlate to the time when it actually gets hotter and hotter.

Getting back to school can be stressful for the student who has enjoyed sleeping in a bit (it seems that the early hour that we start school really is not conducive particularly to Teens’ natural wake up rhythm). Or to the student who is starting high school, or just having concerns about new teachers, a new schedule, wondering if they’ll have friends, or feeling scared about all the work coming. Kids experience stress in response to the social dynamics at play with classmates, bullies, social media, and the socio-cultural-racial (and racist) world we live in.

Even if kids are excited to get back to school and looking forward to reconnecting with friends, they can experience stress as they make the change in their routine.

Of course, the stress can also be felt by the parents who have to get their kids back into an ‘early wake-up and get out the door quickly’ routine, and who have to deal with the frustrations or low energy or struggle that comes up about doing homework and other school-related projects. Or who are faced with fear and unease as they send their kids into potentially hostile and unsafe environments, that lack diversity or sensitivity to those kids’ needs.

Some parents may be happy to be back into the school routine and out of the challenging ‘summer time I’m bored’ routine, but as with any change (desired or not), there is some related stress as each person has to adapt to the new.

It’s important to remember that any change brings about some stress and we need to be mindful of that and make some room for the variety of responses to stress that can occur in ourselves and in our family (irritability, quick temper, tiredness, tearfulness, difficulty sleeping, restlessness, drama, grouchiness, withdrawal, intensified anxieties and worries, needing to talk a lot, sullenness, etc).

Here are some potentially fun and lighthearted ways to help your kids and teens to manage the back to school stress that they might be feeling. These are tools that your kids can learn and do, in order to be more present and therefore better able to deal with school and home life stress that is inevitable:

  • Play the game of sounds – that is, write down for a few moments all the different sounds that you can hear. Your teen can do this by himself, or you can do it together and see who hears the most sounds, or take turns and go from one to the next person naming the sounds that you hear.
  • Counting sounds – when you first arrive somewhere and you feel a little anxious, your teen can count the first 5 to 10 sounds that they hear. This can help them to settle in and get comfortable.
  • For an entertaining video that illustrates the point of going from our fight/flight/freeze response (which happens automatically whenever we feel threatened) to feeling more at peace, watch “The Fly“ on YouTube. It demonstrates that what we resist persists, and helps us to be more accepting of whatever is – which allows the hard stuff to actually pass more easily.
  • Listen to music. Have your teen identify a favorite song that makes them feel happy, sad, anxious, mad, etc. When listening to music they can listen for any silence that happens during the song or they can listen for one particular instrument only.
  • They can use a breath ball, opening it as they breathe in and closing it as they breathe out. Count to four in, pause for the count of four, breathe out and count to four, and then pause for a count of four again. Keep repeating this. This helps to calm down any anxiousness. They can also breathe in thinking “I’m giving myself a hug,” and then breathe out thinking “I’m giving the whole world a hug.”
  • The important thing is to build in purposeful pauses throughout their day, where they simply take a deep breath and check in with themselves to see how they’re feeling emotionally and physically, and to be kind to themselves, however they are.
  • Do a mountain or lake visualization. When breathing in, say to yourself ‘I see myself as a mountain. Breathing out I feel strong and solid.’ They can visualize a tree or an animal or someplace that holds meaning for them and that they connect to a sense of calm.
  • Parachute or scarf breathing. Toss a light scarf into the air and breathe in, and then allow yourself to breathe out at the same rate as the scarf as it falls.
  • You and your teen can align your breath with each other and be a mindful mirror. Change your breath to mimic theirs. Let them vary their own breath any way they like, and you follow. Then switch.
  • You might have mindful minutes with them by drawing with your finger on their back and having them guess what you’re drawing.
  • Encourage them to have every interaction of a day be meaningful.
  • Set limits on device use and screen time. Have designated tech-free areas in your home, or times in your week. Put your devices down too. Let alerts and reminders be reminders to be grateful about something or check in with your body.

