The three important principles in helping worried and sad Children

The three important principles in helping worried and sad Children

Research shows that adults often underestimate how often kids get worried and sad – most children experience anxiety and sadness on a regular basis, some more than others.  This is not all bad - getting worried and sad helps kids develop important skills.  However adults need to coach them to develop these coping skills. 

Here are some of these strategies.

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My child just doesn't want to talk about it! 3 things to know and 5 tricks to try 

My child just doesn't want to talk about it! 3 things to know and 5 tricks to try 

I ran a seminar for parents of anxious kids last week and at the end one parent asked me this question:

"My daughter is having problems with the girls in her class.  I know we should talk about it - but every time I bring it up, she shuts it down.  She just doesn't want to talk with me about it.  What should I do?

Does this sound familiar?  Are you working on helping your own children talk about things they don't really want to talk about? 

If so, welcome to my world! :) :)

As a child psychologist, I know full well that helping children communicate about tricky topics is very difficult at times.   It's something I work on with kids constantly.  Here's a few things to know and a few things to try.

3 things to know about kids "not talking" 

1. It's quite normal for some children to not be interested in discussing difficult topics. 

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What parents can do to decrease the chance of teens hurting themselves

A sad and tragic fact of our world in 2017 is this:  the most common cause of death for young people is suicide (see Australian Bureau of Statistics Leading Causes of Death report, 2015).  While this data is somewhat misleading for the simple reason that young people don't die very often - (and it's also important to know death by suicide is more common in adults than in young people) - it is still distressing and worrying. This is especially true when we know that rates of deliberate self harm and attempted suicide is higher in young people than in any other age group.

So what can parents do to keep teenagers safe?

Before I even start this article  - let me emphasise this important point - it is not possible for parents to prevent their child or teen from hurting themselves if they are determined to do so. There may be many parents reading this post who have children who have hurt themselves and as well as those parents who have their children die by suicide - and I want to be really clear: this is NEVER a parent or carer's fault.   This is a tragedy which happens to families - not one caused by them.

However, there are some things parents can do to reduce the chance of this happening - at least in some circumstances.  If we have niggling concerns (and some families do not have this luxury - the self harm may happen secretly or suddenly) - there are a range of strategies which we can use which often do help. 

These strategies include getting professional help when you are concerned about your young person, continuing to communicate with young people as much as possible, focusing on helping teens to get healthy amounts of sleep (shown to be significantly associated with positive mental health) and to exercise, reducing access to means by which young people hurt themselves (medication/cutting implements, ropes etc) and many other steps we can take.

However, in this post, I'm just going to focus on TWO other potentially very important strategies which I believe are worth some extra exploration.

Here's the first:

1. We should do everything we can to help teens be connected with a peer group.

While there are many factors which are associated with an increase in depression, self harm and suicide attempts - there is one clear protective factor which research studies consistently find is associated with well-being in teens:  positive interpersonal relationships.  

Here's what we know:  teens with better relationships with their peers and other adults are less likely to experience depression and self harm and more likely to recover from episodes of depression and stop self harming.

As parents, almost anything we can do to help teens to feel more connected to their peers is likely to be useful. This might mean:

* Actively intervening when persistent conflict and bullying occurs.  Don't let the teen "handle" it by themselves. Get the school counsellor to help, discuss what they might say and work really hard to helping them find safe places to be at school and at least one or two friends they can be with during the day.   Forgive my mixed metaphors but red flags are waved loud and clear for me as a therapist when I am working with a young person who spends all break times alone.

* Actively working towards teenagers having social contact.  For many teens there might not be any apparent conflict or bullying - but instead the teen is just withdrawn and isolated.

This is a significant problem.  

Teens need friends. Having a job or doing at least one extra curricular should be a non negotiable for all teens. Just like we insist that our teens eat some kind of vegetables and at least look at homework every now and then - we need to be insistent that they spend time working towards finding friends.  Of course this is NOT easy for some teens who don't "fit" or who are resistant.  But it is something we have to keep talking about, working on, creating opportunities for and often - as parents we have to make some tiny steps towards this as "no choice" activities.  Just like the veggies.

* Connecting teens with other adults.  When young people are not willing or able to talk with us as parents, despite our best and persistent efforts then one of our new jobs becomes finding other adults for the teen to talk to.  That might be school counsellors, coaches, pastoral support workers, youth workers, GPs, neighbours, aunts/uncles or friends of the family.  

However we do it, working gradually and persistently at helping teens have better peer and adult relationships is one of the most important steps we can take when young people are down.

Here's a second important strategy:

2. We need to help teens learn strategies to cope when they are feeling agitated, stressed, hopeless and overwhelmed

A long time ago, one of the regular conversations I would have with self harming and suicidal teens was a "safety contract" conversation.  Essentially this meant I asked the young person to make a commitment to stay safe and not hurt themselves until the time of the next session.   Parents/carers sometimes do a form of this by telling the teen they "must not" hurt themselves and tell them about what it would do to the family if they did this, and try to make them promise to not hurt themselves.

Unfortunately research shows that safety contracts do not work well (Lewis, 2007).

When young people are feeling agitated, hopeless and overwhelmed - even if they want to stick to a promise - they may be unable to.  

What works more effectively is to help young people know, practice and plan for what to do when they feel like hurting themselves.

Sometimes this means having a conversation with teens to help them write down what they will and won't do when they feel really down.  

The best tool I've found for this is the Beyond Blue safety planning tool.   I've included a link to this at the bottom of this article.  This page allows people (young and old) to think about what triggers their hopelessness/desire to hurt themselves and what they will do when this occurs. Email or message this link now to a teen you are concerned about and ask them if they would be willing to do this with you.

Alternatively you can take the teen out for a walk/drive/soft drink and ask them these questions (take notes on your phone/paper when they answer):

  • In which 3 or 4 situations or times of day do you often feel (or think you would feel) the worse? 
  • What short sentences can you say to yourself at those times which help you focus on a positive future or why things aren't as dark as they seem?
  • What mental or physical activities can you do at those times to keep your mind busy?
  • Who can you be around at those times which help you be distracted from your hopelessness?
  • At those times of hopelessness/desire to hurt yourself - what should you NOT do (ie what makes you feel worse?)
  • At those times of hopelessness/desire to hurt yourself - how can you take things out of your environment so you don't have easy access to ways of hurting yourself?
  • Who can you call/message/email/ask for help from at those times?

Write down what they say (help them with ideas if necessary) and take a photo of it and send it to their phone.

As well as doing a written safety plan with young people, as parents we should also be slowly but consistently working on making sure they actually have this range of activities, relationships and supports which they can call on, as well as knowing how they can cope with distress.   We need to be sharing with teens about how we personally cope with sad, hopeless and tough times.  We need to be asking them what works for them - or what they've seen other people do.  

Again this is not easy because many teens are resistant to this work and these conversations.  However, it's such a vital part of keeping teens safe that it shouldnt be entirely up to them as to whether they do it or not.


If you are concerned about a young person, seek help straight away.  

And then put some time into these two activities:  1) work at improving their social connections and 2) help them practice and know how to cope with feeling hopeless and sad.

Best wishes


13 Reasons Why - The 2 minute summary for parents and teachers (plus questions to ask your teen)

I've been asked by several people over the last few weeks about my views about the popular Netflix show - 13 Reasons Why.  If you haven't come across it yet, this show is a Netflix series about a girl (Hannah) who suicides by cutting her wrists in a bath-tub.  The show follows the audio tapes she has made prior to her death which explain her reasons for doing so (primarily related to bullying, conflict and rejection by her peers).  I read the book version of this show a year ago, and found it sad and confronting.  I haven't watched the full series, but have seen snippets of it, and read through the plot of each episode (which varies a little from the book).

There has been much written about these series.  

