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!

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?

Same.

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.

BE AN EXAMPLE

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.

PRE-ARM YOUR KIDS

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…”).

ENCOURAGE CONSIDERATION OF OTHERS

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.

SET CLEAR STANDARDS

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.

RELAX

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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Ask Dr Justin — Dealing with Divorce

Hi Dr Justin

My husband and I are divorcing. We love each other but we’re not good for each other. But we’re worried about how to talk to the kids about it. They’re 11 and 6. We’re also not sure how we can co-parent because of the strong feelings and issues we’ve got. How do we get this right?

Because you and your ex- have children together, your lives will be intertwined for a long time yet, and you’ll need to work together to make things smooth. This can be tricky since working together hasn’t worked so well already.

There are 7 C’s to separation and divorce when there are kids involved, and they’ll help you navigate this tricky time:

Closeness

To the extent possible, you’ll co-parent more effectively if you live close by. Children who can be with their parents (both of them) regularly and easily seem to do best in most situations. And it’s convenient for school, friends, extra-curricular activities, and so on.

Caregiving

Children and parents do better when parenting is shared. If dad has all the fun on weekends and holidays and mum does the daily grind, dissatisfaction and resentment build. Plus, kids may think mum’s no fun, and relationships can be damaged.

Conflict

Keep it down. There aren’t too many things more damaging to kids than parents who are constantly at each other. So speak positively about one another, particularly to the kids. And if you can’t be “nice” when you’re together, treat one another as if you were business clients transacting a big deal. (Remember, we don’t tend to text profanities and hate to our business clients at 11pm.)

Change

Children don’t respond to these kinds of changes well. Remember, you’ve had time to adapt and get used to the idea that this is happening. They haven’t. They’ll struggle. They’ll tantrum. They’ll say that hate you. Be patient and understanding. This change is likely to be tougher on them than you. And when more change is coming, give lots of warning so they can get used to the idea.

Cash

In too many cases, living standards between homes become unequal after divorce. To the extent possible, make sure that both parents can provide for children in similar ways. If this doesn’t happen, one parent’s home often becomes far more appealing to kids.

Communication

Being able to talk to one another respectfully is crucial. Some couples use a diary and write to one another when kids are swapping homes. Others are able to talk to one another with complete civility. What matters is that communication is simple, clear, and direct.

Court

The final “C” of separation and divorce is an unfortunate reality. When matters can’t be deal with in good ways without intervention, the courts have their place. While many people hate what the courts do to families, we sometimes need someone else to set the boundaries of our new relationship because the two adults in charge can’t do it effectively themselves. Ideally, work things out together, but if it all goes pear-shaped, the law may be the best way to protect yourself and your family.

In relation to the conversation that you have with your children, the following discussion points will be helpful. These ideas may be adapted based on the ages of your children. Let them know:

  • The kids didn’t cause it, and they couldn’t have prevented it
  • The parents loved each other when the children were born, and those children were (and are) wanted
  • Both parents still love them and want to remain part of their lives
  • The children don’t have to choose who they’ll live with. That’s been decided for them
  • Parents may still struggle and disagree. These disagreements are between the parents, and the kids don’t need to take sides
  • The children will probably have big feelings like sadness and anger for a long time – maybe more than a year! If they feel like that, their parents will be there to listen and talk without judgment
  • The divorce is not a secret. They can tell others if they need to
  • Rules are probably going to be a bit different in each home. They need to accept that each home will have different rules and follow the rules accordingly

Research suggests that, on average, it takes about two years for most kids to move through the emotions related to parents divorcing. Minimise the change they experience in relation to new schools, friends, and new circumstances, and then be there to listen, understand, and help. Patience will be key.

Of course, it’s hard to be patient when your whole world is falling down and you don’t have the emotional headspace to deal with your own stuff, let alone theirs. So my last point is simple: Be good to yourself. There will be times when you feel relieved, happy, free, and even jubilant. But it will take you time to adjust to any painful separation. You’ll also likely have times where you feel isolated, angry, helpless, depressed, and alone. (Holidays, Christmas, or hearing about your ex’s new partner or marriage can all do that.) You may ask “why” over and over, and your self-worth may drop. In serious cases you may even think about suicide. If this happens, get help fast. Don’t keep it a secret.

