Dr Justin Coulson: Creating a connected family

Dr Justin Coulson: Creating a connected family

In the modern-day mesh of family life with technology, how do we sustain a healthy home?

By Hope 103.2Wednesday 19 Jun 2013Open House InterviewsParentingReading Time: 18 minutes

Justin Coulson highlights the importance of family time away from technology

Listen Now – Justin Coulson: Familes and Technology

Leigh: There's never been a time, when time has been in short supply so stretched.  It's a huge issue for families with an infinite number of distractions, gadgets, voices, screens. How can you stay in touch with each other, other than perhaps mailing or Facebooking from  the next room?

We’d be interested if you've been able to come up with your solutions and strategies on this. To find some space help your family remain connected.  Simple practical things so everything and everyone else doesn't overwhelm your family.

Ways in which you've been able to ensure that the important still takes priority over the urgent. Would love to hear your wisdom on this on 1-300-40 20 20.

For now my next guest is an expert on this very question. Dr. Justin Coulson is an author and parenting coach who's a regular on the project, the Today Show and is the resident parenting expert on the Kid's Spot and the News Limited websites.

He says our kids need smart parents, not smart phones. He's one of the keynote speakers at the upcoming World Congress of Families from May 16 to 18 in Sydney and I'm so glad to say that he joins us now.

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Justin welcome.

Justin: It's great to be with you, Leigh.

Leigh: Great to see you.  Thanks for coming in.  This tidal wave of time pressure has kind of dumped on all of us especially families.  Not only with not much warning, but lots of us had not much of a clue about how to handle it all.  How do we?

Justin: That's such a complex question because our lives are simply complicated. Our lives are busy and there seems to be a lot of status around that as well.  There's so much to do.  There's so many things that occupy our attention. Far too often we seem to be completely absorbed by the telephone ringing or the fact it's got some apps on it that demand our attention more than our children or more than our spouse, more than people that matter the most in our lives.

Leigh: Is it too simplistic to blame technology?

Justin: It probably is.  There's a lot more going on than technology but there's no question that technology plays a role in our business and technology pulls us away. It has such a magnetic pull that draws away.  There are so many reasons for it as well, and we'll probably talk about technology quite a bit while we're talking.

Our brains respond to reward, and technology gives us instant rewards. Every time we get a new message come through we get a [makes sound] on our phone or we start playing a game and we win something, or we get some jewels on some dumb game, what happens is our brain releases a whole lot of neurochemicals, some neurotransmitters. Probably the most popular one people would have heard would be Dopamine. Dopamine feels good. It attaches to all the receptors in our brain and all of a sudden we go, “oh, I just got a little thrill.” We get these instant thrills every few seconds when we interact with technology. We don't get those thrills in quite the same way when we interact with people.

Leigh: True a lot of negotiation often goes on there.

Justin: Relationships can be hard work but one of the most powerful findings from psychology in the last decade certainly and clearly in the last few years is that our relationships matter more than anything.  Nobody on their death bed is going to say, “Gee I just wish I'd played that game one more time on my phone," or "I wished I'd sent that last text message,” so clichéd.  We just want to talk about our families and our relationships.  That's what matters most.

Leigh: Yet we've also become almost conditioned to stretching ourselves keeping lots of juggling balls up in the air as a matter of course.  Much more than say many of our parents or grandparents would ever have imagined.

Justin: It's an interesting thing you know.  We seem to romanticize our parents and our grandparents’ generations and we think they weren't so busy.  When I talk to my parents and see how busy even they are now or my grandparents, it seems that busyness is a part of our ‘humanness’. Unless we are extraordinarily intentional we are busy people.  There are a handful of people that we probably all know who seem to have got an incredible knack for balance and removing the busyness from their lives, but they have to say no to a lot to do that. It is a skill.

Leigh: They have to say no often.

Justin: Often, often. We're saying no to invitations to go and spend time with other people so we can spend time with our family, or saying no to responsibilities maybe at church, or in our social clubs, or our sporting clubs.  We are saying no to promotions at work, or we're saying no to extra responsibilities at work.  We have to say no and make sacrifices if we want to put our family as number one.

That's one of those things that some of us including you and I have struggled with our entire life. That is one of the reasons that I actually became a parenting expert and went and spent a decade at University to get a Doctorate in this so that I could work out  how I could be a better dad, and I learned that I actually have to say no to stuff.

Leigh: So you have a range of practical ways in which families can stay connected. My first question is how early in a family’s life do you start applying these kind of principles?

Justin: You start at the start. If you've gone past the start then you start now. There's never a time that's too soon to start to focus on the people that matter.

