Dads: How To Stay Connected With Your Kids

Even When You Don’t Live Together

Research is unequivocal. Dad matters. As long as he is safe towards his family,  the more a dad is present and involved in his children’s lives in a positive way, the better the outcomes for everyone. Fathers make unique and direct contributions to their children’s wellbeing, from better physical health to more prosperity. Children with involved dads have higher IQs, and tend to be more prosperous. They also have a better sense of self-esteem, and grow up with more self-control, confidence and self-worth.

That’s why we celebrate fathers on the first Sunday of September each year. Father’s Day is supposed to be a day of joy, belonging and love and a recognition of the important role dad plays in the lives of his children. For many families the day is exactly that – joyful. But it can also be a day of difficulty for some dads and their daughters or sons.

In certain challenging circumstances dads don’t live with their children. And in other situations, there may be dads who are working or away from the family for other reasons. (Father’s Day can also be tough for single mums, or for kids who can’t see their dad at all. Unfortunately, that’s an article for another day.)

How can Dads who aren’t around their family on Father’s Day make it a positive day for themselves and their children?

How to be present when you’re not present?

It can be tricky being present while not actually being physically with someone. But some interesting recent research indicates that it is not the actual amount of time that is spent with your kids that matters (although we all know it is important). Instead, it is the subjective experience of time that matters. Kids need to experience ‘fluid, meaningful time with each parent’ – the kind of time that allows for deep and natural connection.

In short, our children understand that we cannot always be with them. But their experience of time while we are with them is what matters. Do they feel like we’re part of their lives?

Here’s how to do that. These ideas won’t work for every dad in every situation. But they’re helpful thought-starters that might give you a gentle assist if you’re struggling.

Make time for everyday things.

To the extent you can, make time to do the tasks and activities that are part of your child’s everyday life. Do some school drop offs and help them with their homework. Drive them to rugby training or piano practice. Play in the garden and have breakfast together. More than big exciting events, these everyday things build a naturally close relationship with your child – even if you can’t do them every day.

For a FIFO worker, be involved when you are home. For a divorced/separated dad, do more than just fun weekends. Be involved in the nitty gritty when custody decisions allow.

Have some one-on-one time.

When time is short, it is easy to try to maximise your efforts. When you have more than one child, this might take the form of spending your available time with all of your kids all the time. And if you are a remarried parent, you may also have a new partner and step-kids thrown into the mix.

As much as you are able, it is great to be able to spend one-on-one time with each of your kids. Even if it’s just 20 minutes – time alone with your child gives them a chance to talk to you about worries or concerns or just things that are going on in their lives, without other distractions. Kids adore having dad’s full attention.

Make contact easy.

With today’s technology, distance is barely a barrier. Phone calls, emails, text messages and FaceTime, mean that you can reach out to your kids in many different ways, many times a day. But more importantly, it means your kids can reach out to you.

Make sure they know how to contact you. And then make sure they know that they can contact you whenever they need to.

Importantly, make contact regularly. Too many kids have told me “My dad never texts or calls. We only talk when he has to be in touch.”

Create new family traditions

When you aren’t around all the time, for whatever reason, it is easy to feel out of the loop when it comes to family traditions. Yet family traditions are an important way to stay engaged with your kids.

If you’re a dad that works long distance, you can create traditions that you can do whenever you are in town. It doesn’t matter whether it’s pancakes for breakfast the first day home or kicking a ball in the garden in the afternoons. It’s just important that it’s something that you and your kids enjoy doing together.

If you’re a dad who’s living away from his kids for a portion of the time due to separation or divorce, you can create new ‘family’ traditions with the kids. Again, they don’t have to be big or expensive things – bike rides on the weekends, or pizza nights are great. Again, it’s the little things that make the biggest impact.

I recently spoke with a dad who was separated from his children by the court. He had been investigated (and subsequently found not guilty) of something that meant he could only see his children for one hour each weekend with court-ordered supervision. He made every effort. He went to every appointment. He did whatever it took.

At times his children didn’t want him to show up. At times they refused to speak to him. But his consistency, willingness, and effort paid off. Over a couple of years they learned to talk together, play games together, and develop a relationship that has fortified him and his children. Even in the most trying circumstances, when there’s a will, there’s a way.

