Archive of ‘Austin Family Counseling’ category

It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like School Time

As the new school year approaches, parents everywhere are excited for their child to begin their first day. Children prepare with fresh haircuts, ‘first day of school’ outfits, and school supplies, yet underneath all their  preparation, they may be struggling with anxiety and apprehension with the thought of beginning school, especially tweens and adolescents moving into middle school or high school. As a child therapist, if I had to name a primary reason for anxiety increasing as school approaches, it would be uncertainty. Uncertainty of what’s going to be expected of them, uncertainty of what the structure is like, uncertainty of  “who’s lunch table am I going to sit at?”  and “how am I going to find my classes?”– all changes that are new and unfamiliar. With the first day of school quickly approaching, it is a great opportunity to check-in with your child and support them with regulating their thoughts and emotions. One effective strategy that builds connection and a sense of control within their new transition can be goal setting for their upcoming school year. 

How does creating goals with my child reduce their anxiety? 

Working with your child to set specific, realistic goals decreases anxiety because it provides a roadmap or structure for them to work in, increasing feelings of control as they enter a new situation. As you model for them how to think with intention beyond the present moment, it is a bonding opportunity as you listen to your child’s stress and beliefs about themselves. Connecting your expectations with their expectations, clarifies what the family values as success versus what they think must be accomplished. For example, there may be some relief when a child hears, “Getting straight A’s in all your AP classes is really challenging. What do you feel that you can accomplish? How can I support you with that?”” By creating a target that is reachable, it decreases your child’s irrational thoughts about how the next grade level is too challenging or that they are not “good enough” because they now feel capable and more motivated to meet expectations. As author Amanda Morin states, “When your child begins to decide what they want to accomplish, they’re more likely to be motivated to complete things for their own satisfaction and learning, rather than for the satisfaction of others or for tangible rewards”. 

How do you begin the goal setting process with your child?

When creating goals with clients and their families, I often start the conversation with defining the word goal. How can a child create a goal or be engaged in conversation if they do not actually know what a goal is? Amanda Morin states, “..a goal is something that a person wants to achieve. A goal is realized after a person puts a plan of action in motion that makes their intention a reality.” Using this as a base, we discuss different goals that engage my client’s interests, for example, a goal that my client has for his basketball season. Then, we discuss ideas on how to accomplish the goal. After some simple examples, I introduce the concept of a SMART goal. 

What is a SMART goal? 

At times, parents have approached me with thoughts that their child doesn’t have realistic goals or that they are not motivated to do school work or help around the house. Goal setting can be a powerful strategy, but your child needs to feel connected toward their goal and that it has a purpose. In addition, they need guidance on how to develop goals so the strategy is supportive. SMART is an acronym that contains five key elements to effectively create and succeed at a goal.

A SMART goal is..

  • Specific: The goal is clear and has an end so you know when you have reached it.
  • Measurable: You can track progress on your goal.
  • Achievable: Your goal is challenging, but you are capable of meeting it.
  • Relevant: Your goal is interesting to you or is a skill you want to learn.
  • Time-bound: You have a deadline to complete the goal by.

How do I begin? 

There are many online worksheets and activities to support you and your child with creating SMART goals. 

After learning about my clients’ overwhelming thoughts and emotions about their upcoming school year, I created my own SMART goal activity for us to use during our session. As they created goals related to their personal life, relationships with their peers, and their academics, we formulated them into the sentence starters below:

My goal is to ________________________ (specific) by ___________________(timeframe)

I will accomplish this goal by ___________________ (things/steps you can do to achieve this goal). 

Accomplishing this goal will _______________________ (result/benefit/why is this goal important to you?) . 

Of course, we saved time for them to add some creative touches. Children left their session feeling more relaxed with positive thoughts about their school year, and had plans to put them in a place where they look often, like a school agenda. In addition, every client was happy to share their goals with their parents. It was a great planning tool and I feel confident that it can create some powerful conversations with your child. 


“5 Tips for Setting Smart Goals as a Family.” Waterford.Org, 24 Aug. 2022,,which%20they%20should%20help%20define

Leonard, Kimberlee. “The Ultimate Guide to S.M.A.R.T. Goals.” Forbes, 11 May 2022,

Morin, Amanda. “How to Set Goals for Your Child This School Year.” Verywell Family, 23 June 2022,

Paulus, Daniel J, et al. “Mental Health Literacy for Anxiety Disorders: How Perceptions of Symptom Severity Might Relate to Recognition of Psychological Distress.” Journal of Public Mental Health, 2015,

DBT Skills: What are They and How Can They Be Helpful to My Teen?

When working with parents and teens, I use something called DBT which stands for Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. I usually give a brief overview of it to the parents of my client, but I find myself lacking the time to fully clarify how DBT skills are helpful to their teen. I won’t deny DBT is a mouthful and the term “dialectical” isn’t something we often hear in the grocery store or anywhere else for that matter. After all, my mom still jokes that DBT stands for Diabolical Behavioral Therapy because of a miscommunication the first time she heard it. Therefore, I have decided to write this blog post to give a more comprehensive explanation of DBT skills, why I use them, and how they can ultimately help teens as they grow and change in therapy. I hope it is useful to any parent, teen, or curious friend or family member of mine who is wondering why my mom is going around telling them I use diabolical therapy.

