Stepping In With Other People’s Kids

Dear Dr Justin,

My 15-year-old son was hanging out in his bedroom with one of his friends. When I walked by, I saw my son’s friend frantically trying to stash a packet of cigarettes into his bag! I was horrified, but since he isn’t my child, I wasn’t sure how or if I should intervene (I did talk to my son later). What should I have done?


Most parents love having their children and their children’s friends at their home. When it comes to our teens especially, it gives us the chance to keep an eye on things, without invading our teen’s privacy.

But whenever you open your home to someone else, you invite in variables (such as smuggling in cigarettes!). Your kid’s friends won’t always follow your rules. And when they overstep your boundaries you have to decide whether you should step in or stay out.

Step in, or stay out?

Naturally parents worry about the consequences of their reactions. We worry that if we step in, we’ll alienate our child or our child’s friend. Or that we’ll push unwanted behaviours underground, away from our watchful eye. After all, if our kids want to smoke, they could just do it somewhere else.

On the other hand, we worry that if we say nothing we condone the behaviour. And what if it were your child who had a pack of cigarettes? Would you want the parent to step in?

Using the right kind of communication can help you work through this situation in a way that preserves relationships and helps everyone be comfortable and safe at the same time.

Involve your child.

Bringing cigarettes into your home and into your teen’s bedroom is clearly against the rules. Not only is it illegal, it’s also unhealthy.

The teen years are a time when our kids are learning to make sound decisions guided by personal values. This is an opportunity for your child to learn to speak with his friends about what he thinks is the right way to behave. Ask him to speak with his friend directly. The message will be better received and your son will have a chance to practice standing up for his values.

Have a Quiet Word

If it is too awkward for your child to say something, you might wish to say something to your son’s friend yourself. This is the time to be gentle and kind (I spoke about this approach here). As a parent, we need to tread lightly, mindfully and carefully with our child’s friend.

When I was a teen, a friend’s parent took me aside for a quiet word when I had unknowingly broken one of their rules. This father called me into the kitchen and told me that I was always welcome to be in his home, but under the condition that I follow some rules. He shared them with me, gave me the benefit of the doubt by acknowledging that I probably didn’t know they had those rules, shook my hand and led me out to my friend.

I was shocked and embarrassed. But I valued my friendship with his children, and I wanted to do the right thing. He never had problems with me again.  Most teens will respond to a respectful and gentle, but firm, word from you.

Talk to His Parents

In most cases, there’s no need to tell the parents of your children’s friends when they’ve broken the rules in your home. This will only put the parent on the defensive, put your child in an awkward position or harm your relationship with your child’s friend.

Discovering cigarettes (or alcohol or other drugs) is a big deal, however. Most parents would not only want to know about this, but also expect to be told. In this case it is important to first explain to your son’s friend what you are aware of, and indicate that you feel obliged to share it with his parents. Then have a quiet chat with his parents. Make sure you are not angry or judgemental, but understanding, After all, our kids are still learning, and next time it could be your child doing the wrong thing.

Talking to his parents may bring short-term pain. It may impact on the relationship your child has with this friend. But sometimes the best people to deal with serious rule infractions are the parents of that child.

Debrief with Your Child

Just like you’ve done, it is important to have a debrief with your son after an event like this happens in your home. Studies show that teens are highly influenced by consistent, quality communication with their parents, especially when it comes to things like smoking. Communicating openly about smoking (the problems as well as your teen’s experiences), decreases the probability that your child will have problems with smoking later in life.

It can be challenging when our kids bring different variables into the family home. But with gentle, kind and thoughtful communication even the most difficult challenge can be worked through in a way that preserves our relationships and those of our children.


For other resources to guide you through the teenage years, including the webinar “How to make Year 12 the BEST year ever”, visit the Happy Families Shop 

How to make Year 12 the BEST year EVER!

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Changing the Time-out Perspective


Time-out is still the most often recommended form of discipline. Paediatricians, parenting experts and child development experts continue to recommend it above all other disciplinary techniques. And it is popular with parents.

In a world where spanking is out and yelling is following closely behind, parents are struggling to find effective discipline strategies. Many parents turn to time-out. In a recent study of 401 preschool and school-aged children, 76.8% of parents reported using time-out with their child.

And to be fair, research shows that it can “work”. 70% of the parents in one study believed that time-out helped manage their child’s behaviour. But just because it is can work, doesn’t mean it’s good for our kids. We might ask, “works to do what?”

It’s time to change the time-out perspective and consider the cost on our kids.

Time-out causes ‘relational pain’

When we put our kids into time-out and walk away from them, they feel rejected and isolated. Research suggests that this causes ‘relational pain’. Relational pain travels the same neural pathways in our brains as actual physical pain. In fact, brain imaging studies show that time-out causes the same neural responses in our kids as smacking (and there are a slew of problems associated with smacking).

Time-out may be more devastating emotionally than other punishments despite there being no physical threat because time-out poses the ultimate threat of abandonment. Think of it from the child’s point of view. The parent may know when the time-out will end but a very young child does not.

Time-out communicates that our love is conditional

Putting our kids into time-out communicates to them that we are only interested in being with them when they are being good. In other words, time-out teaches children that a parent’s love is conditional.

Conditional love creates deep feelings of anxiety. And a child who is repeatedly given time-out is far more likely to experience anxiety about love from parents. Kids become frightened that their parent will not love them if they behave in a way that is ‘bad’. This drives a wedge into the parent/child relationship at the worst possible time – right when they need you most.

We don’t need research to tell us that, particularly in times of distress, we all need to be near people who care for us and comfort us. Time-out undermines that basic human need.

Time-out inhibits emotional regulation

Time-out is often sold as being an opportunity for a child to ‘think about what he’s done’, or ‘to calm himself down’. Of course, emotions need to be regulated and, as parents, we need to help our children learn to do just that. But forced time-out is not an effective way to help a child learn to regulate his or her emotions. In fact, it’s counter-productive. Emotions become more disregulated during a time out. A child feels fearful or worthless… or angry and misunderstood.

