LIVERMORE -- Jorge Zamora and Erika Herrera were worried.
Their preteen had been spending time behind a locked bedroom door, not speaking and drawing strange, disturbing images -- people crying tears of blood. The couple had been warned by friends about the difficult teen years, but their child's behavior left them flabbergasted.
Finally, their child saw a school psychologist, who recommended family counseling. The couple also enrolled in the Parent Project, a training program that teaches Tri-Valley parents how to improve communication skills with their children and enforce discipline at home without sacrificing empathy.
Sitting in class on a recent day, held at Livermore's Del Valle Continuation School, the couple scribbled in notebooks as a facilitator asked parents to think about how to improve the family dynamics that for many had all but broken down.
"You love listening to music when you're happy and when you're sad, so why do you get upset when your children want to listen to music?" said Sandra Martinez, one of the instructors and a graduate of the program.
"Because it's terrible!" quipped one mother. "All they listen to is rap. I can't stand it."
Everyone laughed, but Martinez reminded the woman that she could bond with her son by asking him about his musical choices.
"Take an interest in what they're interested in; find out about their music, their friends and who their boyfriend and girlfriend is," she said.
It sounds like common sense, but it's a revelation to parents who themselves may have had poor role models or equate parenting with providing food and clothes and requiring obedience but not much else. The class is put on by Horizons Family Counseling, a division of the Livermore Police Department that has offered counseling support to Tri-Valley families for 40 years.
The program is offered in English and Spanish, although with Livermore's Hispanic population growing over the past decade, demand for Spanish language classes is stronger. Many parents find themselves in class after months of frustration of dealing with teens who don't want to go to school, who start using drugs or perhaps simply don't listen to their parents. Others are referred by the Alameda County Juvenile Probation Department after their children are arrested or cited.
"This program gives a very clear cognitive behavioral map where parents learn that they never have to argue with their child again," said Ileana Soto, a family therapist at Horizons. "They can say 'I love you too much to argue. I need a time out.' "
Ana Garcia came to the program to learn how to deal with her teen who "doesn't like to follow the rules."
In the class, Garcia is learning to tie behavioral problems to penalties, such as taking away a phone or not buying certain things.
"I'm learning how to say 'no' and really mean it," she said, adding that she explains to her child that actions have consequences.
For parents who speak only Spanish, establishing authority can be even more challenging because they are unable to help their children with homework and may not know how to navigate the system, counselors said.
"In a lot of these families, the children are in control: of the language, because the parents may be uneducated, undocumented or lack a support network," said Adriana Lavinsky, who runs the Spanish-language parenting classes at Horizons. "The parents very often feel intimidated."
In the class, parents learn simple techniques that help them retain authority at home, while being more compassionate to their children's needs. As for the Zamoras, they say the program has already helped. Their preteen's grades have rebounded, and the depression is gone.
"Before, we would discipline by only saying 'No' or 'Don't do that,' " Jorge Zamora recalled. "This class is teaching us how to listen more and be fully engaged in our (child's) life."
-- Source: Horizons Family Counseling. Reach Horizons at 925-371-4747. www.cityoflivermore.net/citygov/horizons.