Some people (including, not surprisingly, the producers and psychologist consultant for the show itself) say that it is a valuable mental health awareness raising exercise.  Others are highly critical of the series and say it may increase suicidality in teens (clearly it's intended audience).  As with so many issues, I find myself in the middle of the road about it.  Here are my thoughts!

There are some potentially positive aspects for teens in watching the show.

1. It's going to appeal to many teens.  It has excellent production values, an interesting story line and is about characters which many teens will relate to.

2. It clearly shows the extent to which suicide can cause terrible grief and distress for survivors.  For some teens with suicidal thoughts, this may dissuade them from acting on their thoughts.

3. It shows the graphic and painful nature of the suicide method used by Hannah.  There is little "glamorisation" of the suicide scene itself, it is filmed realistically and graphically.

4. The show provides an opportunity for families/schools to talk with teens about the potentially devastating impact of sexual assault, bullying and conflict on individuals.

5. The show provides an opportunity for families/schools to talk with teens about suicidal thoughts.

In addition, I find that "banning" teens from watching something, tends to make it far more interesting than if we hadn't banned it in the first place..something about teens wanting to assert their individuality and sense of being control!

However, I also believe there are a number of potentially significant risks for some vulnerable teens if they watch this show.  These are as follows:

1. The show is undeniably distressing in and of itself.  We get to know Hannah and care about her.  We also care about other characters.  Seeing her parents try to revive Hannah for example is heart-breaking.  There can be real grief for young people seeing a "friend" die, even if that friend is a character on a TV show.

2. Suicide is portrayed as a "reasonable" response to bullying.  Viewers feel as through it "makes sense" that Hannah suicides, rather than seeing it as an irrational, short term decision.

3. The show has Hannah "memoralised" - her thoughts/points of view are remembered and understood by many after her death.  Being memoralised in this way may be an attractive thought for some teens and may increase suicidal thinking.

4. The method of suicide is clearly shown - this may increase the knowledge and understanding of suicide for some teens and increase the likelihood of suicidal thinking and behaviour. 

5. The show suggests that there is no reliable hope, treatment or support for people who are feeling suicidal - (Hannah reached out for support and did not get it) - again, this may decrease the chance of help seeking behaviour and also increase the likelihood of suicidal thinking and behaviour in some teens.

For all of these reasons, and knowing the 50 plus studies which show that the way suicide is publicly portrayed increases the risk of suicide for vulnerable individuals - I believe some teens are likely to be at increased risk of suicidal thinking and behaviour if they watch this series.

Essentially, I believe mental health education and promotion can be done in more positive ways.  

Here are the messages we need to spread amongst teenagers:

  • Feeling depressed and suicidal is very common. You are not "abnormal" or "a freak" if you feel this way.  
  • Feeling depressed and suicidal is not your fault.
  • Suicide is not a logical nor reasonable option.
  • You can get help and support when you are feeling depressed and suicidal.

I'm not sure that 13 Reasons Why effectively communicates any of these messages.

If your teen wants to watch 13 Reasons Why, I'd suggest you do this:

1 Ask them what appeals to them about watching it.  

2. Share your concerns about them watching it (use the list above if you like).  

3. If they are still desperate to watch it, tell them you'd like to watch it with them and discuss it afterwards.   

4. Ask the following questions during and after viewing.

  • What could Hannah have done differently at this point/this point/what about here?
  • If I was Hannah's parent - how could I have helped her?
  • What is Hannah thinking and feeling which is not true, helpful or logical?
  • What could Hannah have reminded herself of when she was feeling hopeless?
  • If you were in Hannah's position and experiencing those events - what would you do?
  • Have you felt this way in the past?
  • What could others have done for you to help?

5. And of course, if you get any information from your teen which suggests they have suicidal thoughts - seek help immediately.  Go to your GP, take your teen to an emergency department (if the risk seems imminent) or speak to someone at your school for advice.  It's important to remember that suicide in Australian teens is still statistically rare (11 per 100,000 in 14-17 year olds), however it does occur and we need to be on the lookout for teens at risk.

6. Finally, if you have watched 13 Reasons Why yourself - take care of yourself too.  Without diminishing our need to take care of our needs, it's important to note that statistically adults are more likely to experience suicidal thinking than teenagers are.  If you feel depressed, or suicidal, see your own GP or call Lifeline 131114.

Worried about Kids and You Tube?  Four questions parents should ask primary aged children about what they watch online

UK based research group Child Wise conducted research last year showed that children are watching an average of 3 hours a day watching youtube videos.  Most commonly, they are watching music videos, gaming videos, “funny” real life content, videos showing pets and animals, “how to” videos and sport.    

This raises the question of how appropriate these videos are for children.  It's hard to tell.  None of this content is “rated” as G, PG, M etc in the same way that commercially produced television has been in the past.  And with more than 300 hours of video being uploaded to youtube every minute, my guess is that external ratings guides like this are going the way of the dinosaur.

This means that as a society and as parents we are going to have to find new ways of monitoring, discussing and - when appropriate - restricting video content for children.  Here are four questions for parents and carers to ask children to help start that process.

1. Have you ever seen something on youtube that you wish you hadn’t seen, or something which made you feel worried or uncomfortable?   

This question is designed to help us as parents know if children have come across content which we may need to discuss with them.  It’s amazing how often children will have seen something disturbing yet not bring it up with us until we ask them directly.

One child I worked with recently saw a video about someone predicting that the world would end on a certain date a few months in the future.  He was very frightened that his life was about to end – and yet still didn’t tell any adults about it until directly asked the question listed above.

2. If you DO feel worried, uncomfortable, guilty or scared after watching something on youtube in the future – how likely is it that you would talk to me /your mum/dad/other parental figure? 

This question is designed to find out how likely it is our children will actually talk to us if they do see something disturbing - and what we can do about it if they don’t feel comfortable doing so. 

I asked one child this question last year.  She was adamant she would never talk to mum or dad about any disturbing content she came across because she believed if she did so, they would not let her watch youtube ever again.  It was important for us to discuss how she might manage this (how likely this was, how terrible it would be if her parents restricted content, and who else she could talk to).

If your child says “no” or “I don’t know” to the question about whether they would talk with you, possible follow up questions might be:

On a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being not at all likely and 10 being very likely, how likely is it? 
Is there anything I can do or not to which would make you MORE likely to talk to me? 
If you didn’t want to talk to me, who could you talk to?

3.      What kinds of videos should be “adults only” and “okay for kids” on youtube?  Why?

This question is designed to find out whether children are aware of the difference between content suitable for children and that suitable for adults.   It is also designed to help children become aware of the difference between content which is okay for kids, and content which might scare, confuse or hurt them – and why this happens.

When I asked this question of one child it sparked a conversation which helped him think about the videos he was watching which we decided were “adults only”.  Just having the labels “adults only” and “okay for kids” was useful for this family – having the phrases to use to deal with these issues can be helpful.

If children don’t know the answer to this question, or say, “nothing” – possible follow-up questions are listed below.  Keep in mind that the asking and/or the phrasing of all of these questions will need to be modified depending on the child’s developmental level, and some may need to be negotiated – for example, some families will be okay with their children watching videos with some element of the below and some won’t be:

What about videos which show people being violent towards others? 
What about videos which show people who are naked, nearly naked or involved in sexual activity? 
What about videos which have a lot of/some swearing?
What about videos which show people drinking alcohol or using drugs? 
What about videos which show people making fun of others?
What about videos which show people doing activities which might be dangerous or illegal?
What about videos which might be okay for kids to watch occasionally, but would NOT be good for kids to watch many of, all the time (eg videos with stereotyped views of girls or boys)

4. How can adults help kids to only watch “okay for kids” youtube videos and avoid "adults only" video?

This question is designed to give us our children's perspective on potential limits for youtube watching, and to introduce them to the idea that “adults are in charge” of video watching. 