Ultimately, families can and do adapt to divorce. Experiencing all of the emotions on the spectrum is often part of the process, but with time comes healing. For now, remember that your children need both their parents (as long as they’re safe). Find ways to get along, cooperate in loving your children, give it time, and you can make it work.

 

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Watch Your Words

I watched from a distance as the desperate mum yelled at her child, “Would you just calm down? Calm down right now! If you don’t calm down I’ll give you a big smack!”

Her child – unsurprisingly – did not calm down.

The mum became more agitated. “I’ve had it with you. You’re a little brat.”

We’ve all been there – and we’ve been frustrated with ourselves because of it. We don’t want to speak badly to our children. But… now and then we find ourselves stressed out, and those words just flow.

Are they damaging? Or is it ok to lose the plot, swear, name call, and apologise later?

Our words create our world. Whatever direction your words lead, your mind and body will follow. We believe what we tell ourselves. Language is powerful.

For example, if you’ve ever made a mistake and muttered under your breath, “You idiot”, chances are you didn’t immediately pause and argue back, “I am not an idiot. Why would I say that about myself?” Instead, you simply accepted it. You believed yourself. After all, you can clearly see what an idiot you are!

Our language doesn’t just affect us and the way that we see ourselves. It affects the way we see our children.

A parent I sat with described all of the reasons she couldn’t stand her teenage daughter. “She’s so selfish. She thinks of no one but herself. She’s disrespectful. She’s wasteful. She treats our home like a hotel.” The list of complaints was long. Much of it was likely true. But when I asked her to tell me about her daughter’s positive attributes, it was like I was hearing about a different child. “Well, actually, she’s really caring. And she is a great sister. She can be generous.” The list could not have been more different when this mum focused on her daughter’s positives.

The language we use about one another – and towards one another – impacts how we see one another. With this in mind, let’s review some things that we can easily say about our kids that, in hindsight, it might be best to avoid saying. (We’ll leave the hateful, nasty kind of stuff out because it’s usually obvious that those things are unhelpful. Besides, there are much more interesting things we often say to our kids that are counter-productive and may even be harmful.)

1. Don’t say: “Calm down.” Say: “You are so upset.” 

Telling someone to stay calm has the opposite effect on them to the one we want. It’s dismissive, and it denies emotions. No one in history has ever been told to calm down and responded with… “ok, you’re right. I’m out of control, but I’m better now!”

Instead, focus on labelling the emotion. If you can name it, you can tame it. It makes it normal, ok, and something everyone else experiences from time to time.

2. Don’t say: “You’re so clever!” Ask: “How did you feel when…” 

Research tells us that praise leads to inferences of low ability. It’s like saying “Wow, this broccoli is awesome.” Kids are thinking, “If it’s that good, why are you trying to sell me on it so hard?” People don’t believe praise.

And all that stuff that world famous “mindset” researcher, Professor Carol Dweck, says about praise for effort rather than the person? Well, it’s still evaluative, and it still promotes a fixed mindset rather than growth. The best thing to do is turn it back on the person/child. “Hey. You seem really happy with that outcome. Tell me what you did to get it?” Once they’ve praised themselves, they’re more likely to accept your congratulations and kind words.

3. Don’t say: “Urgh, you’re just like your mother.”  Say: “Wow, this is really challenging for you.”

We want to avoid comparison at all costs. This is just a put down at another’s expense. If you want to finger point, whether it’s with a child or an employee, be clean and clear rather than implicating others. Highlight what you’re observing. “In these situations you seem to struggle with…”. Then offer to help.

4. Don’t say: “Because I said so.” Say: “Let me tell you why this matters”

Our goal is to provide a “why”. When people have a clear rationale for the requests we are making they are far more likely to be compliant, or to respond with thoughtfulness if they disagree with what we’ve asked. Because I said so is an unhelpful power trip.

5. Don’t say: “I was lousy at that.” Say: “It’s amazing what we can do when we try”

Again, telling someone they aren’t any good at it because we aren’t is making excuses and promoting a victim mentality. We can promote a growth mindset by highlighting what happens when we have-a-go, put in the effort, and work hard at something. Lousy at maths? It’s amazing what we can do when we try. Can’t write essays or run the cross country course? Hmmm… can’t YET.

These alternative statements emphasise the power and positivity of a growth mindset. Much better than being a victim.