Research shows that kids need to have meaningful time with each parent. That means you, Dad.

So, Happy Father’s Day to all the dads who are trying their best every day, even when it’s not easy!


Did you miss the Fathers Don’t Mother webinar? Purchase the recording here

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Screen Time and Our Teens’ Mental Health Crisis

In a 2018 survey half of the parents questioned believed that smart phone usage negatively affected their child’s mental health. And nearly half thought their child was actually addicted to the device.

The parents are right. Study after study points to screen time as a significant predictor of decreased mental health in young people. And parents instinctively know this: something isn’t right with too much screen time. Our kids aren’t themselves – they might get despondent, irritable or aggressive. It’s concerning, but sometimes we wonder what can we do about it? It’s the way of the future after all.

It shouldn’t be. Here’s why.

The Research

From the early 1960s to the early 2000s, measures of wellbeing have consistently risen, particularly for our teens. This data measures things like self-esteem, life satisfaction, happiness, job satisfaction and friendships. However, from 2012 the trend has started to reverse. Rather than data showing wellbeing generally increasing, it is now steadily decreasing.

2012 is also the year that smart phone ownership tipped over to the majority of mobile phone users. It’s the year that their use became widespread among teenagers. And, it’s the year where data shows a surge in depression, anxiety and suicide amongst our teens.

A new study shows that this is not just coincidence. Over 1.1 million young people answered questions about their wellbeing and their screen time use. The data showed that that too much screen time is toxic to our kids. Teens who spend more time on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy. They are more likely to be lonely, depressed, anxious and even suicidal. In fact, nearly half of teens who spent five or more hours a day on a device had contemplated, planned or attempted suicide at least once.

Our teens are in the midst of a mental health crisis, and screens are a big part of the problem. To be clear, screens are not the problem, nor are they the only problem. But they are a genuine contributor to the mental health problem.

The Goldilocks Zone

But it’s not all bad news.

In the story of Goldilocks and the Three Little Bears, Goldilocks is always looking for the ‘perfect’ thing – porridge that is neither to hot nor too cold, a chair that is neither too big nor too small and bed that isn’t too hard or too soft. Each of these things she wanted just right.

This has led scientists and researchers to adopt the idea of a Goldilocks Zone, or the place where all things intersect to make the perfect combination. And now, the University of Oxford has applied the phrase to screen time.

Researchers have discovered there is a point between low and high use of technology that is ‘just right’ for our teens. This is the magical intersection where digital connection can increase creativity, communication and development, and where wellbeing is boosted rather than harmed. This is the Goldilocks Zone.

But where is the Goldilocks Zone? What is the right amount of screen time for our teens? Unfortunately there is no hard and fast answer to those questions. It varies, depending on the child and the device, and whether it’s a weekday or a weekend, and depending on what other activities your child is missing out on in favour of screen time.

As parents it’s our job to help our teens use screens in a way and in an amount that boosts their wellbeing. The below guidelines can help us do just that.

Screen Time Guidelines

  1. Use your common sense. As parents, you know your children best. Trust yourself. Use your common sense, be discerning and exercise your own good judgment when it comes to screen time use.
  2. Consider content and context in determining limits. While some people get caught up on “how much” screen time is ok, my preference is to focus on “what type” of screen time is best. If their screen diet is junk, then keep it short, just like you limit the amount of sugar they eat. If they’re doing valuable and legitimate learning or truly useful social things, be more flexible. Content matters. So does context. It’s not ok to have screens in rooms or at the table. You may have other rules too. The context should determine whether kids are ok to be on screens. Friends over? No screens! Chores done, homework done, and reading done? Sure, have some fun on screens. When considering all the things our kids are missing out on when they are on screens – time to develop and deepen relationships, to be creative and to engage in physical activity – we want to be intentional about how and when screens are used.
  3. Encourage other activities. When your kids ask to play videogames or use the tablet have a list of things ready to suggest instead. Things like:
    • Have you played outside?
    • Have you spent time with a friend?
    • Have you read a book?
    • Have you tidied your room?

What you suggest, and how firmly you suggest it, is up to you. But by engaging in these types of activities, children will do much more for their brains, their bodies and their wellbeing, then sitting in front of a screen. (I’ve written additional suggestions here.)