Maybe I can share a quick story to illustrate.  There was an evening where I was cooking at the stove. Now I'm an awful cook and I really have to concentrate on what I'm doing.  I had the oil in the pan, and I just tipped the onion in which meant that it was time to concentrate because I had to stir, and I was in my formative cooking stage at that point so I was really concentrating on stirring the onion making sure it didn't brown too fast, it didn't burn.

My two-year-old daughter, Abby, was in the kitchen next to me pulling on my shorts, and trying to get my attention and she was saying, "Dad, dad,” and I was kind of pretending to respond to her but I really was concentrating on the onion in the pan, and I put her off for probably 30, 60 seconds.  She went away, she came back, "Dad, dad, dad," and then I realized, “Oh hang on, I'm a parenting expert here I'm supposed to do better than this.

I looked at the onions I felt okay they'd be alright for 10 seconds if I turned away and I crouched down next to her and apologized  I said " Abby I'm so sorry you've  been trying to talk to me, I haven't listened.  If you tell me what you were trying to tell me before I'll listen properly now". She looked at me and she said,  "Dad, I love you". Then she skipped off into the lounge room and that was all it was.

I thought how powerful, and it would have been so easy…

In fact, I can't tell you how many times me, and you,  and everyone else has missed out on those priceless little moments that really touch us because we're too busy. It's not just technology. It's any number of things that pull us away from those special moments that often only take 10 seconds.

Leigh: As a family grows and diversifies it's range of interests and activities it's inevitable that we'll be caught up in this rushing crush of this pace of life. What are some of the practical ways in which we can stay connected?

Justin: Really tough question. One of the biggest issues when I run my parenting workshops and I talk about this in my book as well one of the biggest challenges the parents identify is that  it's okay when there's just one child.  Once we've got two kids and three kids and four kids all of a sudden the capacity that we have to be emotionally available to them becomes diluted. We're dealing with one child and the other two over there are fighting in the corner not sharing the toys or hitting. It's really hard to be emotionally available to them.

In terms of strategies, there are so many things that we can do. Really simple things like turn off the radio when you're in the car and talk or something like let's have dinner as a family where there's no TV and there's no telephones. We're just actually together, and we ask about our day. We talk about things we are grateful for, or things we're looking for or who we helped.

We actually have a handful  of conversation starters in our family for dinner. Our kids favorite thing is grateful things. We just love to talk about the things that we're grateful for during the day. Research tells us that people who are grateful are happy people. They're healthy people, they do better in life. We talk about grateful things. We have some other family principals that we play around with like service and kindness.  So we often ask about who were you kind to today and how did it feel?  We'll talk about who did you serve today?

One of my favorite questions recently to teach my kids responsibility is “how did you use your initiative today?”  In other words “what did you do without being asked to do it?”  The kids are really responsive to it.  What we also see is a change in behavior because they know they're going to be quizzed about it they look for opportunities to serve , to be kind. They look for opportunities to help and be responsible.

Dinner together, turning off the radio ...  During the school holidays our 14 year old daughter had a sleep-over, and I asked all her friends to hand their phones in and put them in what we call the phone bin.  It's a little box where all the phones go.

Leigh: I would have loved to see their faces.

Justin: They were horrified. They looked at me like "You monster you're taking away my phone? My precious, give me back my precious".  They looked at me like I was just so cruel. I said to them " Let me explain why I want you to give me your phones.  When you're here at our house, you're here to be with your friends and that means you're here to interact as people, and I want the phones away so you can be together.

Secondly, when I go to bed tonight, I don't know what you may or may not do with those phones and while I trust you, I also know what people can get up to when they're in groups and when they're really tired, and when they're being a bit silly, so from a safety point view and also a relational point of view, it's better that the phones go away".  Now they still hated me, but they gave us the phones and they had a terrific time. They probably could have had a good time with the phones as well, but putting the phone away actually matters. Disconnecting actually matters.

Leigh: Yes, it's a big issue.

Justin: Other strategies, I love the idea of a family night. Stephen Covey has talked about this in his book about "Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families" and many other people have adopted different variations of it.  One night a week, set it aside.  Promise to come home early from work, get home. Phones off, TV's off and it's nothing but family. Play games, sing songs, teach a lesson, cook together, clean up together, tickle, cuddle, maybe watch a movie together, whatever it is, it doesn't have to have an agenda but it's about having that family time.

Leigh: You've mentioned food or meals three times but it is a very significant time isn't it?

Justin: It really is and there's incredible amount of research that suggests that there is a strong relationship - now I'm not saying that  if you eat together as a family that you will have a happy family relationship - it's not a causal relationship, but there is a strong association between families who eat at least one meal together a day. Preferably dinner I guess, and have those conversations.