6. Don’t say: “Don’t be so stupid.” Say: NOTHING – pause, walk away.

Ultimately, it’s just plain disrespectful. But more than that, it’s not going to motivate someone. We don’t motivate others by making them feel lousy. Instead, if you’re mad because they’re doing something dumb, ask them to stop. Provide a clear rationale. And if you can’t say something nice, then be quiet.

Remember, what seems stupid to us makes sense to them or they wouldn’t do it. So be curious, not cranky. There’s always a reason for challenging behaviour – and as we understand, we can redirect and improve things.

The research tells us that saying horrible things to others is every bit as damaging as other forms of abuse. It affects cognitive functionSome research suggests that verbal abuse (which can include name calling and other horrible things like some of those above) has effects comparable to witnessing domestic violence, and it is worse than physical abuse!

This is serious stuff.

Things will come out of our mouths that can hurt. The trick is to say fewer of those things, and build our children up – especially in our own eyes. Our words create worlds – ours and our children’s.

 

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Ask Dr Justin — Has my Daughter got Anxiety?

Dear Dr Justin,

My 10-year-old (nearly 11) daughter gets very anxious. Yesterday she dropped something and said: “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I’m really sorry.” She would have continued if I hadn’t stopped her. She was upset I didn’t buy the right type of ham and said it had ruined her day. Then she can switch and be her normal, happy self.  Is she getting hormonal? Is it anxiety? Could she be bipolar?

For years there have been warnings that depression will soon be – or is – the leading contributor to global disability. We have watched as more and more young people have been diagnosed at earlier and earlier ages. But in recent times the World Health Organisation has highlighted that anxiety is fast catching up, and is particularly common in our youth – especially girls. Parents are becoming increasingly anxious about their children’s anxiety.

Anxiety

Children with anxiety worry persistently, excessively, and unrealistically about things most other kids their age don’t worry about. To be diagnosed with anxiety requires 6 months of this type of worry, where your child struggles to control the worry. They might be restless, fatigued, irritable, struggle to concentrate, feel tense, or not be sleeping well. The worry needs to impact unhelpfully in various areas of their life, and not be explained by medical issues, drugs, or other psychological challenges.

I don’t have nearly enough information from you to identify whether your daughter could be labelled with anxiety (or bipolar). Labels can help in some instances, but at this stage, I’d suggest that a label is not in your daughter’s best interest. So now that we know what anxiety is, let’s be open to other possible explanations for her behaviour.

Physical Factors

Girls experience puberty earlier than boys (on average), usually around age 9-11. Strong emotions (including mood swings, tears, and excitement/elation) are a normal response to the tremendous hormonal and physical changes that are occurring. Children can be scared of puberty. Some mourn as they recognise they’re not a little kid anymore.

In addition to puberty, evidence shows that poor sleep can contribute to the challenges you’re describing. As screens invade our children’s lives – particularly at night – evidence shows they’re sleeping fewer hours than ever before, and also getting lower quality sleep.Setting appropriate limits around screens and getting screens out of rooms, especially at night time, may be helpful.

School Factors

Research suggests that school is increasingly stressful for many of our children. Worries about grades, keeping up, and staying on top of homework can leave children feeling overwhelmed. They might hold it together at school, but then lose the plot when they get home – often over the tiniest things.

Relationships can also trigger big emotions and challenging behaviour. Bullying, isolation, or the cattiness characterising so many girls’ relationships might also be creating the behaviour you’re seeing.

Family Factors

From time to time our children get worried about what’s happening at home. If there is parental conflict or separation, a new sibling, someone being affected by a serious illness, each of these can trigger the behaviour you’re seeing.

Any of these factors, or a combination of these and other factors, might explain the challenging behaviour you’re experiencing without needing to look at anxiety as a potential cause. There might be something medically wrong. Your daughter’s unique personality might be a little perfectionistic or overly conscientious. Or there may be nothing wrong at all, and she’s just been feeling a little ordinary lately.

What do you do?

You can’t control your daughter’s reactions, but you can help her to work through them. I’d suggest that you take a validating, empathic approach to her outbursts and struggles. This will be helpful whether she has anxiety or not.

When she becomes deeply apologetic, play “guess that emotion” by saying, “You’re worried you’ll be in trouble because you dropped the plate.” Name what she feels. Then instead of correcting her (or getting her in trouble for being clumsy), hug her. Tell her you love her. Ask if she needs a hand. Be supportive.