All of these suggestions are tools to help be more mindful that are useful for your teen, as they’re getting back to school, as well as for yourself as you are adjusting to the next routine in your daily lives. Being mindful is about being present in the moment and paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, without judgment. Being mindful to your immediate experience helps to create more sense of calm and ease with whatever you are facing.

I’d love to hear from you. What’s helpful to you or your teen as you deal with back to school stress? What are some tricks you might have for creating calm in the midst of the storm?

If you or a teen that you care about is having difficulty making adjustments to changes in routine or dealing with adolescent issues, or you’d like more help with parent-teen interactions, please contact me for a parenting or teen therapy appointment.

For more ideas on how to bring more calm and less worry into your life, click here for a free email course on Mindfulness.

Listening with Heart
Cindi Rivera, MFT
Marriage, Family Therapist
(510) 482-4445

Best Tips for Mindfully Parenting Your Teen

Be the kind of parent you aspire to be (and maybe wish you‘d had)


Parenting teenagers can be really hard and often times ungratifying. (I know that’s not really a word, but you know what I mean – sucky, or just not getting any of your wishes met and not being gratified in any way as a parent. Disheartening and displeasing.)

The challenges and negativity can feel relentless. Aggravating. So tiresome. Endless, and you know, just ungratifying…

But you know in your heart of hearts it doesn’t have to be this difficult. You know you’re a good parent, and you’ve got a good kid…If only she could be more responsible, or he could have less attitude…

Maybe you’ve had one too many conflicts with your teenager this summer and you feel pretty exasperated at this point. You are so sick and tired of repeating the same lectures to him or her, over and over, and getting no cooperation. Your teenage child has made another bad decision (not turned in school work, gotten poor grades, picked on their younger sibling relentlessly, lied or distorted the truth about where they were, not cleaned up after themselves, hung out and gotten in trouble with friends who are bad influences, not taken responsibility for negative behaviors, etc.).

Or maybe you feel really wounded by their ugly attitude or the obnoxious disrespect that they seem to freely throw your way. Your feelings are mostly hurt, but actually, that just makes you feel madder at them. It sucks to be not appreciated for all that you do and then raged at on top of that. You may wonder (or resent) ‘How can they be so ungrateful when they have so much, and I work so damn hard?’

You are so tempted to throw your hands up and pull away so they can see for themselves once and for all, the difficulty or how hard it is to take care of themselves. You are no longer interested in being the parent because it’s so unrewarding and maddening most of the time. You have fantasies of banishing them from your household and letting them fend for themselves, never to bother you again and figuring it out on their own. They have let you down so many times.

You may be struggling with your own bitterness, anger, frustration, disappointment and feel like those negative feelings are causing you lots of stress and eating you alive. You know It’s not good for your health to be marinating in these feelings day after day. You can’t stand feeling like this.

Well, the good news is that it is possible to move through this time of discontent. This too shall pass.

The bad news is that you can’t make it go away instantaneously. So, to make it a little gentler and bearable on you (the person who wants to parent more positively), I have a few suggestions…

The main thing is to be mindful of your feelings, thoughts, actions. Strive to be responsive rather than matching your teen’s reactivity.

First, honor your own feelings. Do a RAIN practice for yourself:

Recognize what you’re feeling (discouragement, rage, sadness, fear)

Allow those feelings to simply be present. This is what is right now.

Investigate with kindness. What’s underneath these feelings? How are you treating yourself about these feelings? What does this feel like? Get to know your feeling rather than dismiss it.

Nurture whatever is needed. Maybe place a warm hand on your heart and breathe in kind attention.

Find a positive way to express your emotions. Or take a break and breathe until you are calmer and ready to talk. Know the damage that kids can go through to be the recipient of those negative feelings that too often might be expressed in a negative way (feeling not liked, not good enough, disconnected, angry – which inevitably goes inward in a self-destructive way, or outward in an aggressive other-destructive way.)