The children growing up have a really good sense of their own sense of worth, their well being. They seem to have good relationships with others, they seem to be popular with peers, they seem to do better at schools when they have actively involved parents. Meal time seems to be the time where we get to have that kind of interaction that promotes these protective factors.

Leigh: You say one of the keys to this whole process for a parent is understanding your child's emotional world. What are you talking about there?

Justin: It's Chapter Two of my book and it's probably the most complicated and difficult part of parenting.  In fact it's the most difficult part of having a relationship.

When people tell stories, they don't tell the story so that you'll get every detail of their day.  They tell the story because they want you to connect with the emotion that they felt.  It's far greater compliment to be trusted then it is to be loved. When someone is sharing a story they're trusting you with their vulnerability.  They're trusting you with their feelings.  Whether it's your spouse, whether it's your mother-in-law, whether it's your kids.

When the kids come in and they tell you a story and they say, "I just had a terrible day because when I was at school my friend did this to me, and I didn't like my lunch and my teacher said this,” they're sharing all these things not because they want you to fix their problems.  What they want is for you to understand that they've had a tough day.  We tell stories so that we can connect  to emotions. That's what we're looking for when we tell a story. It's not so we can fix things up.

This idea of understanding and connecting to our children's emotional world is probably the most powerful thing we can do as a parent. What it means is instead of saying " Well did you explain to the teacher blah, blah blah.  Did you let the teacher know it wasn't your fault?"  The kids actually probably did and they know how to deal with this stuff; the answers are inside them. What they really want is for mum or dad to say, "You felt really embarrassed when the teacher said that in front of the class didn't you?”  That just felt awful." They want us to say, "You felt lonely when your friends treated you poorly". What happens when we do that Leigh is our children go. "Yeah you understand, and you care".

Leigh: When we show that we understand the emotional world of our children a couple of things happen.

Justin: First of all they learn that their emotions have names. Secondly they learn that everyone has those emotions. Third they know that they're of worth. They know we can help them feel good in a world that doesn't always make them feel good, and it's a real skill.

>It involves us doing a handful of things and I'll share that with you right now.

Number one it means that when someone comes to us having an emotional experience, whether it's spouse, whether it's children, whether it's the boss, whether it's one of our co-workers or one of our subordinates.  That means we don't try to fix things, we don't jump in and say, "Here's the right answer," and dads especially do that.

Leigh: Got to fix it.

Justin: Got to fix it, but even mums because they're in a position of power, will often think “well this is what I have to do because they're coming to me with a problem” and we like to fix other people’s problems.  That means we identify the emotion, we label it.  We actually say  "It seems to me that you're feeling this emotion".  If they are, we talk about that emotion, “it feels horrible when you feel like that, I bet you wish that something  had happened that was different. “

We actually have a conversation around the emotion.  What happens is  that conversation brings the persons emotional level down.  Emotions are really contagious.  When we're having a conversation if somebody is really emotional  we often get really emotional as well. All of a sudden it gets elevated and escalated and it gets out of control.

If we can bring emotions down by identifying the emotion and having a conversation about it, it sounds really cheesy sometimes and it is a skill to practice and eventually might do it naturally and then it doesn't sound so cheesy.  What happens is that our children relax a little because they know we understand. Once they know that we understand then we can ask simple questions like " What do you think is the best thing to do"?, or " Where do you think we should go from here"?,  or " How can I help"?, or "What would you suggest we should do"?  We don't have to fix things at all.  They  can fix it once they're not emotional.

Leigh: To do this you require, which gets us back to the start, time?

Justin: Time.

Leigh: Can I ask you about one particular issue which is relevant for lots of families.  Activities music lessons, sports, other special interests. Children can be committed to too much.

Justin: Certainly.  There's no one answer for this. This is the sort of thing where we work with our kids.  We become sensitive to what's going on in our family and  we adjust accordingly.

I know of one family who felt their lives were out of control and  so they simply said that we are stopping all extra circular activities for a year.

Leigh: Wow.  How did they go?

Justin: They stopped all activities for a year.  They were still busy unsurprisingly because life is busy, and they decided that they would start again and for that family they decided that two extra circular activities per child was enough.

There are other families that can comfortably manage three or four. Maybe if there's only one or two kids, maybe the kids are all going to the same place at the same time and doing similar things. Maybe they have the resources where they can manage it.

I've worked with another family who have a nanny, and they're really comfortable with that. They still get good quality time with their kids, but they get the nanny to do all the running around, and that works for them. Every family is different and every set of extra circular activities needs to be managed by the capacity of the mum, the dad, the financial resources, and the kids capacity to actually manage, and hold those balls in the air as well.