We need to introduce this idea to them because while education and communication (for example via the questions above) is the most important thing we can do for children (we won’t always be able to protect them from inappropriate content), it is also essential for children's well being that as parents we do have final say on some aspects of video watching.

These conversations are not easy.  For example, one child I talked to about this became quite upset about the idea that adults should be in charge of his youtube watching because he had never been introduced to this idea.  His parents/carers and I had to carefully manage how we put rules in place, while still respecting his desire for independence.  Another child surprised his parents (and myself) by agreeing that some videos were “adults only” and initiating several rules we hadn’t thought of to make sure he wasn’t tempted to watch them.

Here are some follow up questions which might help to develop the “adults in charge” concept to children.

What do you think about putting the “safety mode” on youtube?
What do you think about the youtube kids app – and only watching youtube via the app?
What do you think about a rule that you need to show us a channel you are interested in before you “subscribe” to the video?
What do you think about a rule which says “No commenting” on youtube videos?
What do you think about only watching youtube for a certain number of minutes each week?
What do you think about only watching youtube on certain devices and/or in certain places (ie not on your phone/not in the bedroom.

Feel overwhelmed?

Helping children only watch “okay for kids” videos on youtube can be a difficult task.  Don’t forget that doing this doesn’t have to be all done at once.  It’s okay for parents and carers to just take small steps towards this and do it slowly over time.  Just start with one of the questions above (reminder:  Have you seen something which has upset you?  If you did see something which upset you – would you talk to me?  What videos should be “adults only” and “How can I help you only watch “okay for kids” videos).


PS, for more help with "scripts" for talking with children about tricky issues, go to 


Help! My child got in trouble at school today! Four mistakes parents make when they get bad news from school

John and Judy* came in to see me a few months ago now, directly after dropping their daughter Sally (9) off at school.  I could tell by their faces that the morning had not gone well.  Sure enough, as soon as they sat down they told me about how Sally had "got in trouble" the day before and they'd just spoken to the teacher about it that morning.  It wasn't a helpful conversation.  John was furious and believed the teacher had made many mistakes over the year, and this was "the last straw" for him.  Judy was devastated and in tears, feeling as though she personally was a failure - as well as being worried for her daughter.  

We discussed their options, how to manage their emotions and what to say and do with Sally and her teacher.  It was a difficult session, but they emailed me later to say the next day had been better for them, and they had made a plan for getting through the next week.


To be honest, John and Judy are not real parents - this is a story I made up just then.  But it didn't require great creative genius (took me about 10 seconds :)) because it's inspired by hundreds of parents I've worked with over the years.  I see kids every week who struggle with managing their frustration, find it tough to get along with peers, struggle to following instructions, can't "stay on task" nor finish work set for them.  Their struggles means they frequently "get in trouble" at school - in other words, everything from getting corrected, reprimanded, punished, losing privileges, suspended, removed from the school, asked to be involved in mediation, reconsider their "choices" and so on.

When this happens repeatedly for children, it breaks their parents hearts.  Parents I see with kids always "in trouble" will frequently feel angry, upset, distressed, guilty, extremely worried and confused about what to do.  

Unfortunately this distress means these parents sometimes do things which accidentally make things worse - for themselves and for their children.

Here are four mistakes we sometimes make when our child says "I got in trouble today".   

Mistake 1. We get angry at the teacher

As parents we have a strong, subconscious biological urge to protect our children.

When another person criticizes, is angry at or corrects our child - sometimes we have an instinctive anger response.  This is especially true if we feel someone is acting unfairly towards our kids.  

So it makes sense that we feel angry.  Unfortunately, it really, REALLY doesn't help to speak aggressively to a teacher, someone at the school or even about a teacher in our child's presence.

Here's why we usually need to reign in our frustration with teachers:

  • We usually don't have the full story - child frequently report events incorrectly, or don't tell us the entire picture.  Often they are not deliberately lying, they just don't know or see the context.
  • Most teachers are trying extremely hard to support our children whilst doing incredibly difficult jobs. They often are the subejct of repeated criticism from other parents (we will not be the only parent upset with them that day) and dealing with high levels of stress and burnout.
  • Acting in aggressive ways towards the teacher is going to make the teacher more anxious, frustrated and less co-operative - leading to them being less able to capably provide support and teaching to our children
  • Acting in aggressive ways towards a teacher in front of our children may make children less respectful towards the teacher themselves, which might lead to them being "in trouble" more often.  It also doesnt help our children learn to resolve conflict and work with a range of people.
  • It's not terrible for children to get into trouble occasionally.  They can potentially learn a great deal from correction, depending on the situation.  
  • Finally, acting in aggressive ways towards someone usually makes us feel worse, not better.

Mistake 2. We get angry at our child

Sometimes as parents we go the other way when children do the wrong thing at school - we get mad with our kids.  

This is understandable.  It IS frustrating when our kids act in negative ways at school.  Sometimes it can feel like we have talked with our kids repeatedly about doing the right thing at school - not hitting other kids/putting their hand up/finishing work at school/keeping their head down - and yet they still mess up.  After the tenth occasion, it's tempting to get really angry, and pull out some great punishment (that's it, your ipad is going in the bin).  But unfortunately getting angry with our children doesn't help much either.  

Here's why we need to stay calm with children who've "gotten in trouble":

  • We've sometimes forgotten that school can be extremely hard work.  Dealing with other kids are is often annoying, hurtful and tiring.  Having to listen and follow instructions all day is tiring and hard work.
  • Sometimes teachers - being human beings - act in unreasonable, irritable, impatient and unfair ways.  Having to deal with that when you have a small brain can be pretty tough.
  • It's entirely normal for children to break rules, do the wrong thing, lose their temper and get off task.  Children are still learning how to manage their frustration, get along with others, concentrate, finish tasks and be respectful to others.   
  • Getting angry at our kids doesn't actually help them change - in fact it can mean they are less likely to be able to do so.

Mistake 3. We ignore the situation entirely

Somet imes when our children get in trouble, as parents we just pretend the whole thing hasn't happened.  This is not surprising either.  Parents in general are often overwhelmed.  There is too much to do, no time to do it in and they are dealing with a whole range of challenges. 

And for parents who have children who get in trouble frequently, this is especially true. Sometimes it feels like the best thing to do is to just let the school deal with it, not ask too many questions and/or just wait until the child is in a different class/older/something else changes. 

I believe this is often a mistake.

Here's why ignoring the situation can be a problem:

  • Almost every time children get in trouble it potentially (if we start "digging") provides us with vital information about what our child needs.  It's like a little flag to say "here's what my child isn't so good at/needs help with/is struggling with".  This information can be extremely helpful - and we don't always get this information elsewhere.
  • Teachers don't have the time or resources to help our children learn to behave in different ways on their own.  As parents/carers we are have a unique ability to do this in different ways than a teacher can.
  • Ignoring the situation might give the message (to schools/teachers and our own children) that the difficult behaviour isn't important.  This means it may happen again.

Mistake 4. We blame ourselves

Finally, some parents I see blame themselves when their child gets in trouble.  They feel a sense of shame about their parenting, and feel like they haven't done enough.  Once again, this doesn't help.

Here's why we need to be compassionate towards ourselves rather than blame ourselves

  • It is really painful for parents when their child gets in trouble repeatedly.  I have many parents cry many tears in my office about this issue.  Having your child in trouble (especially when it is repeated) causes genuine and deep hurt, and we should take care of ourselves.
  • If we are kind towards ourselves as parents first, it's easier to be kind to our children (and to teachers).

Perhaps reflect for a moment - which of these mistakes are you more likely to make?  