Do your best to remember that your teen’s anger or unappealing behavior is partly a cover-up for some shame or sorrow that he’s feeling inside, but can’t adequately articulate. And remember that grownups are like that too.

Here are some questions to reflect upon for yourself as you try to feel better about your parenting and try to improve the harmony in the household. It’s important to take some time and maybe even journal the answers to these questions, to give yourself time for consideration, before engaging in another argument with your teenager. Remember, the time you invest in tending to and having compassion for your own feelings and experiences will be meaningful in having more understanding and ease in your relationship with your teen.

  • What are you proudest of in your parenting?
  • What are your strengths as a parent?
  • What’s the last time you felt like you were being the kind of parent you wanted to be, and felt close to your child? What was going on?
  • What’s hard for you in parenting (or step-parenting)?
  • What kind of relationship do you aspire to have with your teen? What kind of parent do you have to be to have that? Make that your intention.
  • What was your relationship like with your parents when you were a teen? Are you close to one or the other of your parents? Yes, or no, what impacted that?
  • What do you appreciate and/or resent that your parents did, that helped you or hurt you?
  • When did you first notice you felt disappointed by your teen?
  • What are you aware of, about yourself that makes you not so easy to live with? And how have you tried to change or improve upon that?
  • What are your hopes for this teen? What are your fears?
  • What would you most love to hear from him/her?
  • What do you wish he understood better about you?
  • How do you make apologies, or like to be apologized to? How would you prefer to be approached by your teen?
  • What kind of support do you need to be a happier parent?

After spending some time checking in with yourself about your feelings around parenting, consider these tips:

  • Don’t come AT your child/teen. Try to come alongside him or her.
  • Don’t be a lie–invitee. Make it safe to express vulnerability, making mistakes, confusion.
  • Love the child you have and don’t punish him for not being the child you wish you had.
  • Listening deeply builds an open heart; it humanizes your teen.
  • Look at what you might be doing that’s contributing to the problem.
  • Reflect thoughtfully on how you were raised and see how much of that you want to repeat.
  • When you shame a child, it makes his anger grow (inwardly or outwardly). Pay attention to the words coming out of your mouth or your actions that might be shaming her.
  • Take care of your own self so you can be your best self when doing the hard work of parenting and not make things worse. Try to do no harm.
  • Give reasonable “punishment“ for the crime. Give an opportunity to earn privileges back, by acting responsibly and humanely.
  • Kids lie because they feel they’ve lost the connection (lost the feeling of being loved; or they want to appear good so they won’t lose your love; or they’ve lost some sense of security in who they are) – Acknowledge how hard and courageous it is to tell the truth. Check in with your own distortions of truth. Ask how you can help them to own their truth, even when it’s uncomfortable.
  • Show them how to, and model yourself healthy ways of handling discomfort (not self-medicating or zoning out; yes, articulating their feelings, asking for support, being in nature, having compassion, not believing thoughts, building resilience, pausing so they can calm themselves down, etc).

So thank you for reading this far. That means that even though you might be feeling frustrated, you have not given up on your teen, or on yourself. Clearly, you have it in you to keep being the good and courageous parent that you are.

I’d love to hear what your thoughts are about how to parent your teen and not lose your own sanity. It’s really important work that you’re doing and you deserve kind awareness about that.

If you or someone you care about is struggling in parenting or being parented, please contact me for a parenting or adolescent therapy appointment.

For more ideas on how to bring more calm and less worry into your life, click here for a free email course on Mindfulness.

Listening with Heart
Cindi Rivera, MFT
Marriage, Family Therapist
(510) 482-4445

Lessons Learned From My Time At San Quentin

Do NOT read this if you don’t have a teenager or young person in your life that you have concern for.

How listening and emotional sharing can help at-risk youth to avoid prison and manage anger.