When she is upset that you bought the wrong ham, do the same. “You’re frustrated that I bought the wrong ham. That’s so annoying. You want honey ham and I bought the smoked stuff. That’s so frustrating isn’t it.”

You’re not saying it’s ok. You’re just letting her know you get it. The reality is that you probably get emotional when you drop something. Or perhaps you feel frustrated when you are hoping for one kind of chocolate and your hubby buys you a different one.

See the emotion as a chance to understand, not reprimand. Get curious, not cranky. Connect, label the emotion, and be there for her. (And if she needs space or is non-responsive, back away and leave her for a while before trying again.)

Validation and empathy can help when life gets overwhelming for young kids (and even for us big kids). Our children want to do the right thing, and they want things to be right. Our understanding and compassionate responses to their challenges and mini-meltdowns go a long way to helping them regulate their emotions and respond well to the challenges they experience.

If things continue to deteriorate and you see evidence of anxiety, seek professional help.

 

 

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Channelling the Inner Batman

“If you do what I ask you to, you’ll get a gold star on the reward chart.”

“No treats until you’ve done your job.”

“We’re not going to the park if you won’t do what you’re told!”

Bribery and threats are regularly a parent’s “go-to” strategy when children are reluctant helpers, are unwilling to do their homework, or won’t stick at a task or do something hard. It can be hard for kids to stay on task… there are so many other things more enticing – like their screens.

When something requires willpower, many children give up, get distracted, or refuse to do as they’re asked. Reading, doing chores, eating all their dinner, and even going to bed on time! So as exhausted parents, we lean on our kids with the promise of nice stuff (bribes), or the promise of nasty stuff (threats). But bribes and threats can leave us feeling a bit “icky”. Even when we get compliance, we know that our kids aren’t really motivated to do what we’re asking. They’re just motivated to get the goody, or avoid the pain on offer!

In addition, there’s a sense that we’re being manipulative. It can feel as though we are harming our relationship with our child (after all, no one likes to be threatened). And we’re often ignoring the reasons they are refusing us in the first place.

Most concerning of all, we’re making them more selfish. When we bribe or threaten, we shift our child’s focus to him or herself. They ask themselves, “What will I get (or avoid) if I do what I’m told?” It’s a “What’s in it for me?” approach that can carry across into all of their interactions, and leave them totally self-focused.

New research suggests a fun, alternative option to help us get stuff done with our kids. It’s called the “Batman Effect.” Here’s how it works:

Tell your kids to imagine they’re Batman. Say to them, “Is Batman working hard?” Or “Is Batman eating the food he needs to be a super-hero?” Perhaps “Is Batman concentrating?”

If you can get them to channel their inner Batman, or Dora the Explorer, or Bob the Builder, or Rapunzel, they’ll almost certainly apply more perseverance to the task!

Here’s how the experimenters figured this out:

Researchers invited 180 children aged 4-6 years old into the lab, one by one. They were assessed on their self-control, their memory, and their empathy. Then they were asked to complete a ten-minute task on the computer; a really boring task. They were encouraged to complete the task, but were also told that they could take a break whenever they felt like it. If they decided to take a break, they knew they could play on a nearby i-Pad.

Some children were told to ask themselves, “Am I working hard?” as they completed the task. Others were told to ask themselves, “Is [child’s name] working hard?” This was meant to have them stand outside themselves and see themselves in the third person. Finally, some kids were put into role-play mode, and asked themselves, “Is Batman [or preferred character] working hard?” The kids in the role-play condition were also given a prop (like Batman’s cape) to make it more real. Additionally, each minute, a recorded voice also asked them the same question (based on the condition they were in).

The kids who spent most time on task were… the older children. Probably no surprises there. Six-year-olds are better at concentrating than four-year-olds.

It gets interesting, however, when we look at the way they saw themselves during the task. Kids who role-played their favourite fictitious character stuck with the boring task significantly longer than the children in the other two groups. They didn’t all complete the task, but they spent considerably longer working at it.

Why would pretending to be Batman (or Dora, etc) make kids work harder at something they don’t want to do? Maybe it was fun. Perhaps it provided some psychological distance for them – they didn’t feel like they were doing the boring stuff. It was Batman! It could be that they felt like they really were Batman or Dora, and adopted character traits that they perceived in their hero.