Getting angry at the teacher
Getting angry at your child
Ignoring the situation
Blaming yourself

If you can, try to avoid these mistakes.  Instead try to do the following:  

Stay calm and caring when talking with your child about the situation
Do some gentle digging and exploring of what happened and what skills your child might need to work on, Communicate calmly and respectfully to teachers
Be kind to yourself  

If we can do this, then the "getting in trouble" problems doesn't lead to more trouble.  



Do you have more questions about managing your child's tricky behaviour at school (and at home)?

You can ask UNLIMITED questions of myself and our child psychologists online and we will answer within 48 hours.  Your child can also watch videos which are specifically designed to help them calm, manage worries, cope with frustration and feel more confident and co-operative.  For more information, go to


Are you an Adelaide based parent?  You might be interested in the following seminar: Calm and Confident Kids - For parents of 5-12 year olds. Click here for more information. 


Three good reasons parents don't set or monitor rules

Last week I ran a seminar for parents at a local primary school.  I had almost got to the end of the night and we were discussing rules for kids.

As parents, we know that part of our job is to set, monitor and enforce rules for our children.  We have to do this to help them manage life, stay safe, build relationships with others, cope with school and learn skills.

But doing this rule setting, monitoring and enforcing work as a parent is sometimes exhausting and difficult. 

At the end of this seminar last week, with just minutes to go, a parent put up their hand and said something like this:  "I've really tried to set rules, but I just can't seem to make them work.  Any ideas?".

My brain went into overdrive as I started trying to think about what I could say in 3 minutes which would be useful.  Which concepts, reassurance, advice could I give quickly to give her something to go away with? I decided to skip the theory and go straight to what I think is the heart of this stuff.

I started with reminding her that she was entirely normal.  We all feel the same.  It's a lonely job as parents, but it's a mistake to think that we are alone in our struggles.

Second - I asked her to take a minute to reflect on what was the hardest aspect for her personally in setting up, monitoring or enforcing rules with her kids.

I told her that in my experience there are three very good reasons as parents we fail to either set, monitor and enforce rules. Here they are.

1. Doubt.

2. Fear

3. Fatigue

Knowing which one is playing a part in our decision making can be really helpful.  Let's look at them in more detail.


As parents we are often uncertain about whether a rule is reasonable, useful or important.  When setting or enforcing  a rule becomes difficult (and when is it easy???) we start to second guess ourselves. "Maybe this isn't important after all?  Maybe I'm being unreasonable?"  Kids and teens are often very persuasive and they are pretty talented at making us doubt our decisions when they don't like a rule!


Maybe we have no doubt about the appropriateness of the rule.  We are convinced that it's going to be beneficial for our child in the long term.  However, the idea of actually monitoring and enforcing it worries us.  What if I do this and my child/teen gets so upset they get hurt somehow?  Maybe I'm ruining their childhood?  Maybe they deserve a break?  Maybe they will have such a huge meltdown that they'll have some kind of nervous breakdown?  Maybe I will!?  Fear and concern stop us from following through.


And finally, there's fatigue.  Sometimes there's no doubt, no worry or fear - but honestly, we are just SO. TIRED.  So very tired. We know that the rule will become another fight, another battle and we just don't have it in us to follow it up.  Fatigue convinces us to ignore the issue.

Doubt, Fear and Fatigue:  Reasons to reconsider?

Should we always 'power on through' doubt, fear and fatigue and set, monitor and enforce rules anyway? Sometimes.  But sometimes not.

I believe doubt, fear and fatigue are all good reasons to take a second look at the rule we are trying to set or enforce.  

It may actually be that the rule we are considering or struggling with is not a useful one.  In which case we should revise it.  It's okay to back down or change our mind about rules.  As parents we do make mistakes,

On the other hand, maybe we DO need to set the rule we are considering, or have another go at monitoring and enforcing an old one we already had.  

If this is the case, we probably need to take some time to reduce doubt, make a plan to deal with fear or find a way to reduce fatigue

There are ways of doing each of these things.  However, that's another article for another day.

For now, just start with this.  Next time you find yourself failing to set a rule - or enforce it - just stop to notice why.   Is it doubt, fear or fatigue?  

This may help you decide what to do next.


PS, I'm currently working on a short video for parents about helping kids act in brave ways, with a "real life" audio of me talking with an anxious child (actor).  If you'd like to watch, then sign up for Calm Kid Central Membership ( - please note we currently have federal government funding to provide entirely FREE membership for one year to a select group of people - check out for eligibility criteria.

Preteens - Where has my happy child gone?

One of the shocks for parents of the 9 plus age group is how frequently their kids get irritable, sad, stressed and "moody".

Many of us as parents remember how our younger kids were happy-go-lucky much of the time.  Sure, they'd still get upset at times - if they didn't get what they wanted or had a fight with their siblings, or had to do chores - they might have a meltdown - but as parents we knew what was wrong and after the moment was over (and the chores done/fight resolved) they returned to being their cheerful/high spirited selves.  Plus, the promise of an ice-cream/extra story/trip to the beach would usually put a smile on their face.

But suddenly our children aren't like this any more.

  • They act irritably for no obvious reason.
  • They seem overly upset about things which didn't use to upset them
  • They might "sulk" or take a long time to get over things
  • Things/situations which used to provide them great pleasure no longer make them happy
  • We can't "fix" it with the promise of a treat/fun activity

These more frequent, seemingly irrational and "not easily fixed" bad moods and irritability are not easy for parents to watch (or to listen to!).  We often feel annoyed ourselves, resentful and concerned.  

The good news is that most of the time, these negative moods does not mean there is anything seriously wrong.  

It is normal for children, from the age of around 9 or 10 onwards, to experience more frequent negative moods.

This is because as humans, as we get older, we get more agile and powerful brains.  This means we are more capable of:

Evaluating life negatively
Comparing ourselves negatively to others
Thinking about what might go wrong in the future
In addition, we have had more exposure to situations as we get older - which means we get less excited about various things that used to have novelty value.

In other words, preteens are in the process of becoming more like adults.  And as adults we have to manage our own stress levels, negative moods and irritability,   The promise of ice-cream/playground trips/extra stories doesn't always help that much when we are annoyed and disappointed and now it doesn't always help our preteens either.

So now, in a family - instead of there being just one or two people (the adults) who get in a bad mood, we have extra people (the preteens) who are managing their moods too.

So it's not surprising that family outings, days at home and holidays can be trickier in some ways as the kids get older.

That's the bad news!

There's good news too.  Preteens and teens growing brains are ALSO capable of additional good moods compared to when they were younger.  These good moods come from situations like:

Being more able than younger children to take great joy in their achievements
Being better able to look fruther ahead into the future and have a sense of hope about what is coming up for them
Being capable of developing deeper friendships and romantic relationships - and deriving joy and satisfaction from these things
Feeling grateful for what they have (okay, this one takes a little longer,and a little more training - but it does come!)

So the positive moods will come around for preteens - and sometimes when you least expect it.

What should we do when preteens are in a bad mood?  Well that's the topic for another blog.  But here's the first and vital step - know it's normal, not their fault, not our fault and make some emotional space for it.  


PS, of course some irritability/stress and negative mood in pre-teens is NOT just part of growing up.  If you have ongoing concern about the moods in your pre-teen or teen - always get an opinion from a health professional:  a great start is with your GP.

17 quick questions for gaming/online video “addicted” kids and teens this holidays

Do you have a child/teen who is *desperate* to be non stop gaming/watching online video this school holidays?  Have you lectured about the need for a balance of activities until you’re exhausted and want to throw all i-devices/gaming consoles off the edge of the nearest roof? 

Thousands of kids and teens all over this country this school holidays are spending hours each day gaming.  It’s not surprising. As a society we’ve introduced a set of humans with partially formed brains (and willpower skills) to a highly addictive, satisfying and fascinating activity and naturally enough they are having trouble turning it off.