This means that time-out makes children more selfish, rather than less. Rarely do children sit and think about how they could be better behaved next time. No, they sit and stew about the unfairness of the situation and how they hate their mum because she doesn’t understand.

And by isolating them from us, we have lost the opportunity to teach our kids how to do better. Instead, we have forced them into a situation that keeps them focused only on themselves and how they can avoid consequences next time.

Time-out leads to more misbehaviour

When kids are overtaxed emotionally, they will sometimes misbehave. This is especially true while they are still learning to regulate their own emotions. These big feelings need a way to get out and often misbehaviour is a cry for help calming down and for some connection.

Research shows the isolation of time-out actually increases subsequent misbehaviour. This is true even when the parent spends time talking to the child after the time-out is up. Putting them in time-out deprives them of an opportunity to build skills that other types of discipline could focus on – skills that we should be teaching them. When our kids have these big feelings, they need us more, not less.

Time-out effects wellbeing

Our feelings of wellbeing are highly dependent on our relationships with our loved ones. It’s no surprise then that kids who experience love withdrawal through the use of time-out also typically have lower self-esteem, poorer emotional health and are more prone to challenging behaviour.

Time-out leaves kids in greater emotional distress for longer periods than smacking does.

So what do we do instead of using time-out?

We need to focus on giving our kids the opportunity to build insight, empathy and problem-solving skills. As parents it is our job to set clear limits, but we should do this by working with our kids, not by forcing them to work it out alone.

We need to give our kids the chance to learn to make good decisions and empower them to make better choices in the future by employing reason, empathy, persuasion, lots of teaching and questioning. This takes time and energy. But research shows that while the short-term payoff can be less obvious, the long-term outcomes are far better.

So let’s change the time-out perspective – just because it is effective, doesn’t mean it is right.

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Discover How to Make Your Own Hair Detangling Spray

If you suffer from hair brushing battles like we do, you’ll want a great detangling spray available. Making it yourself is more cost effective and more natural than the store bought versions. I can’t wait to share this DIY hair detangling spray recipe with you. It’s made with essential oils and smells wonderful! You’ll also want to check out my favorite detangling brushes!

Make Your Own Hair Detangling Spray

Hair Detangling Spray Supplies:

Hair Detangling Spray Supplies

1/8 cup distilled water
1 teaspoon glycerin
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon aloe vera gel
3-4 drops argan oil
10-15 drops lemon essential oil
10-15 drops lime essential oil
10-15 drops orange essential oil
Spray bottle

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Hair Detangling Spray Instructions:

Step 1: In a small mixing bowl, add distilled water and glycerin. Glycerin helps condition and soften your hair. It also lubricates the hair to make brushing easier.

Step 2: Add apple cider vinegar, which helps remove reside build up and makes hair shiny.

Step 3: Add aloe, which also conditions and softens hair. It also can promote hair growth and relieve itching.

Step 4: Add argan oil, which moisturizes and nourishes hair. It helps repair hair that is dry, damaged or frizzy. IT also makes hair shiny and can help comb or brush through the hair easier.

Step 5: Add essential oils. Feel free to mix it up with your own blend. I suggest lemon, lime and orange. Lemon oil helps keep hair clean and soft. It’s great if you have hair that tends to be oily. Lime essential oil helps reduce dandruff and helps alleviate dry scalp. It also reduces frizz and helps make dull hair look shiny and vibrant. Orange essential oil moisturizes your hair and leaves it smelling fresh and clean!

Step 6: Whisk everything together

Step 7: Using a funnel, add mixture to spray bottle. Top with ball and lid.

Spray on wet or dry hair to help calm tangles and make brushing easier.

Make Your Own Hair Detangling Spray

DIY Hair Detangling Spray

The post Discover How to Make Your Own Hair Detangling Spray appeared first on Healthy Happy Thrifty Family.

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Ask Dr Justin: What is the Best Way to Say ‘No!’ To Your Kids 

Hi Dr Justin

I hate saying no to my kids. I keep softening up, getting talked around, giving in. I’m getting walked all over. How do I set limits and still feel like I’m being a good mum?

This is important so I’m saying it clearly at the start:

You can’t be a good mum if you don’t set limits!

But as you’ve realised, one of the most difficult parts of parenting is saying no. Unfortunately sometimes we have to. Sometimes plans change, or something might not be safe. At times someone else’s needs may matter more, or what our child wants they can’t have.

And while they might not thank you for it, setting limits is one of the best things you can do for your child. Saying ‘no’ teaches our kids important lessons about life, independence, empathy and getting along.

Research shows that the best parenting style is one that combines setting limits with warmth. These parents are nurturing and responsive, but set firm limits for their children. They listen to their child’s point of view, but they don’t always accept it. And it works! Their children tend to be friendly, self-reliant, cooperative, curious and goal-oriented.

So how can we say no, but still let our kids know that we empathise with them? How can we be firm and warm?

Give them their wish in fantasy

It’s important to remember that our kids have big feelings… and that’s ok! We might need to limit behaviour, but big feelings are allowed. And while our kids don’t always need us to say yes, they do need to feel heard. All humans are more willing to cooperate once their feelings have been acknowledged. Our kids are no different.

So when your child wants something that you can’t (or won’t) say yes to, you can still show him that you empathise. Give him his wish in fantasy.

Here is an example. Imagine you’re in the supermarket with your child. You’re at the checkout and it’s been a long tiring day. You just want to get out of there and get home. Suddenly your child pipes up, ‘I want a lolly!’ You inwardly groan. It’s just before dinner and you need to say no! You can feel a tantrum brewing. The last thing you need is a public meltdown!

But it doesn’t have to end in a meltdown. Here’s what you do.

First, connect with your child. Touch him on the arm, get down to his level and make eye contact. 90% of good parenting is connection.

Then, give him what he wants in fantasy. Say, ‘I wish you could have a lolly! What kind would you get?’ Hopefully your child will start to calm down straight away, and think about the answer. ‘Freddo Frog’, he might say. ‘Oh that’s a great choice. I would pick lolly, or maybe freckles.’