This sounds exciting for parents. Maybe we can do away with the bribes (and threats), and just get our kids to imagine they’re a superhero. Channel that, and watch the bedroom get cleaned up!

And if your boss asks you to do a task this week that you don’t want to do, just smile, wink, and say “You bet. I’m Batman.”

There is, however, an important additional question we need to ask ourselves. What if the task we are asking our children to do is boring, unimportant, and lacking in meaning and relevance? Demanding compliance as a power-trip – just because – is not going to be positive. Demanding our children show determination – “grit” – like Batman so that we can manipulate their behaviour is unfair to them, and ultimately it is unlikely to serve them.

In a perfect world we want to encourage our children to act autonomously; to be self-determined. We want them to be able to choose to do good things for the right reasons. Yes, even at the age of 4, 5, or 6.

If they are doing something worthwhile though; if it’s something that they are willing to do and generally do well but are struggling, then asking them to be like Batman may be a helpful strategy to get you (or them) there from time to time.

 

 

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How to Play with your Kids – and Enjoy It

You may have noticed a really big difference between children and grown-ups. No I’m not talking about the physical size difference, or the more obvious maturity that most adults have compared to their kids. I’m talking about our approach to life.

Have you noticed that once we’re parents, most of us want life to be civilised, tidy, quiet, and relaxed.

And the kids? They want wild. They want action. They want exploration and adventure. While we want to sleep, they want one thing over and over again. Play!

And they want it as much as possible. All the time.

There’s a very important reason play matters so much to our young children. Research shows that they need it to thrive (as do we). In fact, play may be one of the most essential experiences our children can be immersed in to equip them for later life. The more they can do it, the better off they may be.

There’s just one problem. Play is evolving. In many cases it no longer looks like it once did, and that may not be a good thing. The Australian Child Health Poll recently investigated digital media use for children. Our infants and toddlers are engaging with screens of one kind or another around 12-14 hours per week. To put that into perspective, experts argue that this figure should be as close to zero as possible. And 2-6 year-old children are on screens around 26 hours per week. That’s over 3 hours per day! (Our teens hit a whopping 43 hours per week, or just over 6 hours per day.)

That means our little ones are missing out on up to 26 hours per week of genuine, creative playtime; the kind of play where they connect with others, use their imagination – and their hands – and the kind of play that leads to great outcomes.

If we want our children to thrive and flourish, they need to play. When it’s done right (and screens are kept to a minimum), real play stimulates growth and learning for children that they simply can’t get in other, more ‘modern’ ways.

Play creates space for three vital needs to be met in our children’s lives: relatedness, competence, and autonomy.

Here’s how:

First, and most important of all, play can create the chance for connection. Our children learn how to communicate, manage conflict, collaborate, and bond with us, their siblings, and their friends when they play. They use their imaginations to create situations where they can explore and play with roles (like doctors and nurses or mums and dads), pretend emotions, and unexpected social situations.

These relational skills may be the most important things that our children can learn so that they can navigate life successfully – and they learn them best through play.

Second, the best kinds of play are not about consumption, but creation. Think of classic playtime with LEGO (or DUPLO for younger kids), or even time in a sandpit or cushion-and-blanket cubby house. When our children play open-ended games they can use their imagination and creativity to build things, explore the limits of their physical surroundings, and experience a sense of competence when they succeed. When they feel competent, they feel motivated and happy – and they keep trying new things.

Third, children develop a sense that they’re in control when they play. It makes them confident, resourceful, and resilient. They do what feels intrinsically motivating. The best learning happens when our kids play creatively in ways that they choose.

Learning and playing do not need to be considered opposites. The more that they are intertwined, the better the outcomes.

I don’t know about you, but when it comes to my kids I want them to have the kinds of play opportunities that rely on imagination and creativity, that involve tactile experiences, and that build relationships. I’m talking about the kind of play that connects and creates. It’s the kind of play where kids call out, “Mum, come and see what I made”, or “Dad, can you do this with me?” It might be a sandcastle or a cubby house on a sunny day, or a LEGO or DUPLO tower on a rainy day.

But when play looks like this, play is magical – and so is childhood.

*Dr Justin Coulson is currently an ambassador for LEGO DUPLO

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