But of course we know that it’s not healthy for young people to be on screens 24/7.  But if they can’t limit their own use - this means parents and carers have to take charge.  But this is tough too. Dealing with technology use for parents can be exhausting, worrying, constant and tiring.   You’re not alone. 

There are many strategies to help kids and teens with their tech use.  Positive communication is at the foundation however of all the most successful strategies.  Of course, communication is easier said than done.

Below I've listed 17 questions which – if asked compassionately and at the right time (ie not when they’ve just lost the last Clash of Clans round or are stomping around about not being allowed to be on screens like “all of their friends”) – may increase positive communication about the issue.  I've found them most useful myself.

Good luck!


PS, it’s a rare young person who will want to answer all of these questions in one sitting.  Just pick a couple to ask and work your way through the list over the next few days.

hat do you think you learn /what skills do you improve from your gaming/watching online video?  What areas of your brain do you feel are working?

(Hint - If they say “I don’t know”, ask about hand eye co-ordination, problem solving, visual scanning of the environment, reaction time/speed, reading skills, ability to work in a team etc). 

Do you think these skills help you in other areas of life?

Does your gaming/watching online video make it easier to relate to other kids/teens who you know from school?  Why or why not?

Does your gaming/watching of online video use help you be a better friend in some ways?  Why or why not?

What areas in particular do you find fun/do you like about your gaming/watching of online video?

Would you explain the way your favourite game works to me? 

(Hint – if your child/teen gives you a three word reply, gently press for one or two more details.  Eg - What is the aim of the game?  What kinds of strategies are used?  What are the mistakes people make in playing this game? What levels are you up to)

Can you tell me about your favourite you-tuber/online video channel? 

(Hint – if your child/teen gives you a brief reply, gently press for one or two more details.  Eg-where do they come from?  Why are they successful when others aren’t?  What is funny about it?  Where did you learn about this?)

What three non-gaming/non-tech activities do you most like to do?

(Hint, if child/teen has difficulty answering, then change question to…”If you really had to do some activities which didn’t involve gaming, tell me three which you would do?”

Are there any non gaming/video watching activities I could do with you/or help you get started on/help you set up which you would enjoy?  Any others?  Any others?

In your opinion, if your friends were on their devices for every moment they were awake this school holidays, what would be bad about this?

(Hint – if you get resistance at this point, back off.  It’s also okay to make suggestions – eg imagination, longer term concentration skills, reading skills, how it affects people around you – and see what they think)

If we were going to set up a schedule for the next week only about what times of the day/night you would and wouldn’t game – what do you think is reasonable?

If we were going to set up a schedule for the next week only about how long (how many minutes/hours) you would and wouldn’t game each day/week – what do you think is reasonable?

What do you think I think or feel about your gaming/video watching? 

(Hint – if child/teen suggests you feel negatively about it then go on to ask - Does that bother you – and if so, why?)

Would you like me to be more interested in your gaming/what you are watching – and ask you more questions?  Why or why not?

Do you know what my concerns are about your gaming/video watching?  If so, what are they?  How much do you agree with each concern?

What don’t I understand about why it’s hard for you to turn off gaming/video watching?

Is there anything I can do to help you cope better when you have to stop gaming/watching video?

What are the things you do (or say to yourself) which help you be less upset when you have to stop gaming/watching video?

For help with kids with "big feelings", who need support in coping with life, or managing worry, frustration or struggles with friends or at school - try our online support -

Co-parenting "kids with big feelings": 19 questions to ask your partner

"Kids with big feelings" is a phrase I sometimes use to describe children who have a tendency to get more frustrated, worried, embarrassed, hurt and sad than other children their age.  I use this phrase because it avoids negativity and reflects the fact that these kids are often also particularly creative, joyful and hilarious fun!

If you are a parent of a child with "big feelings" kids you know that it can be really hard work.   And unlike most other "jobs", we get no training, time for reflection, formal planning processes or team building days...nope, we just do the best we can on the fly.

Sometimes this works out okay.  

However if we can squeeze in some time for reflection and planning - then the job can get easier. 

Here's a exercise to try - "Parenting Reflection Walk" - perhaps over the holidays.  Go for a walk with your parenting partner or a close friend.  And ask them the 19 questions below (change the wording slightly as indicated if it is a friend versus a co-parent) and have them ask you the same ones.  See if it leads to any practical ideas you'd like to implement for 2017.

What were the best things about how you were parented when you were a child?
What were the worst things about how you were parented?
When do you feel most guilty as a parent?
When do you feel proud as a parent?
What would you like to do differently (if anything) with X child?
What would you like to do differently (if anything) with Y child?
Is there anything I do or say with X or Y child which you have thought useful/appreciated?
How do you feel about how we (you) are handling issues with child X's frustration and anger?
Is there anything else you think we (you) could do to help him/her with it?
How do you think we (you) are handling issues with child/'s X's worry or anxiety?
Is there anything else you think we (you) could do to help him/her with it?
How do you feel about the way we (you) manage sleep/bedtimes?
How do you feel about the way we (you) manage issues related to homework?
How do you feel about the way we (you) manage issues related to getting along with siblings/other kids?
How do you feel about the way we (you) manage issues related to getting along with jobs/chores?
What are the things that make you angriest/most frustrated in dealing with child X?
Is there anything to be done/I or others could do to help you feel calmer?
What activities or situations do you most enjoy with child X/Y?  Is there anything that could be done to help that occur more often?
What skill would you most like child X/Y to learn this year?  How could you/we help him/her learn that skill?

Remember there are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions.  It's just the asking of them (leading to thinking, planning) which is most beneficial.


PS - no time for a walk right now?  Perhaps just pick two and ask over dinner or in the next car trip together? Or even send a text (even right now?!) to your partner/close friend with one of these questions and see what it leads to!

PSS - no time without the kids around?  Some of these questions can be asked and discussed in front of the children if necessary.  Provided it is not a critical or harsh conversation, kids can benefit from hearing you think about parenting and sometimes help in providing perspective in this conversation too.

Last chance for brain training bookings for this year.

If you work in secondary schools and would like to have one of our psychologists present a seminar for your students, feel free to click here for more information.

School seminars and Brain Training program

This is the last chance for bookings for our Brain Training package this year - so be quick! :)

Upset/Angry Young People? Three Magic Words to Say to Ourselves

Some kids and teens get upset a lot - more than the average child/teen.

They get REALLY mad when things are unfair, outraged when their plans are thwarted, really stressed when they have small responsibilities, anxious about how other people think about them and sad about life.

There are many ways we can help young people deal with difficult emotions - depending on the situation, their age and how much time we have!  But often, an excellent first step is to say threemagic words to ourselves.

What are these magic words?  They are these:

Not My Responsibility.

It is not our responsibility to fix or solve the problems which cause our kids and teens distress.  

It's not our responsibility to make life okay for our "big feelings" kids and teens.

It's not our responsibility to make them happy.

It's our responsibility as parents/carers to love them through their struggles, be empathic as much as we can, coach and teach skills to help them deal with them and to help structure their life with boundaries and care - so they can learn to live meaningful lives.  

But that doesnt mean removing all sources of distress, or ensuring they are happy as much as we possibly can.  Let me say this one more time, when kids and teens are upset - it is NOT our responsibility to fix it.

I think I've probably said it enough, but just in case I'm misinterpreted, let me clarify again that I don't mean we don't offer our young people empathy when they are distressed - actually, on the contrary, I think empathy is vital.  We need to say, as often as possible, things like:  I'm sorry you feel like this.  I wish you didn't feel so bad. That sounds tough.  

Empathy is vital - and I actually believe that often when we are clear that it is not our responsibility to fix their problems, it's easier to be empathic.

But it's not our responsibility.