Depending on how big your child’s feelings are, you might need to extend the fantasy. You might say, ‘What if our car was made of lollies, we’d never have to go to the supermarket again!’ Your child might say, ‘The wheels could be cookies!’

When you give your child what he wants in fantasy, it shows him that you understand his feelings and you care. Once he hears this, it is much easier for him to transition from overwhelmed by his big feelings, to dealing with a situation that (from his perspective) is less than ideal.

When you engage your child in fantasy you are speaking to him in his favourite language – play. This reinforces your connection. It also shows your child that even if the world sometimes feels unfair, it is basically safe. This is because he has felt heard and understood.

But does it work?

You might be wondering if this really works. I recently received an email from Alex, a guy who sat sceptically in one of my workshops as I described this very principle.

In the email he says, ‘I had just taken my daughter to swimming lessons when I got a text from my wife asking me to grab a few things from the supermarket. No problem’, he thought. But as he got to the checkout, his daughter, Edie, wanted a lolly. Alex said no, and immediately the tears appeared.

He says in his email, ‘Hang on, haven’t I heard this scenario before?’

So he put the principle into practice. He says, ‘I crouch down and with soft eyes tell Edie that I like lollies too.’ He says to her, ‘What sort of lolly,’ to which she replied, ‘red one’. ‘Oh I like red lollies too’, he says. ‘I like green ones as well. Do you like green ones?’

This goes on as they pay for the groceries, and when they leave Edie is calm and happily eating a banana. Alex says, ‘I was already feeling pretty smug about this but then turn round to see the other parent and an old guy behind me in the queue giving me a round of applause.’

We might not always get a round of applause but putting this principle into practice will help us through the tough ‘nos’ with our children. They may still want what they can’t have, but we’ll be able to playfully get them through it. And in the process, teach them.


Find more like this in the Happy Families Shop

Relationship Rules

21 Days to a Happier Family Online Program

10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know

The post Ask Dr Justin: What is the Best Way to Say ‘No!’ To Your Kids  appeared first on Dr Justin Coulson's Happy Families.

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Are We Over-scheduling Our Kids?

Dear Dr Justin

My kids are in a lot of after-school activities. They swim and play a musical instrument each. Two of them do drama, and all three are in Saturday sport. My husband and I are arguing about how much is too much. It’s impacting on our time together as a family, and our budget. But the kids are tired and don’t seem to love much of what they’re doing even though they’ve chosen it. I want them to do less. My husband wants them to keep going and also wants to add maths tutoring. Is there any research to tell us what is right and wrong? When I was a kid, I played netball. That was it. I’d love some advice. My kids are 5, 7, and 10.


Dr Justin responds:

Countless blog articles and even books have been written about whether our children are overscheduled. Experts and parents fear that kids are doing too much. They dramatically stir up concern that parents’ expectations are too high. Alarmists are screaming that the sky is falling and children are being deprived of a childhood because they have too many adults telling them what to do and when to do it and how they could have done it better.

Raising talented children (or at least raising children who have opportunities to develop talents) has become a competitive sport among some parents too, trying to outdo others with the impressive accomplishments of their child.

So do we need to ease off on the throttle? Or should we be exposing our children to as much enrichment as they can take? (And yes, budget has got to play a part. Some people reading this are wishing they could afford to have this problem.)

Why structured activities can be better than free play

At the outset, let’s acknowledge that free play and unstructured time is important for our children’s wellbeing. Kids need free time. And silence. Research tells us that both are important for our children’s healthy development. They need the opportunity to play, explore, be curious and creative, and be still. The more we schedule activities for them, the less free time, down time, and free play they have time for.

But, for many of us, it’s not so realistic. This is particularly the case when children are younger. This is the case for several reasons:

First, life is no longer “Leave it to Beaver”. Parents are working outside the home, the streets aren’t nearly as child-friendly as they were, and expectations around what’s safe for children have shifted.

Second, with the screen tsunami that has swept society, any opportunity our children may have for some ‘down’ time or free play is all-too-often subsumed by those screens. The benefits we seek are easily trumped by the digital distractions that are ever present.

Third, we feel good when our children are being watched by somebody responsible and learning at the same time. They’re safe. And they’re developing. That’s two big boxes we’ve just ticked! We’re making their lives better by ensuring they can play the guitar or dance or swim. While it costs money, we feel reassured that they’re not wasting their lives doing nothing… or worse, staring at that screen.

Fourth, when I leave my children alone for that “free-range” style of play, there’s a chance that someone ends up hurting a sibling. They fight.

Finally, parents are increasingly focused on success (narrowly defined as being better at things than others). It feels like our children’s lives are being optimised when we keep them busy and focused on mastery.

From a practical and psychological perspective, having the children involved in extra-curricular activities is the answer. No screens. No fighting. Learning. Safe. Optimised.

Research also tells us there are other benefits to structured activities. Sports give the opportunity for social skills, academic improvement, physical health, psychological wellbeing, and more. Music and the arts improve children’s memory, academic capacity, social skills, and so on. All of these activities potentially enhance feelings of competence, build relationships, and promote wellbeing.

Drawing a line in the sand

So what’s the answer? Are our children overscheduled? Do we need to pull back from extra-curricular opportunities and give our children more space to be children with no commitments or pressures or growth demands? Or should we embrace the benefits and push harder for more opportunity?

There is a line that balances the competing demands of structure, growth, and enrichment with stress, financial costs, and protecting childhood. The problem is – none of us really knows where that line is until we’ve crossed it. And it changes for each child… and it changes as they mature and develop.

Getting the balance right

Rather than me telling you where to draw that line, here are some questions to ask yourself so that you can get the balance right for your children.