  1. Make sure Goldilocks Screen Time is Healthy Screen Time. Even when the kids are using screens, make sure that they are having positive screen and media experiences. Even better if these are shared as a family.

Active, positive use of screens should be encouraged, but as parents we know when enough is enough. And certainly our teens have had enough. If we can get them to put down the game controller and head out on the oval, or set aside the iPad and get their nose in a book, we’re going to have happier and healthier kids.

If you have younger kids, I’ve written about guidelines for screen time for our little ones, here.


For related products, visit the Happy Families Online Shop

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Body & Cyber Safety: How to Pre-arm and Protect Your Children

In the past week I’ve been contacted by several parents. They’ve asked a number of questions, all along the same lines*:

I discovered yesterday that my 5 year-old daughter has been sexually touched (quite horribly) by an older boy at her school. We have talked about being safe so many times. I thought we had it covered. And yet this has occurred. Turns out the older boys have been exposed to porn and said they wanted to do what they saw in the video. I’m devastated.

And this one:

I need to know how to handle this. You have visited our school and talked with students and parents about technology, sexting, and pornography. My 13 year-old daughter has had all the talks. She knows that NO MATTER WHAT, she should NOT get involved. Well guess what? It’s happened. She did it. A boy has been pressuring her for weeks, in person and on Instagram and Snapchat, and she finally succumbed. We know the boy and his family and I contacted them. My daughter is not the first girl he has done he has done this to. What do I do?

The past week is not particularly different to other weeks when these kinds of emails land on my Facebook page or in my inbox. Other emails included one from a mother whose 8 year-old son was shown pornographic content in the school playground, and another from a parent whose 9 year-old child was approached via Instagram for explicit images.

While very different, each situation contains a number of important similarities:

First, these children are young. It is common for primary school-aged children to be involved in these circumstances.

Second, in almost all cases, it is a girl who is being harassed or harmed in a sexual way by a boy.

Third, social media is implicated consistently.

Fourth, young people are being harmed by what they are seeing or what they are doing, with pornography acting as a potential influence in too many cases.

There are three things I want to highlight for every parent to teach their children about: social media, body safety, and pornography.

Social Media

(It’s worth noting that the central – perhaps the only – reason that children have to be 13 is because of US laws that prohibit the collection of personal information on children under that age. It has nothing to do with the emotional and psychological readiness of the children to maturely navigate the online/social world.)

Parents must understand that Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter are hotbeds of danger.

While it is true that many children use these sites every day without harm, there are significant risks associated with these platforms. Adult grooming is one, but so too is the exposure to explicit content, and the harassment from peers that occurs all-too-often.

Wellbeing vs Screentime graphAdditionally, recent research from the UK indicates that using these platforms is associated with reduced wellbeing and increased risk of depression, stress, and anxiety. And Australian studies with adolescents show that as time on screens (gaming and social media) increase, so too does psychological ill-health.

If your children want to be on screens, ensure they are old enough for the accounts that they want – and note that being 13 doesn’t mean they’re old enough. They should be able to maturely utilise the platforms and not become a servant to them (and we all know some adults who still can’t do that). Talk with them about the risks. Invite them to share how they’ll respond to dangerous situations. Keep screens in public spaces. And know what they’re doing, who they’re “friending” and connecting with, and what they’re viewing.

Many parents tell me that they’ve installed software to keep their kids safe online and to monitor what they’re doing. This may offer some modest protection while your child is using devices protected by the software. However, this seems to be the equivalent of fencing our swimming pool. It provides a level of safety that is important.

But we can’t fence the ocean.

Once our children are out of our home or using another person’s device, our protections are unhelpful. We need more than software to protect our kids. We need to talk with them and teach them how to use social media safely, how to respond to inappropriate requests, and what to say to someone who is pressuring them to do something they know is wrong.

Body Safety

Our children, no matter how well protected we keep them, will come into contact with others who have not necessarily received the same level of protection we have provided. Some of those children may have been exposed to pornographic content online, or have experienced inappropriate sexual touching. It is vital that our children know how to be body safe, and know how to resist the pressure that others may place upon them.