Try it yourself and see how it feels for you:  next time your child/teen comes to you in anger, frustration, sadness, worry or stress - silently say to yourself "not my responsibility" - and see what happens next.

Kirrilie is a child/adolescent psychologist who helps kids and teens feel calm, confident and cooperative.  For more help online check out

Fixes for Forgetful Kids!

"Gemma, where's your homework book?"
"I can't find it!!"
"I've talked to you about this one hundred times, why isn't it in your bag like it's supposed to be?!"
"I I don't know!  And I need it tomorrow! 
*Cue parent scream"

"Mum, I can't find my football boots!"
"Where did you have them last?"
"I can't remember!"
*Parent and teen looking together, parent muttering, teen stomping until football boots are found somewhere obvious, like at the back of the fridge under the lettuce.

If you have a child/teen like this, just reading this will probably make blood pressure rise.  Forgetful children are often hard to take. They slow life down, they get into trouble completely unnecessarily and leave us feeling completely exasperated.

A lot of forgetful children and teens DO improve their attention, concentration and memory skills as they get older, in the meantime, here are some things we can do.

Think about the last time your child or teen lost something or didn't have something they needed and ask yourself these three questions.

1.  Do your kids/teens know the "home" spot for each important possession?  

Designated places for important items are essential.  Not a range of places, but one (okay two at the most) places, and often a "Never here" spot can be useful too.  For example:

School jumpers are either in the draw or in the wash (and never in the school bag overnight),
Electronic items are being used or sit on the red table (never on the floor) 
Glasses are in the case or one the book cupboard (never outside unless on your head)

- and so on.

Some younger child can benefit from matching stickers which go on both the object and it's "home spot" to designate a place for these items to be kept when not being used.  

Teenagers can be involved in discussions about where appropriate "home" spots and "Never" spots should be for various items.

2. Do your kids/teens have one particular time of day (or week) when children put possessions in their "home" spots?

It's not enough that there is a home spot for important items, there also has been a regular time, system or routine when the possession is put in the home spot.  

For example:

As soon as you get home from school (before screens, before food, before play), your school hat goes in the hat box.  
As soon as you finish dinner, your homework bag gets put in your school bag.  
Just before bed, you check your glasses are in the glasses case.  
Before you leave for school, you set your device on charge at the charging station.

It's important that these routines are very specific.  The idea "when you have finished with something, put it away" is a great idea in theory, and one to work towards - but kids with memory, attention and concentration problems need more specific routines than this.

2. Do your kids/teens have systems and visual cues which remind them to do "putting away in home spot" tasks?

For some kids, it's not enough to just have a spot, and it's not even enough to just have a "time for things to be put in their spot" - they need a visual prompt or routine to get them to put their things in their home spot and out of their "never" spots.  

For example:

To help you remember to put your hat in your hat box when you get home, we will put a note on the fridge which says:  Hat in Hat Box.  To help remind you to put your glasses in the case, when you clean your teeth, you will think :teeth, glasses case, teeth, glasses case - I will remind you.  
Before you leave the house in the morning, as you walk through the door, we will have a list which you check -  is my device on charge for the day.

Finally, kind - to yourself and to them.....

Having home and never spots, a time to return items to home spots, and reminders/prompts to use home spots does help forgetful, absent minded children/teens enormously.  It's far more effective than just nagging them to "concentrate" or "get organised!"

However, it's not a magic cure.  Teaching children/teens to be less forgetful is a massive, long term task.  It takes these kids until adulthood (and even some - not then!) to conquer these skills.  This is not their fault - it's not because they are bad kids/teens, and it's not our fault either.

Sometimes we just have to take a deep breathe, realise that every thing forgotten is an opportunity to tighten up a system, be kind to ourselves in our exasperation (this sucks.  It sucks for me and for them)  and start again.

Tests and Exams: 5 (unexpected?) sentences to say to kids/teens the night BEFORE they take them

1. Is there anything I can do to help you get enough sleep tonight?

Getting enough sleep prior to a big test or exam has been shown to be more effectively than staying up late and "cramming" - unless the student really doesn't know any of the material.   Doing what we can to help kids/teens sleep well - letting them know that sleep will help them think faster in the morning and remember more information, helping them make rooms dark, encouraging screen free time before bed, warm showers, cool rooms and relaxation before bed can all help them get the sleep they need.

2. Do you have any strategies for making sure you fully express all you do know/correctly answer the questions you know the answers for?

The night before a test or exam is not the time to learn new material.  

However, it can be useful to make sure young people have strategies to fully express the material they DO know.  It's usually important for example for students to do the problems they know first and ignore the ones they don't know until these are done.

In fact, some research has shown that students who use some of the "pre exam writing time" to write down the questions they don't know and that they will come back to later do better in exams because they are more effectively able to put them aside.

3.  What can you do to help you read the questions correctly and don't misunderstand what is being asked of you/make silly mistakes?

Many kids/teens under-perform in exams and tests because of "silly" mistakes, misunderstanding the question or forgetting to answer all the items.  Strategies to help avoid make these mistakes include:

a) Underlining important words in the question before it is answered
b) Always allowing time for checking at the end
c) Doing this checking - actively not passively - ie concentrating while reading over what they have written by using a pencil to focus their eyes on what they've written, imagining what they have written is being said out loud or checking as they go (ie not necessarily waiting until the end to check when they are more likely to be tired/run out of time)

4.  How can you remember to "breathe" in the exam/test?

When we take time to take slow and deepen our breathing in stressful situations, as well as relax our muscles - our subconscious brain processes get this message:  We are safe.  There is no tiger to fight.

This means we are more likely to be able to think clearly about complex ideas.  In tests and exams, if kids can remind themselves to stop, take a deep breath and relax their shoulders, they are likely to do better.

Some students I have worked with use the beginning of every question as a "cue" to take a deep breath, others do so every time they look at the clock.  

5.  Do you know that whatever the result or mark you get in this test/exam, it does NOT measure your worth as a person?

Kids/teens need to get this message from us.  

Tests and exams can never measure our value.  

We are "enough" regardless of what we do or what we achieve.  Kids and teens need us to tell them this.
It is worth giving them this message repeatedly given external pressures which suggest otherwise.  

5 things to say to/do with children who say "I'm bored....."

Last week I asked *Justine how her day had been and she said "boring".  

Nothing at school had been interesting.  Nothing at home.  She would be happy if she could have ipad time, but that wasn't an option - so life was boring, boring, boring.

Some children get bored more than others.  As adults we often have little sympathy for children who report being bored.  In fact sometimes, it feels downright annoying.  Here's why:

a) As adults some of us are very busy ourselves and would love a little time to be bored - it doesn't feel like something to complain about!

b)  Some of us remember childhoods in which saying you were bored led to instant punishment.

c) Sometimes we feel resentful: we've given them activities and opportunies and challenges - why is it not enough?  Sometimes we feel worried that children can't entertain themselves

d) As professionals (teachers, counsellors etc) - when children say they are bored then it feels like a criticism of all the hard work we are doing /have put in - to keep them learning and interested

It's no wonder that adults often respond unsympathetically to bored children:  "fine then, you can do X (job) and then you can really be bored".  

But here's an important question - Is there anything we can do to actually reduce how often children reporting being bored in the first place?

Yes.  And it doesn't usually mean providing more toys, games or activities.

Let's look at why kids get bored in the first place.  Essentially this is about skill gaps.  They do not have the skills required to entertain or challenge themselves. There are a few reasons for this skill gap. 

  • This generation are often fast processors.  The speed of visual information and other auditory information which comes at us online in this day age is unbelievable.  It's not surprising that kids are learning to cope with the slower offline speed of life.
  • Some children also have lives in which there are not always a lot of activities to do.  Once upon a time some children did have the option to be outside, in the creek etc - in this era and living in cities with safety concerns, some children can't do as many of these activities.
  • Some children aged around 10-12 year olds report being bored frequently as they have moved beyond purely creative play but yet haven't found replacement activities.
  • Some children in a school environment find school boring when tasks don't match their developmental level.
  • Some children are just less creative, more extraverted/need more outside stimulation and generally less skilled at challenging themselves than others.