  1. Am I anxious about my child’s success in life or am I trying to improve my child’s wellbeing?In other words, am I doing this because I want my kids to get ahead? Or am I doing this because it enhances their quality of life? The answer could be “both”, but this probably means that it’s about success and your anxiety about whether they’ll be good enough. “I’m doing this for you” can be said with sincerity, but it can also be said to mask the possibility that we are really doing this for ourselves and our view of what we think our child needs, regardless of their feelings.One way to identify our motivation is to ask:
  2. Does your child feel like you care about the outcomes more than they do?If your child gets the sense that missing that goal on the soccer field, not being selected for the rep. team, or failing in the Eisteddfod means they’re not good enough, then you may want to check yourself. This is meant to be about them having fun and learning. It’s not about them being the best and beating the best. When performance becomes a way of demonstrating personal worth and determining self-esteem, we’ve missed the point. If we care more about it than they do, we may have stepped over the line.Sometimes we care more about the outcomes because we care more about them and their lives than they do. We really do believe that if they are a concert pianist, or a representative soccer player, or insert excellence in specific activity here that their lives will be better. Sometimes we may be right. But plenty of people can’t play an instrument and are still, surprisingly wonderful humans.

Sometimes our children are simply unmotivated. This is unfortunate when we know we are giving them an opportunity for enrichment that is genuinely valuable. But generally speaking, if they don’t care and you do, you may have pushed things further than is worthwhile.

This doesn’t mean we should simply let them quit, by the way. In some cases we might suggest that they’re “so close” to the top of the metaphorical hill they’re climbing that a little more persistence is going to be worth it. Our wisdom may be persuasive in these instances. Another example is the importance of finishing school. For most children, this needs to happen even if they run out of puff with 47 days to go until the end of Year 12. Sometimes we must push and persist.

  1. Are your kids excited to participate?When you take your child to their lessons or sports, are they laughing and smiling, and energised? Or are they complaining and dragging their feet? Their energy levels around this activity can be a useful indicator of whether it’s working or not. There will be times when what they are doing is hard. They will lose motivation if they can’t master something. Persistence is sometimes required. But you will know they want to be there by the degree to which you convince, cajole, and coerce your child to get involved.

There are some practical things to consider that may influence your decision as well. Does your child have time to play with friends? Are they getting enough sleep? Does your child get free play time? Do you make time to do nothing alone, and together? That is, are we comfortable being alone together?

Age as a factor

The research tells us that our children benefit greatly from structured, planned, formal activities. If we have the resources, these activities are great for our children’s development. But age may be a factor.

Before about age 10, participation in structured activities should be limited and all about fun. If they want to play sport, or be involved in music and drama, this should be encouraged. But participation should be about fun and mastery. Scores are irrelevant. Best and fairest awards are redundant. Competitiveness, exams, and progression are secondary to enjoyment, mastery, and relationships.  The entire focus should be letting children be children.

Once the kids get to 10, let them choose. Give them options. Enrich their lives. It doesn’t matter so much how many activities they’re doing at this age. What matters is the messages you send about their participation in those activities, and the extent to which they enjoy them. The questions above can help you get the balance right.

Even more important is the message they receive from you about how important they are to you. And that doesn’t come from time in activities. It comes from time with you.

For more on this topic check out these great books and resources…

Families who integrate the principles described in What Your Child Needs From You into their everyday lives will be more peaceful, harmonious and functional, and will raise children who grow into kind and compassionate adults. | Dr Justin Coulson21 Days to a Happier Family online program - Dr Justin Coulson21 Days to a Happier Family | Dr Justin Coulson Book Cover

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7 Steps to Stressing Less in Parenting

Of all the jobs in the world, parenting must be one of the toughest, most challenging, and most confronting things we can do. Children are hard to understand, and sometimes they feel impossible to control. We regularly feel overwhelmed and incapable of getting it right – especially on those bad days.

Just last week I was solo-parenting. My wife was away for a few days with a friend who was grieving the loss of her husband. I had the six kids and was feeling ok until… Sunday morning my three-year-old fed all the fish food to the fish. We had a big container with about a two-year supply. And apparently overfeeding fish can kill them! We have an outside pond and I spent twenty minutes with a kitchen strainer, fishing the food out of the pond in the cold.

I walked back into the house and discovered that she had opened the fireplace. I had removed the safety screen to get the fire started when I discovered the fish food issue and forgotten to place the screen back where it belonged. The fire was out and the fireplace was cold. The toddler saw this as a wonderful opportunity to cover the floor with ash, step in it, and run footprints all through the house – on both the floorboards and the carpet!

At the same time, someone told me we were out of milk for breakfast, and I was now running late for a commitment. It was like something out of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.


Stress typically comes from a feeling that we are out of control. When we feel pressured or when we feel we have no choices available to us, stress builds up. We feel anger. We experience headaches or stomach churn. We become discouraged and feel helpless. It’s as though there’s nothing we can do to solve the problems we face.

Broaden and Build

When we feel stressed, our thinking becomes rigid and narrow. We can usually only see what’s right in front of us, and only one way of dealing with it. We tend not to notice how rigid and narrow we’ve become, however, because… well, we’ve become rigid and narrow.

When we can step back from our stress, observe it, and be “calm” about it, we see more possibilities and perspectives. We feel a reduction in our stress. Our thinking becomes broader, and we build up resources through relationships, clearer thinking, and better health.

That’s all fine in theory, of course, but when we’re in the thick of the daily drama, stress happens fast. We don’t step back and breathe. We don’t count to ten. We go into survival mode and start on that rigid, narrow pathway to stressful living.

7 Steps to Stressing Less

The ideas below can help you to manage and deal with stress when it surfaces:

1. Recognise what sets you off

Simply becoming aware of those stressors helps you to avoid them, or plan contingencies. You might know that mornings are a stressful time. By recognising this, you can proactively create new habits to make mornings work better. Organise children’s uniforms, shoes, and lunchboxes before bed. Create a breakfast menu so the children can choose their breakfast ahead of time. Establish a simple checklist for the children to follow. Wake up 15 minutes early to allow yourself more time.