Teach young children (from the age of 2) that no one should ever look at or touch – or ask to look at or touch – any part of their body that is covered by their swimwear or underpants. A parent might wash these private parts for a child in the bath, or a doctor might need to view these parts with permission, but that is the only time these body parts should be looked at or touched. Our children need to know the difference between “good” touching and “bad” touching. And it is up to us to have the conversations with them about it. (Some useful resources are here.)

Teach older children that it is not ok to use digital media for looking at, or showing, those private parts. And then invite them to discuss why that might be the case. Help them to understand that sharing images might lead to long-term consequences, and that others might also see what has been shared.

Body safety means we teach our children how to keep their body safe. It is up to parents to ensure these conversations happen consistently.


Liz Walker, founder of “Porn Harms Kids” explains that exposure of children to pornography has reached critical levels. A major study from Sydney Uni indicated that 45% of adult males were first exposed to pornographic content between ages 11 and 13. In a 2010 survey of English 14-16 year-olds, nearly one-third claimed that their first exposure to pornography was at 10 years or younger. A 2015 survey in the UK showed that 1 in 5 twelve to thirteen year-olds believed that watching porn is “normal behaviour”.

Unwanted exposure to pornography among minors is increasing, with the number of 10-12 year-olds accidentally seeing porn rising from 9% to 19% between 2000 and 2005, and from 28% to 35% for 13-15 year-olds. In another study of 16-17 year-olds, a large number of both males (84%) and females (60%) had experienced unwanted exposure to pornography while online.

Now… take a look at the dates. The data are old. We’re back at 2005 before iPhones and 3G wireless Internet. Or we’re back at 2010 Why? We can’t ethically ask young children about their pornography exposure. We have to wait until they’re older and ask them to retrospectively recall when they saw what they saw.

Our best guess is that kids are, on average, seeing pornography at around age 9 or 10 today because of wireless, portable tech. And there is consensus that about 99% of boys and around 70% of girls have been exposed to pornography by the age of 15. Parents are consistently describing incidents like those above where pornography has impacted their children’s lives – always with negative consequences.

Research is highlighting that children’s exposure to pornography increases the risk that they may act on what they’ve seen. Too often, this occurs with another vulnerable young person. NSW Police report that child-on-child sexual assault is at an all-time high, with the proliferation of pornography via screens being the most often-blamed reason.

What do we do?
As the first generation of parents to deal with these challenges, we are facing some tricky times. No matter how well we parent our children, they will be affected and influenced by others who may not have had the same level of parental involvement. Sometimes they will be harmed by those children.

Parents can best protect their children by:


Don’t let young children near social media. Minimise screen time. Ensure they are taught about body safety.


At some point, cocooning children will not be enough. This is when we must pre-arm them. The most effective pre-arming occurs when our children trust us and our relationships with them are close and loving.

We want to be having daily involvement and connection with them about the little things so that when the big things arise we have the relationship foundation in place to guide them.

The best pre-arming conversations are not lectures. We ask questions and listen to how our children feel about the issues we are discussing, and invite their ideas for how they would respond in tricky situations.

Setting Limits

Our children need us to be parents. They need us to lead. This might mean things can be uncomfortable from time to time. But they need to know what our limits are and why. We should only allow social media with appropriate protections and at the right age.

Parenting may never have been more challenging. It may also never have been more important.

* Details changed to preserve anonymity

For help talking to your children about body safety, respect and consent, check out these great resources…

Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept - body safety book by Jayneen SandersNo Means No - by Jayneen SandersBody Safety Education by Jayneen Sanders



The post Body & Cyber Safety: How to Pre-arm and Protect Your Children appeared first on Dr Justin Coulson's Happy Families.

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Six Ways To Be The Best Parent You Can Be

Think of the times that your parenting has been its best. Those times where you were unconditionally there for your child and it felt “right”.

When I ask parents to tell me about those times, these are the answers I hear:

  • Dinner time conversations
  • Holidays with no agendas
  • Weekends at the park or the beach
  • Playing games in the lounge room
  • Walking and talking
  • The last ten minutes each night when I tuck them in and we just chat

It seems that time together, really focusing on one another, is the most powerful way for us to build strong relationships and feel like great parents.

No parent has ever told me they felt like they were being the best parent they could be while they worked overtime at the office or snuck away for a weekend. These things are sometimes necessary and valuable, but while paying the bills or getting some ‘me-time’ can help us to be good parents, ‘we-time’, or time together, brings out the best in us, and our kids.