So, What are They?

DBT skills consist of four sections, each of which is focused on a different skill set that can help your teen in various ways. Those four sections are Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Emotional Regulation, and Interpersonal Effectiveness

You may have heard the term ‘mindfulness’ before in other contexts. The easiest way to think about it is to imagine the opposite. What does a mindless person look like? Are they scrolling through social media without interacting with it? Watching a show but remembering none of it after? Parking their car at home but not remembering the drive? These are all examples of what it looks like to be mindless. So, let’s take the opposite. Mindfulness is being in the present moment, paying intentional attention to what you are doing and participating fully in it. It is the opposite of autopilot.

Distress Tolerance can be broken down into the two terms “distress” and “tolerance.” Now, what is distress? In colloquial terms, it is feeling very upset or uncomfortable. And tolerance? It is the act of allowing something to exist without trying to change it. Putting that together, distress tolerance is allowing an uncomfortable feeling to exist without trying to change it. It’s tolerating discomfort. You may be surprised to find that many of these skills involve distraction. But isn’t distraction just avoidance? It’s actually not. Distress tolerance skills teach acknowledgement of the painful feeling before use of distraction. They also teach to always go back to the feeling once it has cooled down enough to be processed. In that way, distraction is not avoidance.

Next is Emotional Regulation. These skills work specifically with regulating emotions as well as processing them. It also teaches about emotions, what their purpose is, and how we can impact them with our thoughts and actions. Some of the skills focus on how to have more pleasant emotions in your life, both short term and long. Others are about how to cope with painful emotions. One of my personal favorite skills teaches how to look at the facts of a situation and base your interpretation on those facts rather than on how you feel in the moment. Overall, these skills are used to process and regulate our emotions.

Lastly is Interpersonal Effectiveness. Just as it sounds, these skills help with relationships. They aid in building healthy relationships through the use of three types of skills. One involves getting someone to do what you want (or asking for what you need in a relationship), the next is building and maintaining positive relationships, and the last focuses on maintaining your self respect. These three parts of relationships build the interpersonal effectiveness triangle. All three are needed in healthy relationships and the goal is to do all three effectively at the same time. Get too much of what you want? You become manipulative and narcissistic. Give of yourself too much in order to maintain a relationship? You become a doormat. Hold too tightly to your self-respect? You become cold hearted and unable to be vulnerable. Each one is needed for a relationship to succeed.

Now, How Do They Help My Teen?

Now that you have a basic understanding of what DBT skills are, we are going to talk specifically about how they can help your teen. Each section of skills helps your teen in a different way.

Let’s think about mindfulness. We know that a mindless teen is likely to do what they want because they are not considering the consequences. A mindless teen will lash out with every emotion because they don’t know what they are feeling or why they are feeling it. However, mindful teens are more likely to pay attention to consequences, think through their actions, and be more in control of their own mind. They will notice thoughts they are having that are inaccurate and work to change them. They know what they are feeling when they are feeling it and can respond accordingly. Mindfulness is so fundamental to healthy living because if we do not know what is going on in our own minds, or if we are not aware of the world around us, we react blindly to our every whim.

Distress Tolerance helps teens tolerate distress. Sounds pretty basic, I know. However, it is so vital to teach teens how to deal with the painful emotions that they find themselves in. Think about a teen who is experiencing crippling anxiety every time they take a test. What would it look like if they were able to tolerate that anxiety to the point where they still felt it, but were able to study and focus and feel confident anyway? How about a teen who gets dumped and is overwhelmed with sadness. That teen may shut themselves away in their room for days on end or refuse to eat or cry without ceasing. What would it be like if that teen could feel that sadness, but go on functioning anyway? This is what it looks like for teens to tolerate painful emotions.

Now, Emotional Regulation is probably my favorite out of the sections (though I know we aren’t supposed to have favorites– shhh don’t tell Distress Tolerance I said that.) The reason is because it teaches teens how to separate their emotions from their behavior. Teens learn that they can’t control their emotions, but they can choose how to behave when they are feeling dysregulated. This section also teaches that emotions often lie to us. They may feel like that person in their class hates them, and they could be right, but they could also be wrong. This thought helps teens to realize that they don’t know everything and acting on their emotions can often end up being more hurtful than helpful. They also learn ways to process their emotions and how to ride them out like a wave on the ocean. This section ultimately helps teens feel more in control of their emotions and be less likely to lash out impulsively without thinking through their actions.