I had the privilege to go to San Quentin along with the SQUIRES program on a spectacularly picturesque day this weekend. The setting itself of the prison is breathtakingly beautiful. Once inside the prison walls, the environment is breathtakingly painful.

The SQUIRES program brings inner-city youth, and concerned adults into the prison for a day of face-to-face and heart-to-heart discussions with inmates, with the purpose of keeping the young guys out of the penal system. It is not a scared straight program where the kids get yelled at in their face, but one of sitting in a circle with the inmates, listening to their stories and sharing about one’s own personal struggles. The rules for the participants are to maintain confidentiality, to have respect for self and other, and to be 100% real (a good code of behavior for anyone).

By the end of the day, (and actually, within 10 minutes of being with the inmates we met with) I was completely impressed with the quality of character of these inmate Squires, as they are called.

The inmates very graphically and honestly speak to the kids about what their crimes were (most had killed someone) that got them to San Quentin, and about what life is really like in the prison, day after day for 20+ years and counting.

The most moving and painful part of the discussion was to hear the inmates’ personal stories – usually one of loss, trauma, extreme challenge – that got them into the position to commit a crime in the first place. Many of them had committed crimes as teenagers (including murder) or as young adults, and had already spent more than half their lives in San Quentin.

Each inmate referenced childhood trauma, insurmountable loss, violence witnessed in their family or neighborhood, poverty, insecurity in life, that seemed to lead to hanging out with the wrong people; feeling lonely; escalating drug and alcohol use; making poor decisions. Most had anger issues that had showed up in their attitude, or they did poorly in school; or got bullied and beat up. Several had poor attendance at school; or were always late; or rejected parents and adult figures they felt ashamed of, rejected by, or who had abused them.

Then the inmates got the young guys talking – first inquiring about the challenges they face in their every day lives. Most of the young guys portrayed a sense of cool…Everything is OK. I get in trouble sometimes because of someone/something else. I get mad. But nothing’s too challenging. I’m cool. I ain’t no punk.

Gradually their tone changed. One young man acknowledged “Yeah, I don’t do so well in school. Yeah, I miss a lot of school or get there late. The bus makes me late. (I have to take a longer bus ride so I can avoid the kids who call me names and want to fight at the closest bus stop.) Yeah, I could improve my attitude. I just get mad. But nothing really bothers me… Oh yeah, a cousin of mine was killed a few weeks ago… Oh yeah – and my dad was killed four years ago.” When queried further by the inmate about his mom, he admitted she had died too – the year before his dad did.

I and the other adults in the room silently wept – bearing witness and grieving for this 14-year-old boy who had already suffered so much loss in his short life. No wonder he’s been acting out. We mourned his lost childhood. And the potential dismal future he may have if he keeps getting too close to the edge. Tears ran down my face as I realized I was in a roomful (actually a prison-full) of young and middle-aged men – mostly males of color- with similar stories – most with no outlet for all of that emotional pain.

The inmates were artful in knowing what was underneath the kids’ suppressed anger or the Joe cool attitudes of the young visitors. They probed, shared their own experiences, probed some more, and soon had the kids identifying and speaking more about their own pain. It was beautiful and poignant to see the young guys unfolding about the hurt and trauma they were living currently – and acknowledging that they were trying their best to hide that pain by seeming angry or tough. Best way to protect themselves, that ultimately doesn’t work.

The inmates powerfully made the connection between the underlying emotional suffering, the lack of healthy emotional outlet or true listening, and the outward expression of anger, violence,  addictions that took place for them and landed them in prison. They talked about how important it is to let your emotions out, to give voice to what hurts you, even though the kids clearly did not want to hear that.

After hearing them out, the Squire inmates took us all on a tour of the prison.

I was struck by the beautiful murals on many of the walls outside. And by some inmates who seem to be in their 70s or 80s, hobbling around. I was struck by how, when a death row inmate was escorted nearby us, the inmates (murderers with 20 years to life sentences themselves) with us, had to turn and face the wall – and not look into the face of the shackled presumed psychopath. I was touched by how open and responsive the inmates with us were in answering questions or sharing about their situations. I appreciated the accountability and responsibility they seemed to take for their own actions.