2. Accept that you can’t fix everything

Sometimes that simple acknowledgement can change the game. When we know stress is coming and accept it, we feel calmer. The stress is strangely less stressful. Acceptance is a powerful tool in stress reduction.

Remember, too, that sometimes patience is the answer. Children eventually start to use the toilet. Three-year-olds do stop colouring in the leather sofa and the walls with pens. Eventually they develop and mature. You can’t fix some stuff. It simply has to work itself out over time.

3. Find the funny

If we can use humour, we can reduce stress. My friend, Wally, holds special training sessions for his kids when things go wrong at home. As an example, if the lights are left on, he calls the family together to discuss a terrible crime. “Someone has snuck into the house and left the lights on. It was probably an elephant. Let’s go elephant hunting and switch off all the lights as we search the house.” The more ridiculous, the better! This works best when we can step back from the narrow, rigid thinking that accompanies stress and make up something funny – and kind – to get the family working together.

4. Rehearse a reminder

Steve Biddulph says we should always be calmer than our children. That’s easier said than done when stress levels are climbing. I have a reminder that I try to rehearse in tough times: “Calm and kind.” I remind myself that I need to be calm and kind when I want to be highly-strung and horrible! And most of the time it works quite well.


5. Look after yourself

If you’re not getting enough sleep, if you’re using alcohol unhealthily (or other drugs at all), or if you’re not taking care of yourself emotionally, stress will build faster and hurt your family more.



6. Teach when everything is calm

It is tempting to discipline while we are in the moment with our kids. We want to “sort this stuff out now!” But recognising that we can talk later means everyone can calm down and relax a little before dealing with drama.

My favourite example of this was told to me by a man who had just bought a new car. His son begged to drive it on a date that night and dad said “ok”. As he left, the boy remembered something he had left in the house so he jumped out of the car and ran to get it. There was a massive crash. He raced to the window with his dad, and saw the car at the bottom of the driveway, smashed into a car parked on the street. He had forgotten to put the handbrake on, and left it in neutral. His father took a deep breath and quietly said, “I guess you’ll need to take the old car tonight.”

This dad knew that dealing with the drama in the moment might not be best. He knew his son would feel awful. And he knew that whether they talked about it that night or the next morning would make no difference. So he calmly reduced stress, handed over the keys, and avoided conflict and stress.

7. Get help

If you experience high levels of stress, if you feel out of control, or if anger is overtaking you, help is widely available. When you feel overwhelmed, discouraged, or even suicidal, get help! Go to your GP. Talk to your mum or your best friend. Arrange for someone to help a few hours each week. Just get help.

There are dozens of other ways that you can reduce stress for yourself. These might include giving yourself a daily 20 minute vacation by taking a bath, going on a walk, seeing a friend, or reading a book. Therapy and letting go of the past may be options. Scheduling a walk on the beach or a picnic in the park on a Saturday morning might be just what your family needs to de-stress.

As with most challenges in life, answers are rarely simple. But stress is not your family’s friend. These steps may be simple starting points to reduce stress and raise resilience.

For more on keeping family life stress-free, check out these great resources…

What if happiness and success were attainable right NOW? I've got 5 surprising secrets to creating a happier more successful you | Dr Justin Coulson

21 Days to a Happier Family book is designed for busy parents who want their kids to be better, themselves to be calmer, and their family to be happier | Justin Coulson's Happy Families

21 Days to a Happier Family online program - Dr Justin Coulson

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10 Steps to Reducing Sibling Conflict

I don’t remember who said it first but the best way to stop sibling rivalry and sibling squabbles is… to not have siblings.

Too late?


Have your children drawn an imaginary (or real) line down the middle of their room or in the back seat of the car and said, “You stay on your side or I’ll tear your arms off!”?

Have you heard your children whine:

“He’s touching me!”
“Make him stop looking at me!”
“She’s teasing me!”
“Stop it. I don’t like it! I’m dobbing on you.”

My favourite sibling complaint was shared by a tired, patient dad in a conference I attended years ago. One of his children complained to their mum:

“Mum, he’s breathing my air!”

Kids fight. They drive one another mad. They get in each other’s way.

Parents ask me how to stop it and why it’s happening. My response:

How old were you when you stopped fighting with your siblings?

Many adults confess that they still experience conflict with their siblings even though they’re in their 30’s or 40’s and live 1000kms apart. Christmas dinners are a perfect example.

I love what P. J. O’Rourke said: “Anybody can have one kid – but going from one kid to two is like going from owning a dog to running a zoo.”

With all of this as a backdrop, we need to acknowledge that preventing sibling conflict is almost impossible, but we can do a handful of things to reduce how often it occurs, and how bad it gets. No, you don’t need to buy one of everything for each child. Sharing is part of being in a family. Instead, try these tips…

10 Tips to Reduce Sibling Conflict

  1. Give individual attention to all of your children. It will never be quite equal. But when someone needs it, be there for them.  (Remember, girls like to be face to face, boys prefer side by side)
  2. When everyone needs attention and individual triage isn’t possible, either use distraction or do something together.
  3. Be aware of triggers (Hunger, Anger, Loneliness, Tiredness) and intervene early. If the children are tired and hungry, keep them separated if you can!
  4. Make sure the big ones don’t become parents to the little ones. “You’re not the boss of me!” means that someone may be over-exerting their authority and parents need to be more present.
  5. Be clear on your limits. “We are respectful. We speak nicely.”
  6. Avoid smacking. This models aggression and violence to our children. They’re more likely to repeat it.
  7. Teach children to soothe themselves. Staring at the sky, breathing, counting back from 1000 in 3’s… dig a hole in the sandpit to bury your anger, draw your frustration, listen to music. Each of these ideas can help a child relax.
  8. If you can name it you can tame it. If you sense a child is becoming frustrated, name it. This will help them know their emotions are normal and can be dealt with positively.
  9. Teach and model empathy.
  10. Remember that it’s tough being a sibling, especially when you’re young. Older siblings often ridicule and torment younger siblings. This is painful for anyone.