Unfortunately for kids like this, entertaining and challenging yourself is an essential life skill - for home and school.

The good news is that we can help them get better at this.  We can help kids learn to entertain and challenge themselves.  Here are some ideas about how to do so.

Option 1. Help the child generate new activity ideas

This is about helping the child think about how they can think about activities or tasks to do. What is important here is to sometimes go beyond just verbally listing activity options but making sure there is a visual or written list of choices.  For example:

"For the next five minutes, I'd like you to make a list of activities you could do today - come back and show me when you are finished"
"I'm going to sit with you and together we will brainstorm all the things you might do this holidays and we will put it up on the fridge"
"Let's look up online ideas for rainy days/ideas for 10 year olds and I'm going to print it out"
"Get all our board games out and put them on the dining room table for today so you can
see them"

Option 2.  Help them get involved in the start of an activity

Sometimes children benefit from having an adult involved in the first few minutes of a task.  A small time investment here sometimes means they are then able to entertain and challenge themselves for a long period of time.  For example:

"I will start an activity/game/idea/task with you. And then you will finish it yourself"
"If you start x activity/game, I'll come over and look at it with you in X minutes"

Option 3. Empathise and normalise.  

Sometimes children need to hear that filling in time, entertaining and challenging ourselves as humans IS not easy.  They just need a bit of empathy.  This can be a quick comment.  Or sometimes asking an extra question can open up an interesting and helpful conversation.

"Sorry that you are bored, that's not a fun feeling."  
"Did you know everyone feels bored sometimes?  Me too."  
"Is there anything I can do?"
"Do you think it's just being bored, or do you have another feeling as well?  Like lonely?  or sad"

Option 4.  Help children take activities/tasks and make them more interesting or challenging.

Children don't always need an extra task or activity, but sometimes just need help to see the existing tasks or activity options in a different way.  Children sometimes need help with this - both at school and at home.

"Could you do it differently to make it more interesting"
"Could you challenge yourself to do that task faster?"
"Could you teach someone else about it?"
"Could you think about it from a different perspective?"  
"Please write these ideas down so that when you next do that activity, you can go to this list and use it to make the activity more interesting"

Option 5. Consider making starting an activity compulsory but finishing it optional

Some children will loll around waiting for gaming/device/technology/screen time to start again, being bored but refusing to do anything about it.  The problem with this (other than it being irritating for us as adults) is that they are not actually learning to challenge and fulfill themselves in ways other than via gaming, which means over the long term more problems occur.

"Sorry mate but you can't sit there doing nothing.  You need to pick an activity that we've discussed and do it for at least x minutes, and then if you still don't want to do it at that point then you can stop"

Option 6:  Ignore it

Let me say - it's perfectly fine for us as adults to sometimes "ignore" the "I'm bored" comments and let children sort themselves out and deal with the boredom themselves.   There are no rules which say that children MUST be helped with learning to entertain or challenge themselves.  Often they will manage it and find activities to do if we stay out the way.

However, if we do have time to do options 1 - 5 even just occasionally - then it can help develop the "entertain and challenge yourself" skills which will help them over the longer term.

Does a child you know need some extra help understanding frustration and managing big feelings?  We've just uploaded an animated 4 minute video to help children learn to calm down fast to our site.

Go to calm Kid Central ( now to have a look.

Our child psychologists are also online every day to answer your questions about your 4 to 11 year old child’s behaviour, emotions or how to support them in a tricky situation.  

While you wait, you can get your child to watch one of our other many 3 minute animated videos about:

Coping with worry
Making Calm thoughts
Feeling more confident at school and with others
Learning to get better at friendship skills. 
Being kind to others....and many more

For more information and to sign up – click here:

PS - are you a teacher, SSO, youth worker, counsellor or therapist working with kids?  If so, we have a calmkidcentral site just for you - click here

Kid's Violent Imaginary Games And Stories

A parent asked me recently about her 8 year old boy’s tendency to create imaginary and very violent war games with his younger brother.  Here’s some of my thoughts.

1. It’s common and not usually a sign of mental health problems

For many generations, children have played imaginary violent games.  They make guns out of sticks, imagine shooting, blowing up, capturing and attacking the “bad guys”.  Imaginary limbs get chopped off, imaginary bombs are set and there is often much yelling in pain and loud deaths.   This violent fantasy also is expressed in story writing – for some children every story, joke and example involves some horrible death. 

Most of the time, children who play and write in this way are happy and enjoying their violent play and stories.  If children seem happy and have no other symptoms that worry us - but just play violent games happily - normally this means they are NOT traumatised, mentally ill or on the road to becoming violent criminals. 

Instead violent play and imagery is an instinctive form of play which probably has its origins in our need as a species to win wars and tribal battles.  This kind of violent play peaks between the ages of 4 and 10.  Not all kids will do it of course, but a lot of them will.  And yes, there is a gender imbalance – boys are more likely to do this than girls on average.

This means trying to “ban” the violent play altogether is often not particularly successful.  We’ve all heard the kids who make guns out of clothes pegs when their toy gun is taken away.

2. There are some potential benefits of violent imaginary play

As well as it being fun, good for physical fitness and creativity - with just a small amount of occasional adult input, kids can actually learn a lot about co-operation from violent play.   The occasional comment, direction or question from an adult can sometimes get little brains thinking in a variety of creative and problem solving ways.  For example, some options for conversation include:

What is the most fun bit about this game?  What do you like about it?
Why is the “baddie” doing that?  What made him/her want to do that I wonder?
What if all the bombs, guns and swords are in a locked cupboard – what could you do to defeat him/her now?
Swap roles – what role do you like playing the most – why is that? 
What if X and Y had to work together to fight the monsters/survive the natural disaster/save the city – how could they do that?

This is not something we need to or should do every time kids play – but occasionally inserting these questions or suggestions into kids’ play can help them thinking about co-operative play and problem solving.

3. We can keep helping kids to expand their play activities

If children are exclusively playing or writing about violent themes, then they often benefit from a small amount of intervention from adults to help expand their play repertoire.  Helping children increase their range of interests and play activities is actually useful for lots of children.  

For example, as adults we can:

Develop a list of games and activities (written or in pictures) that they can look at to choose from.
Occasionally sit with them and help them start a new game or activity to help them see the fun (and benefit) of the new game. 
Help them develop further interest in topics they’ve showed mild interest

Let’s play a game together
I’ve heard this is a really interesting book/topic – shall we look it up together?
I’d like you to play one board game before tea tonight, which one is your favourite?
I’ll start your drawing with you and then you and your brother can finish it and we’ll put it on the pin up board.
Let’s come up with some other story ideas where the character beats the baddies by using his amazing skills with talking and listening.
Go to your “Fun Ideas” list on the fridge and choose something to do from that

4. It’s not okay for kids to be frightened, hurt or repeatedly excluded in any kind of play

As adults we need to intervene in play when a child gets frightened, physically hurt or repeatedly excluded.  It’s not okay for children to push, shove, kick or hit – regardless of whether this is in play or not (wrestling where neither party get hurt is an exception).  If children are playing imaginary violent games, they should know the rules – if someone is hurt or frightened – they need to do the following:

1. Apologise,
2. Repair (check if they are okay and offer to help) and
3. Negotiate and make agreements together to make sure it doesn’t happen again (ie no sticks, no touching, STOP means stop etc). 

If someone gets hurt again, the game stops.

5. They will grow out of it

Most of the time, by the time children are 12 or 13, the violent imaginary play and story writing has subsided to some degree.  At that point, they may be playing violent computer games – but that’s the topic for another blog post!