I was struck by the dehumanization that occurs for the prisoners, from the time they are processed in; receive their sentences, and live for years in their cells. It was sobering (and horrible) to go into their cells – realizing the space was smaller than my bathroom at home – in which two men lived and shared a complete lack of privacy. I soaked in the clear blue sky, and wind on my face, every time I was outside, knowing that this was the only sense of freedom the inmates could experience.

I repeatedly noticed my sadness at the waste of human life that occurred here. I was rattled when we walked by the yard where the most recently sentenced inmates were, who were grabbing the fence and yelling threats, pleas, obscenities, at us, like underfed, abused and brutalized animals might. I could see the recent recognition of the misery of their long-term future settling into them. I kept trying to meet some eyes and reflect some warmth, simple human regard and compassion to them. I could meet very few eyes. Some of the young kids on the trip recognized relatives behind that fence. And they cried from both sides of the fence.

We ate a tasteless prison lunch in the chow hall. The adults sought and gave solace to one another for all we had witnessed and felt so far. The Squires sat and ate separately with the boys, getting their impressions, listening and talking more with them. They kept saying they don’t want to see these young men in this place.

We returned to the classroom for more deep dialogue among inmates and kids. More 100% real talk. More listening. More emphasis on the processing of deep wounds and painful feelings. The boys had been profoundly impacted. The adults had been visibly shaken and moved toward deeper understanding.

I felt emotionally drained – and I am someone who is familiar with and used to bearing witness to the deep emotional expression of pain. (I often say my “best days at work“ are when I’ve made people cry and connect with their deepest feelings). This day was heart-wrenching on so many levels. And so uplifting as well, as the boys unloaded, and the inmates presented the incredible deep personal work they’ve been able to do, in the most inhumane of conditions.

Everything they said about their own experience and in relating to the kids was so psychologically sound. I came away thinking they were really decent and beautiful human beings. And hoping against hope that none of the young men with us – who had been equally courageous and open and taken risks to reveal their inner pain – would ever set foot within these walls again and not be able to leave at the end of the day.

After a day “in prison“, I came away with the following lessons and takeaways…truths that are applicable to any young person…

  1. Men in prison have and show a lot of anger outwardly. If you look behind their ‘Wizard of Oz’ curtain, you see underneath that anger there is an even greater amount of emotional pain and hurt – which often goes unseen…And real men cry. And it’s good.
  2. 30 seconds of an adolescent’s bad decision can lead to 30 years of a bad life, once incarcerated. Many bad decisions come from not being able to process painful emotions or experiences adequately.
  3. We all have the capacity to make better decisions and must accept responsibility for our bad decisions.
  4. Listening is a powerful way to help someone else and to help oneself to heal. The Squires knew the value of listening deeply to themselves, to each other, and to the young men to facilitate healing.
  5. Expressing one’s feelings about the frustrations, hurts, losses, aggravations, traumas, pain and suffering is hard but empowering.
  6. Daily morning reflections, breathing exercises, prayer and meditations are a helpful and necessary way of staying sane when one’s basic freedoms do not exist and one has to face a world of chaos.
  7. Helping others to heal from their pain is also healing to the individual who is helping.
  8. Incarceration strips beautiful young men (too many of color) of their dignity and humanity, treat them like animals or objects, and is not a humane way to rehabilitate anyone.

I’d love to hear from you. What takeaways do you get from this blog? What might the Teens in your life be struggling with?

If you have a teen or young person in your life who is struggling and needs help before making too many irreparable bad decisions, please contact me about adolescent or parenting therapy.

For more ideas on how to bring more calm and less worry into your life, click here for a free email course on Mindfulness.

Listening with Heart
Cindi Rivera, MFT
Marriage, Family Therapist
(510) 482-4445