Every parent with more than one child – in fact, every human in a relationship – will experience some form of conflict, particularly with those closest to us. Conflict is not always bad. It allows us to re-examine habits and priorities, and gives us the possibility of progress. But it can be a problem if we don’t use it to improve.

When children fight with one another, stay calm, be clear, show empathy. They’re acting up because of the way that they feel. Help them feel better, and they’ll act better.

Then, invite them to think about how their behaviour is impacting on others. As they see how what they did affected others, you can help them to identify better ways to act towards one another, and slowly move towards making family life happier for everyone.

For more on creating a harmonious and happy family, check out 21 Days to a Happier Family – the book and the accompanying online video program.

21 Days to a Happier Family | Dr Justin Coulson


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10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know

My new book, 10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know, has just been released – and thousands of them have made their way across Australia and the world… to make families happier! If you haven’t bought a copy yet, you do grab one here (or anywhere online or at your favourite book seller).

To coincide with the book’s release, I asked a regular Happy Families reader and mum of 3, Victoria, to share her favourite parts of the book.

Victoria’s blog is below. I hope you enjoy Victoria’s insights and inspiration. Be warned, reading this will inspire you to connect more with your kids

#1 On getting it wrong as a parent:

“There’s an important difference between feeling desperate and feeling discouraged. Feeling discouraged makes us feel lousy about ourselves. We feel hopeless and helpless. Then we treat the kids badly, which reminds us of how hopeless we are, and then we fall into deeper discouragement.  Feeling desperate and admitting it – well that helps us realise we can’t do it ourselves, and so we look to other sources to guide us. This is where growth and learning occur.”

This resonates so strongly with me.  I originally found your work because I was desperate but you’re right; I was not discouraged.  I wasn’t ready to give up.  I was inspired to look for help and guidance and I found your work.  To me, this is strongly related to what we expect of ourselves.  When we expect ourselves to be perfect and we are unforgiving of our own mistakes, it’s easy to be discouraged.  It’s easy to think we’re failures as parents and our children will be scarred for life.  However, I try to treat myself with the same kindness I show to others.  I remind myself that I’m not trying to be perfect – I’m trying to develop better strategies.  Unlike perfection, that allows for a process of continual improvement.  Perfection is a static state.  You are either perfect or not.  I am not interested in perfection.  I am interested in learning.

#2 Being on the same page

look for the good in the parenting of your partner”

Reading these words made me uncomfortable.  Experience has taught me to pay attention to that feeling.  It usually tells me something important!  My husband and I have very different views on parenting.  We clash regularly.  I think he’s too harsh and doesn’t take the time to work with the children when they are challenging.  He scoffs at my approach and calls it the “United Nations meeting” where everyone talks endlessly and there are no consequences for poor behaviour.  He will not discuss any alternative ideas or strategies with me.  I have to admit that I am guilty of seeing the negative things about his approach and what I see as his poor choices and I am often frustrated by his refusal to engage with me about parenting.  After reading this chapter, I am committed to trying to judge and criticise less and simply be the example of a kind, calm, respectful approach.

#3 “Time is the most important ingredient in our relationships”

This is so true.  So simple in theory and yet sometimes so hard in practice.  I love that this section of the book made me think about how I spend my time and why I don’t always prioritise time with the children.  I suspect laundry has a bit to do with it!  I do try to spend time with the girls but I know there are many times when I put housework first or talking on the phone to a friend.  There are evenings when I just want them to go to sleep so that I can have some time to myself but of course that’s when they have a lot to talk about.  This one sentence is so powerful because it shifts perspective.  Of all the things I do, being with my children is the greatest investment of my time.  My relationship with them and their well-being are so important.  They need me and to be honest, I need them.  Of course the housework still needs to be done and other relationships need to be nurtured but I am inspired to look carefully at how I use my time and how I can work on freeing more up for the things in life that really matter (hint: not the laundry).  The tips for making the most of time together in this chapter are so helpful.

#4 “Form follows feelings…

 That is: our children behave the way they feel. If they feel lousy, their behaviour is lousy. If they feel great, safe, loved and understood, they behave positively – even perfectly. We tend to not be so great at seeing things the way our children see them, though.”

This is such a challenge for parents I believe.  For some reason, we tend to be programmed to react to challenging behaviour as bad behaviour and we tend to react with irritation and anger.  Since discovering your work, I have done a lot of work myself in my home to help me connect with my children when they’re experiencing challenges and it has opened my eyes enormously to my own reactions and how unhelpful my “default” responses are.  Since I’ve practised responding using your approach – with kindness and empathy when my children are struggling with overwhelming emotions and behaving in a way that I find challenging, they have actually become much calmer.  It’s not always easy.  Sometimes the things they’re angry or upset about seem so absurdly trivial but I try to remind myself that whatever the issue is, it’s important to them.  I try to see it from their perspective and I no longer automatically expect them to understand other perspectives.  Interestingly, with support, they are able to now that they’re a bit older.   I have worked on helping them label and understand their emotions and they have started to recognise their feelings and how they impacts them and others.  Even my very sensitive and emotional child now asks me for help and tries hard to breathe deeply to help calm herself and explain her problem to me.  It’s not perfect and we still have lots of emotion around but I find it easier and easier to see things from their perspective and I’m sure they feel safe and understood and supported.  I truly believe that this change alone has translated to kinder and more caring behaviour all around.

#5 Fast is slow, slow is fast

I’m not being dramatic when I say that these 6 words have changed my life!  I remember them when my child is trying to do up her own seatbelt and I’m twitching because we need to get going.  I remember them when they’re fighting and my instinct is to just tell them to stop it.  I remember them when it’s past bed time and I really want to see the next episode of Call the Midwife and my 6 year old announces that she’s scared about going into the next level at school.  I cannot think of a single time when taking over what they’re trying to do or dismissing their feelings or trying to shut down their emotions has made anything happen more efficiently but thanks to these 6 words, I can think of many times when recalling them, taking a breath and letting my child finish her task or tell me her feelings has led to peace and calm and happiness in our family.