The following six ideas are research-backed ways to help you be the best parent you can be, and also bring out the best in your children:

Be Mindful

Mindfulness is having a moment-to-moment awareness of experiences. It means being where your feet are.

Mindfulness leads to tremendous benefits, including better focus, decreased stress, increased memory and, improved relationship satisfaction. When we’re mindful we respond well to, and communicate well with, our loved ones.

The first and most important step to being mindful, is to turn off your smartphones. Technology disrupts our relationships with our children by limiting our ability to tune in to them. It stops us from truly paying attention to them. Turn off the tech, slow down and savour the moment with your kids. Take time to talk about the clouds in the sky, or to sit on the couch for an extra long cuddle. Being present helps our stress levels drop and our happiness increase. Life is simply better.

Give Lots of Physical Affection

Hugs, snuggles, shoulder rubs, even smiling eye contact – these are some of the ways that we give affection. And they feel great! But studies show that physical affection also provides stress-buffering support to our kids. Hugging releases the feel-good hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin fights depression and stress, and underlies trust. So hug your kids in the morning, at night and as many moments as you can in between. The more you hug your kids, the less effect stress has on them.

Build on Strengths

Strengths-based parenting is when we identify our children’s strengths and encourage them to grow and use those strengths. These become the inner resources of your child that they can access to cope with conflict and manage the rigors of school. Identifying and developing our children’s strengths also boosts resilience and reduces stress. It leads to stronger emotional, academic and social skills and that in turn promotes greater life satisfaction.

Be Grateful

Grateful people are consistently happier, healthier and more optimistic. They have better relationships – at school, at work and at home. Taking time out to be grateful toward our children builds a sense of trust and solidarity between our kids and us and helps us be better parents. So slip a note of thanks into your child’s lunchbox, or onto his pillow. Teaching or encouraging our children to be grateful is one of the best ways to boost their wellbeing.

Look Forward with Hope

We are happier, better, more pleasant people when we expect good things. It makes sense then that one of the best characteristics we can teach our children is to have hope. Hope is an antidote to both depression and anxiety, and hopeful children are more resilient and goal-oriented, and have greater success in life.

We can help them be hopeful by talking about the good things we expect, working with them to set goals and brainstorming ways to make those goals happen. Teaching our kids to have hope is one of the best things we can do as a parent.

Listen and Empathise

Our children have big emotions. Sometimes it is inconvenient, but our children need to express those emotions. To be the best parents, we need to listen and show that we understand.

To really listen, we need to stop, look and listen. Stop what you are doing, look your child in the eye and really listen. Listening and acknowledging thoughts and feelings shows our kids that we understand and we care. Really listening is how we draw our children closer. It is how we become the best parents we can.

Ultimately, it pays to remember that we all fail. We all struggle. We all find this parenting gig pretty tough. But by working on these six things, especially when we may not want to, we will become better parents and bring out the best in our kids.

And when we fail, we should remember that we don’t have to be the best parent in the world. We just have to be the best parent in their world.



For more parenting tips check out Dr Justin Coulson’s book 10 Things Every Parent Needs To Know

The post Six Ways To Be The Best Parent You Can Be appeared first on Dr Justin Coulson's Happy Families.

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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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Why do teenagers become ‘allergic’ to their parents?

It starts around 13, but we’re asking why do teenagers become ‘allergic’ to their parents?


  1. Stay close to your kids – be present so they know they’re loved.
  2. Have appropriate limits – remember: it’s not about doing things to them, it’s about working with them.
  3. Laugh together. Make your relationship fun.

Check out the video here


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Emotional Intelligence

The bell had just rung for the end of recess. Children were heading back to their classrooms, and Year 1 teacher Mrs Boonen was preparing to return to hers when she noticed one of her students stumbling across the playground towards her, fists clenched, rubbing her eyes, sobbing. Mrs Boonen crouched to the ground and extended her arms to Amelia, and the six-year-old rushed into her teacher’s embrace. 

Mrs Boonen asked, ‘Amelia, what happened?’ Amelia pulled away from her teacher and pointed to a group of girls leaving the playground and walking to the classroom. ‘She …’ (sobbing) ‘… she …’ (more sobs) ‘… pointed at me.’ The accusation was followed by more tears. 