Leigh: ..and parents should lead by example in the range  of activities and interests they're involved in?

Justin: Yes and no.  I actually think that it's great to give kids an opportunity to expand their horizons.  What I see happen a lot is mum played the piano so the kids learn the piano.  Dad was a swimmer or a ‘clubbie’ {SP] so that's what the kids do.  My suggestion is to be guided by your children's natural strengths and talents.  What we'll often find is that our kids will  have an incredible infinity for a certain hobby.  To use a personal example I have no interest in horses nor does my wife. My daughter when we went camping one time, and she fell in love, absolutely fell in love. Now she rides horses.  She just thinks that horses are her world. She wants to be a horse doctor. That's where she wants to go with it. It's been really hard for me to be engaged with it and supportive of it because I'm not interested in that.  I wanted to become a professional cyclist because  I love cycling.

Her strengths and her interests lie in a different area and in a different direction, and so it's important for parents to perceive that and be open to it.

This is really hard I should just add when you go out and spend a 1000 dollars on the pushbike that they ride twice and say they don't like, or when you spend two years on piano lessons or clarinet lessons or violin and they say " I hate it, I don't want to do it", because you spent all that time and money and investing in it, but w e needed to be guided by the kids.

Leigh: We had one of our kids music teachers come to us after  a couple of years and said "I just hate being his jailor.” That's when we cancelled the classes.[laughing] So you've got to draw a limit.

Justin:Wonderful you had a teacher that was happy enough and honest enough to say that.

Leigh: Yes.  With technology can I ask this.  One of the big questions at stake here is physical health not just relational or emotional.  Escape from the screens, escape from the technology. Get out and get a life. 

Justin: Let's have a conversation about that for a few minutes.  We are actually seeing an increase in addictive behaviors related to screens.

In America at the moment I read something just in the last week or two that suggests that children are now spending over seven hours per day in front of screens. I'm not including school work in that. I'm talking recreation and entertainment - seven hours per day.

Now the guidelines, from all of the relevant bodies that have done the research into this sort of stuff suggest that children under two should get approximately zero television and screen time.  Children who are preschoolers maybe a half an hour a day. In the primary school years up to an hour a day and in high school you might extend it to two hours  a day.  I don't know of any family that abides by those guidelines.

Leigh: No, no.  Not today.

Justin: It's so hard, and so how do we manage this issue.  We've got all these wonderful little dopamine neurotransmitters going “come out, come out” every time something exciting happens online or on Facebook or on our phone, but there are other health issues as well.

We're seeing kids sneaking their screens into their rooms, or parents are actually saying, “Hey have the computer in your room.”   Kids stay up all night. They don't get enough sleep.  We know that a teenager needs around about nine hours a sleep a night to function well.  Kids are going to school with maybe four or five hours of sleep because they have been Facebooking and tweeting and surfing the net and doing whatever until all hours. Getting text messages, don't let your kids sleep with the phone in their room for goodness sakes the text message goes off at 10:30 because someone else is awake and they text for an hour and it's 11:30 and they've got to get up at 6:30 in the morning.  They're an absolute write off.

Leigh: ..and kids need an hour of exercise a day. Physical activity.

Justin: At the very least, that's exactly right. We're seeing a lack of sleep, we're seeing increases in obesity, we're seeing kids lacking in their capacity to have real social engagement.  There are psychological and physiological ramifications to all these kinds of issues.

Leigh: I'd be interested in one  piece of advice you have for kids.  That they need to learn how to be bored. Why is that?

Justin: You know what? When we're bored we become curious and we become creative.  I love it when my kids come to me and say, "Dad I'm bored."  I feel like I'm being a good parent when they say that because I get to look at them and smile and say " Well I guess it's time for you to use your resources, finesse and initiative", and they look at me and go "Dad, but I'm bored".  I say isn't it wonderful, and they'll ask "Can't I use a device" and I just think if you give a child an ipad or a laptop so they're not bored.  They may not be bored but you still haven't taught them how to think.  Kids need to be bored just like adults. we need to have that downtime away from screens so that we can actually think.  We tend to have much better thoughts when we have time to just let our thoughts settle and meander and we don't do that enough.

Leigh: Good for adults as well.

Justin: Good for adults as well.

Leigh: Dr. Justin Coulson, I'm so pleased you've come in to talk with us on this. I could keep talking all night on this.  There are limits.

Justin's book is "What Your Child Needs From You, Creating A Connected Family" and he'll be speaking at the World Congress of Families in Sydney on May 16 to 18. We'll put the details all that and his Happy Families website on our Open House Communities Facebook page.

Justin, thanks so much.

Justin: It's a pleasure.