#6 We want them to get out of BED and use their OAR.

We want them to “take Ownership, be Accountable and show Responsibility”.

This statement alone is a useful reminder of how we can respond constructively in a situation of conflict and use it to teach skills and values.  However, it is followed with a very practical guide to holding the conversation which I found so valuable.  One thing I think a lot of p[parents struggle with is putting new theories into practice   We know what we want to achieve but how to do it can be elusive.  As with all your work, you provide such practical ideas and tips which I find so helpful. I have used this strategy already with my kids and the results have been great; having a 6 year old empowered to identify how she contributed to the conflict and what she can do to make the situation better is exhilarating for a parent.

#7 “Our focus should be on helping, not hurting.  We want progress, not perfection.”

I love this.  It’s so simple and yet so easy to lose sight of in a busy or emotional situation.  I often think that it’s easy to expect more from our children than we ourselves are able to do.  We get angry but want to shut down our child’s anger.  We shout but tell our children to speak quietly.  It’s so important to remember that none of us is capable of perfection and we certainly cannot expect it from people who have only had a few years to learn to manage their emotions and develop their social skills.  When we take the time to help our children progress, they will.  Hurting them verbally or physically does not teach them anything worth knowing.  We can’t bully them into being good people.

#8 On teaching compassion:

“we gently invite our children to feel love and compassion for their siblings. ‘You might not know that your sister looks up to you. She wants to be like you. I hope you can find a way for her to be with you while still  accomplishing the things you set out to do.’”

This is one I will memorise and adapt for different situations.  It is kind, non-critical and gentle.  I can see that it would help with developing that important ability – seeing another person’s point of view.  I see adults who struggle to do that and very few of us know how to help another person develop it.  I particularly like that this provides a seed for the child to then move forward with a solution.  It’s very different to a prescriptive approach telling the child how to include a sibling.  Children can be so creative in their problem solving if given the space and this strategy provides that space.

#9 On success:

“What are the character traits that make a person truly successful? Kindness, respect, integrity, service to others, curiosity, compassion, understanding, a desire for excellence. There are attributes like perseverance, creativity, modesty and gratitude. Then there’s the vital ability to recognise our mistakes and grow from them.

One would think that this goes without saying but I think we all need to be reminded of it and it’s helpful to think about how these traits are encouraged or discouraged in our children.  I think a traditional approach to parenting focused purely on making children compliant and obedient is not the best way to develop these qualities.  I have read a lot of your work and we have discussed parenting on numerous occasions.  All of that has convinced me firmly that the best way to teach a quality is to model it and to explicitly coach children in developing and using it.  I believe this belief underpins so much of your work and all your advice supports it.

#10 On being who you really are:

“It can be hard for us to encourage our children to ‘be who they really are’ when they aren’t allowed to make any decisions. Worse still, they cannot discover who they really are when the decisions they are making are all reactions to our assertions of power. In an almost perverse perfection, however, our limits are essential for our children to figure out who they really are. They actually need something to push against.”

I have read this paragraph several times over.  There is so much in it and it is a perfect example of the continual balancing act and analysis involved in truly careful parenting.  We know that our children need boundaries and we (I hope) know that they need opportunities to make decisions for themselves.  I have seen first hand the impact of a parent “micro-managing” children and making all their decisions for them their entire lives.  It’s an extreme example but, as adults, they have no confidence in their own decisions and have never developed the ability to evaluate their decisions and use good judgment in decision making.  They still make poor choices which reinforces their fear of making decisions and the cycle continues.  Their self-esteem has been irreparably damaged. Allowing children space to make decisions within clear boundaries and coaching them through the process where needed rather than simply making the decisions for them is critical.

#11 On being both strong and caring

“Helping our children discover who they really are means we teach them to be strong enough to take a stand on an issue or principle, even when no one else will. It’s about teaching them that they can be both strong and caring.”

This is a concept that resonates strongly with me.  It is something I deeply believe in and I think it is at risk when we focus on teaching our kids to be obedient.  I have always thought that while it would be convenient for my daughters to do everything I ask, I am very uncomfortable with the thought that they will feel obliged to do everything that other people ask.  I want them to be able to think independently and to stand up for themselves and others.  Of course I want them to be kind but I don’t want them to be too eager to please others and certainly not at the expense of their own well-being.  Reading this reminds me of a time when my then 6 year old was spending the day with my mother.  They’d been for a walk and when they returned  my daughter realised she’d dropped a toy she had taken with her.  My mother said “Well you stay here in the house and I’ll quickly go over our steps and find it.”  My daughter was quiet for a moment and then said “Nana are you sure you should leave a 6 year old alone in your house?  I don’t think you’re supposed to do that.”  She was calm and polite but assertive enough to speak up when she was told to do something she was uncomfortable with.  I very much hope that nurturing that will stand her in good stead in the future.

#12 “Screens interfere with relationships.”

I often tell my husband that real life is all the stuff that is happening elsewhere while he’s on his iPad.  I think that we instinctively know that screens are not great for us and certainly not for our kids but they do seem to infiltrate into everyday life so easily.  It can be hard to fight them temptation to give into the kids and give them screen time more than we’re comfortable with.  I also find that when they’re tired or fractious and quarrelsome, I’m tempted to put something on a screen to keep them calm.  After reading this, I have found that reminding myself that screen time is not actually conducive to developing relationships or any of the qualities or abilities needed to have constructive relationships makes it much easier to stand firm.  If the children are too tired or cranky to interact well then I would prefer to ditch the meal plan, feed them cheese on toast and be with them to help them cope. I’m sure that does more for the relationships within our family than an electronic device!

Thanks Victoria!

If you’d like this – and so much more – to be part of what you do as a family, get your copy of 10 Things Every Parent Needs To Know right here.


10 Things Every Parent Needs To Know




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Ask Dr Justin — Screens in Bedrooms?