Interpersonal Effectiveness skills help teens have healthy relationships. These relationships can include friendships, romantic partnerships, parents, teachers, and more. They are given fundamental skills that can be applied to every relationship they have. Therefore, these skills are for those of you who are struggling with your relationship with your teen. They will help your teen learn how to appropriately ask for what they need from you and compromise and negotiate when that thing isn’t possible. Your teen will learn how to and when to speak kindly and use humor rather than using attitude or talking back. They will learn what their values are and what it looks like to act in accordance to those values. They will also learn how to navigate having different values from you. They will learn conflict management and how to think about an argument from the other person’s perspective and not just their own. They will learn how to set boundaries and how to say no without being harsh or hurtful. These skills will help your teen be more effective and kind in every relationship they have.

There you have it. Hopefully by reading this blog post you have come to understand why I love DBT skills so much and why I believe every teen needs to learn at least some of them. I hope you have identified places where these skills could be helpful not only for your teen, but also for your whole family. Don’t get me wrong, even though I am focusing on teens, pre-teens and adults can also benefit from learning these skills. The hope of teaching them to teens and pre-teens is to prevent them from making some of the mistakes you may have made as a teen or adult. If you think back to your teenage days, what sort of difference might have these skills made in your life? I will leave you pondering that thought and end this blog post here.


From DBT® Skills Manual for Adolescents, by Jill H. Rathus and Alec L. Miller. Copyright 2015 by The Guilford Press. 

Losing a Loved One from Afar and Ways to Heal 

I recently lost my Thatha (Telugu word meaning grandfather) at the beginning of this year. He lived a dynamic and rich 95 years of life, during which he watched many grandchildren, myself included, grow up, graduate school many times, and get married. 

For a 95 year old, Thatha was as healthy as he could be and had even been doing well weeks and even days before he passed away peacefully in his sleep. This made it even harder to process the news of his death because we all felt caught off guard. 

A part of me feels content knowing the people that we love never really die, because we carry their memory with us everywhere we go. The other part of me feels weighed down, because in the midst of all this grief, I am encountering this inner struggle for not being physically there with my parents, Amamma (Telugu word meaning grandmother), and other extended family in India as they mourned the loss of Thatha in the moment.

Experiencing the death of a family member or loved one is already wrought with sorrow and pain and it can be made even more so when this loss happens from far away. I hope this blog brings some solace and comfort if you or someone you know is struggling with how to mourn death from a distance. 

Embrace All Feelings 

“Grief creates its own weather. At times, it’s an avalanche that buries us, or a thunderstorm that buffets us around. It’s a cold rain that drips off trees and down our backs long after the storm is gone. It’s a fog that hides the world and makes every sound seem distant.”

-Mark Liebenow 

As Mark Liebenow, author and poet on grief and loss, beautifully articulates, grief is not a one-size-fits-all approach or linear 5-stage process. When we acknowledge that grief looks differently for all of us, we let go of any societal expectations or even self-inflicted pressures of how grief should look. Instead of critically questioning how your feelings are showing up at this time, (I.e. why am I not crying enough or I have been so unproductive today), welcome your current state of mind with self-compassion. Ask yourself these questions to foster even more tenderness towards yourself: 

  • What is my body telling me right now? 
  • How can I lean on others for support ? 
  • What do I need to take care of myself during this difficult time ? 
  • What would nourish me physically and emotionally ? 

Feelings of Shame or Guilt 

When we are in a position of mourning the loss of our loved ones from far away or far, far away, our mind can get bombarded with feeling of shame or guilt. We may feel guilty for not being there with our family and friends to grieve together, as is very common in India and other collectivist countries. Or we may feel ashamed for not being a “good enough” granddaughter/parent/sibling/spouse/etc., because we were unable to attend the burial or cremation. Maybe we have this idea that our loved ones are looking down on us in judgment or we feel ashamed of ourselves for letting them down. 

If you feel burdened by any of these thoughts or feelings about yourself or someone who has passed on, try this visualization: 

Reflect on a moment when you and your deceased loved one were both happy and smiling. Imagine they tell you all the ways that they appreciate you and what you did for them. You also reciprocate those sentiments back to them, sharing how much they meant to you and how you hold a special place in your heart for them. You hug each other bye, allowing all those positive and warm feelings to fill you up. Use this visualization every time you feel that ache of shame or guilt inside of you. 

Ways to Honor Our Loved Ones who have Passed Away:

  • Plant a flower or tree in their memory 
  • Eat their favorite foods
  • Share a meal with those who knew them 
  • Tell stories with those who knew them 
  • Write about them 
  • Participate in a weekly quiet reflection about them 
  • Look at pictures of them 
  • Advocate for an important cause that they believed in 
  • Get piece of jewelry engraved with their initials 
  • Try a hobby that they participated in
  • Listen to their favorite songs 
  • Paint rocks in your loved one’s honor and give them away or hide them in special places 
  • Show a random act of kindness to honor a loved one’s memory 

Not being physically present to mourn the loss of a loved one alongside family and friends can be heart-aching. Let this be a gentle reminder to not let self-criticism add to your pain, but rather focus on being kind to yourself as you learn how you can heal and move forward through grief. 

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