Mrs Boonen was confused. ‘She pointed at you?’ Compassion was quickly turning to incredulity. 

Amelia nodded, feeling the change that had come over her teacher. 

Imagine for a moment that you are Mrs Boonen. What do you say to Amelia? (And what do you want to say?) 

The Standard Response 

Most people – parents or teachers (or managers at work when we’re dealing with grown-ups) know what that they’re supposed to say. But in the moment, well… we just kinda say what we want to say instead. It usually sounds like, “Oh come one. Toughen up princess.” 

But what impact does such a hard-nosed response have on a child – or even a big person, like, say… a spouse or partner? 

Typically the person feels misunderstood. We’ve tuned them out. We’ve turned away from them, or worse, we’ve turned against them. 

These responses rarely inspire others to be more resilient in future. Instead, they are left feeling unimportant, unworthy, and unloved. 

A Better Response 

It’s tempting to shout at the kids that they need to get over themselves. It’s easy to imagine ourselves using our size and strength to “just get it taken care of”. But we probably won’t enjoy the outcomes we want most. 

Sure, from time to time we really do need to force the issue. Life sometimes gets like that. But a different response will lead to better outcomes; for the other person and for us. 

Emotional intelligence requires us to do four things: 

1. Become aware of how we’re feeling. 

Am I feeling angry? Upset? Frustrated? Chances are high that my response may not be helpful right now. Often we’re so caught up in the moment that we don’t pause to consider how we’re being affected. Yet this is vital to responding well. 

2. Regulate our own emotions. 

Have you ever shouted at someone that they should “Just. Calm. Down.”? Notice how calm you are… not. We can’t ask something of our kids that we can’t even manage to do ourselves. We’ve got to stay calm, kind, and connected. 

If you did shout at your child to calm down, did both you and they instantly lock eyes, slowly inhale for three seconds, then hold that breath… and exhale, before smiling and confirming, “Ok. I’m calm. Let’s talk things through”? 

Emotions are contagious. It’s very, very challenging to help someone through their fear, sadness, or anger when our emotions are high. Knowing how we’re feeling (step 1) and regulating our emotions to keep ourselves in check allows us to think more broadly and helpfully in our efforts to help someone else. 

3. Show empathy 

So how is your child (or the other person) really feeling? Are they old enough to regulate their emotions? What about their behaviour? Or is it too hard? Are they tired or so upset that they can’t control themselves? Do they know how to communicate their feelings? 

While it’s tempting to tell someone, particularly a child (or an adult behaving like one) to “calm down” or “stop it”, they’re unlikely to follow our directives. Statements of instruction should always be preceded by statements of understanding.  

Empathy is feeling your emotion in my heart. When I know you get how it feels to be me, I’m more likely to listen to you. When I feel like you’re judging me, I get defensive and turn away. 

4. “Work with” rather than “do things to” the other person 

Once we’re aware of how we are doing and in control, and we really get how the other person is going, we can start to deal with things. We recognise that the other person isn’t the problem… but they may be having one. So we work with them to figure things out rather than doing things to them as a punishment. 

Mrs Boonen may have wanted to get angry at her student. But she paused and considered her feelings. She got herself under control and tried to be empathic. “You’re really upset about this? Because she pointed at you?” She then asked if anything else had happened. Amelia explained that the girls had stolen her lunch and thrown it in the bin. When she threatened to tell the teacher, they pointed at her and laughed. That was why she had spoken as she did to her teacher. 

It can be particularly tough working with younger children. They usually have limited self-regulation ability, and even less emotional intelligence.  Our best bet is to stay calm, show empathy and then as they catch our calm we can explain where those big emotions come from, shift the focus towards solutions (and away from the emotion itself), and gently empower them to come up with great ways to make things better. 

Some kids (and those who work with them) will be high on emotional intelligence. They’ll know how they feel, regulate it well, perceive others’ emotional states, and work with them to keep everything calm. But for most, it’s a learned skill that takes lots of practice. Fortunately, life gives us lots of chances to practice this particular skill. 

Learning how to be emotionally intelligent is a big challenge for kids (and adults), but it’s a vital skill that improves relationships, wellbeing, and life. 

Find more like this in our Happy Families Store.

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