Hi Dr Justin

My partner and I are arguing about whether screens cause problem behaviour in kids or not. I say they do but he says they don’t. Our 9 year-old wants a TV in his room to play video games on. I’m saying no. Am I right? My partner thinks it’s fine and will keep him out of our hair. Am I being too “precious” which is what my partner is saying?

The short answer is… “You’re right. He’s wrong.”

Let me explain why your partner needs to back down and listen to you.

When it comes to technology, having screens in bedrooms is one of the most well-established risk factors for our children’s positive development. This is for two central reasons:

  1. When a screen is in the bedroom, the simple fact is that parents have no idea what their kids are watching. (This is called the “content” hypothesis.)
  2. Parents have no idea how much they’re watching. (This is called the “displacement” hypothesis because screens displace more important activities.)

Do you know what they’re watching?

In relation to content, a recent study published in the prestigious Developmental Psychology journal highlighted that children with bedroom media are likely to be exposed to more media violence than those without screens in their room. This led to kids’ feeling that violence and aggression are ok, and they behaved more aggressively than their peers.

Other research shows that kids become more hostile in relationships because of screen media, and they see other content that is harmful to their wellbeing, including pornography.

The reality is that they’ll see concerning content whether they have a screen in their room or not. But one thing is for sure… they’re definitely going to watch more screens and increase their risks when they have them in their room. Evidence from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children highlights that as soon as kids have screens in their room, they stare at them longer. The latest research shows that about 25% of Aussie children aged 6-11 years had a TV in their bedroom in 2015. At age 12-13 years, the number of kids who could watch TV in the bedroom rose to around 50%, including laptop or other screen access. Data from around the world shows that the percentages only increase as children get older.

Are they streaming or dreaming?

It’s not just about what they watch that affects their development. It’s what screens replace that matters too! During the day, they miss out on relationships, exercise, extra-curricular activities, and down time. At night, tather than dreaming, kids are streaming – or gaming – and it impacts their wellbeing in significant ways.

Australian data indicates screen time is affecting obesity, physical activity, and other social outcomes. If kids are too tired, they don’t relate well to others. And there is strong evidence that screens are impacting children’s behaviour, and their academic results. Plus, research shows that kids go to bed later, sleep less, and experience lower quality sleep when a screen is in their room.

Dealing with opposition

Now that we’ve got the evidence out of the way, it’s important that you don’t wave this article in your partner’s face and say, “Told you so. Ner ner ner ner ner.” We need to have more mature ways of communicating about these things.

I’d suggest the following:

First, ask him why it’s such a big deal to him that your son has a TV in his room. Be polite and genuinely try to understand. Perhaps he has some strong reasons. Or maybe he was allowed one as a child and thinks it didn’t affect him negatively. Listen and understand.

Second, ask him what outcomes you both want for your son and discuss how a TV may or may not help to achieve those outcomes.

Third, describe your concerns to him. Ask if he can listen without judgement so that he can really get what you’re saying.

Finally, focus on “where to from here”, so that you can problem-solve together. It’s important that you are united before you start conversations with your son about this. Don’t bully one another though. Remember the couplet:

One convinced against their will
Is of the same opinion still.

Whether it’s messing with their brain, impacting their relationships, affecting their physical health, or leading to depression, there are no strong reasons to put a screen into your child’s bedroom.

And keep this in mind: it’s much easier to never allow media in the bedroom than to allow it and then try to take it back out. The answer comes down to one simple word – just two letters – that can be tough to say. But that little word can save a LOT of pain down the track.


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Ask Dr Justin — How do I teach my child not to swear?

Hi Dr Justin,

How do you teach a child not to swear when swearing is everywhere – on television, on YouTube and even occasionally from their parents! My daughter thinks it’s ok to say frigging as it’s not the “real” word. They also learn all the words very early on at school as some kids think it is cool to say them. And recently one of my kids has learnt to express her anger by using her middle finger. How do I teach her that’s not ok?

“Coarse language” is all over the TV. It’s everywhere on social media. And it’s always been the way some kids demonstrate how cool they are in the schoolyard — from about Grade 3.

Even though we are surrounded by it (and most adults use it), coarse language still startles us a little when we hear it come from the mouths of kids. When a four-year-old drops an F-bomb, everyone pays attention!

Some parents aren’t bothered by swearing, even from their pre-schoolers. Others (like me) prefer that their kids don’t even say “shut-up” or “idiot”.

Most kids are going to swear. (Not all, but most.) It’s a kind of forbidden fruit that they’ve got to taste. When they swear, they feel powerful, adult-like, and cool. But there are a few things we can do to reduce their swearing and rude gestures.


First up, we’ve got to be an example. If kids have a potty-mouth parent, they’ll likely experiment with the same words they hear coming from you. If you don’t want them to swear, you need to keep it clean.


Second, even if you’re a great example, they will hear swearing as they get older. We need to pre-arm them. This means we talk about swearing. Ask them how they feel when people swear. Get them to think about what they’d do if someone was swearing around them. Ask them if they think it’s ok for them to swear. Then explain what you think is appropriate (such as “As your mum, I don’t want you to swear because…”).


By the time they’re about ten (sometimes younger), they know they can get away with things like swearing behind your back. And they will! So shift to a discussion about being considerate of others.

You might say “I don’t like swearing. I don’t like middle-finger salutes. I think it reflects poorly on you, and on our family. Lots of other people don’t like it either. I don’t want you to do it, but I also know I can’t stop you doing it. But there are some times it’s totally wrong to swear or stick your finger up. Can you give me some examples?”

You want to guide your child to be mindful of others, to watch their language in public spaces (such as at the shops, on a bus or train, or where little kids are around). Your goal: help them to have empathy for others.


If you don’t want swearing in your house be firm, regardless of their age. If their friends swear at your place, take your child aside. Ask them if they’d like to explain the rules to their friend, or if they’d prefer you to. You set the standard.


When they do swear, it’s best to not make a big deal about it. Wait for the moment to pass, explain how you feel, ask them to be considerate of others, and let them work it out for themselves. When you relax about it, the thrill wears off much faster.


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