Most kids (especially boys) will play violent games and it doesn’t usually indicate mental health problems or a tendency towards violence in real life
There are benefits to this kind of play
Adults can also redirect play and expand play/writing subjects
Adults need to help children avoid hurting, frightening or excluding each other
Children generally grow out of violent play

Do YOU have a question about your 4 to 11 year old child’s behaviour, emotions or how to support them in a tricky situation?  If so, you might be interested in Calm Kid Central (

You can login on your phone/computer, ask a question in our private group and have one of our child psychologist answer within 24-48 hours. 

While you wait, you can get your child to watch one of our many 3 minute animated videos about:

Managing frustration
Coping with worry
Using calm down tricks
Feeling more confident at school and with others
Learning to get better at friendship skills. 
Being kind to others....and many more

For more information and to sign up – click here:

PS - are you a teacher, SSO, youth worker, counsellor or therapist working with kids?  If so, we have a calmkidcentral site just for you - click here

My top 10 tips for helping teens though secondary school

I'm working with DECD and Parents SA during "Parents in Education" week in SA in a couple of weeks time - talking on a panel with the Minister and presenting at a couple of workshops around Adelaide.  One of the journalists doing a story on this week asked me for my top 10 tips for parents on helping them through secondary school.


I really wanted to write about 50 ...and include an essay on each one...but in the interests of space I had to prioritise.  

I've copied them here for your interest.  What would be yours?

1. Ask questions

Asking questions (gently, kindly and casually) about teenagers' subjects, assignments and teachers is important for helping them trouble shooting problems and be successful at school

2. Frequently thank, affirm, praise and express care

Find opportunities every day to say "I admire you for...", "I'm sorry you are dealing with....", "I love how you...." and "Thanks so much for....".  Being positive and caring helps teenagers and also helps us stop to notice the positives - and feel better.

3. Friendships matter

Teenagers who have good relationships with their peers are happier and this in turn has an effect on results at school.  Help teens find ways to make and build friendships, allow lots of socialising time, help them resolve conflict and put in place opportunities for them to find new connections.

4. Talk with and support teachers

Email and ask questions of teachers, thank them when they do something we appreciate, give them information about our teenagers and respond to notes/interviews/questions.  Expect and help teens to ask questions of and communicate with teachers too.  

5.  Keep teens busy.

Teens who have regular activities, hobbies, jobs or sport they engage in on some weeknights or on the weekends are more likely to succeed at school than those who sit around not doing much out of school hours.  Having at least some out of school activities leads to better social connection, a sense of achievement and better time management skills

6. Have set routines for phone free homework time

Expecting teens to consistently motivate themselves to finish and focus on homework completely independently is unrealistic for a large number of teens.  It is entirely reasonable to have family rules about short periods of homework time each night in which teens have their phones on silent and social networking sites are blocked. Many families do this (don't believe teens who say "no-one" has rules like you!)

7. Have rules about "lights and phones off" sleep times

Up to 70% of teenagers are sleep deprived.  This makes them more irritable, sick more often, do worse on tests and exams and struggle to motivate themselves.  The 30% who are not sleep deprived do better at school and with managing their mood - and this 30% very often have parents who turn off the internet at a certain time of night and insist on phones out of bedrooms.

8. Prioritise school attendance

Attendance is highly correlated with school results.  It's fine for teens to have the occasional mental health day but repeated days off to "catch up" on work or because they are tired leads to a downward spiral of missing more work and getting further behind.

9.  Forget grades

Don't focus on grades.  Ensure that teenagers are following house rules about daily homework, sleep, school attendance and communication with teachers and then allow the grades to fall where they fall.

10. Be kind - to ourselves, and to our teens

Adolescence can involve lots of struggle, suffering and distress - for teens and their parents.  Be kind and compassionate towards ourselves, acknowledge that this is a hard job and we are doing great stuff.  Then it's easier to be kind and compassionate towards our teens too.

Facebook - when it makes your teenager feel worse, and when it makes them feel better

I'm not a statistician but I can say with confidence that roughly 100% of teenagers use social networking sites :)

By social networking sites I'm talking about those apps and programs which teens use to share videos, memes, thoughts and photos - and to communicate with others.

Most typically this is facebook and instagram, but there are many others.

As parents and carers, it's easy to see these sites as either "all good" (everyone uses it, our teens are fine) or "all bad" (these are terrible sites and they make our teens feel terrible, and expose them to conflict and undesirable adult content).

The truth is more complicated and it takes more time to tease out.

There are quite a few disadvantages of social networking for teens, but also some advantages. In this blog, I'm just going to look at the advantages and disadvantages for teens in terms of how social networking affects their mood.

What the research is starting to tell us is that social networking can make teenagers feel good - reduce stress, anxiety and depression, and make them feel more positive about life - AND it can also make them feel bad - increase stress, anxiety and depression.

Let's look at this in a little more detail.

When teenagers use facebook to actively communicate with their friends, organise social events and seek out support from their friends - and they get positive responses from others - they feel good.  This can make teens feel good about themselves, feel good about friendships and reduce daily stress, anxiety and even reduce levels of depression.

This makes sense.  

Friendships, conversation and social connections have always made humans feel better. This works online just as well as it does offline.

However, when teenagers passively spend time on facebook - scrolling and reading - without actively commenting or messaging - then they often feel worse.  This may be partly due to something called "social comparison", where teens are noticing other people having fun, looking better than them (so they believe) and being together, and they feel worse about themselves in comparison.  Research also shows that teens also may feel, after a period of time that they have spent "meaningless" time on facebook, which goes on to make them feel worse (this is the "I'm wasting my life away on facebook" feeling which many of us can relate to at times!).  Finally, if teens do seek out actively seek out social support on facebook - and don't get it - then they also feel more depressed.

So as you can see, social networking sites don't consistently makes teens feel better or worse - it depends on how they feel initially, what they do on these sites and how much they are supported online.

Pretty much like friendships in real life.

What can we do as parents and carers of young people?  Here are a few ideas:

1. Help teens be aware of the dangers of facebook in reducing their mood.  Explain how sometimes social networking can make us feel worse - either by us comparing ourselves to others, feeling like we are wasting time or by being rejected or not supported by others.

2. Help teens be aware that facebook can make them feel better.  Explain that sometimes social networking can reduce stress and depression - by helping us connect with other people, conversing with others and feeling supported.

3.  Encourage them to use social networking sites actively rather than passively.  Ask them to limit their passive "scrolling/reading" time - and instead make comments, "like" and share content - and this is particularly useful if they have online friends who are likely to respond to it.

4.  Ask them to think about how likely it is (on any particular day) that either of the two will occur.  Are you likely to have a good conversation with a friend?  Are there people online that you think may support you or respond to you?  Then maybe social networking is a good idea for you right now.  Is it likely that no-one may respond to you?  Is it likely that you are going to make comments and no-one responds?  Then maybe social networking is NOT a good idea right now.

5.  Encourage them to OFFER social support online.  Be generous with comments, likes and shares where possible.  Respond to messages from friends where possible.  We need to build up a community of young people who look out for each other online.

6. Help teens be aware of the negative mood that might happen via social comparison online.  Remind them of the way people post - their friends will be mostly posting only the very flattering photos (and using photo editing apps), they will be posting the best version of their weekends and making comments about the most positive aspects of their friendships.  This is not real life.   Ask them how they can deal with feeling bad about themselves when they are online.

7.  Help teens be aware of the negative mood that might happen for them when they feel left out/not supported online.  Help them think about what they can do when this happens.

8.  As you can see, it's vital for us as parents and carers to be cautiously positive about social networking with teens.  Teens ARE going to use social networking and they need help in navigating this world.  If we dismiss it out of hand we can't provide this help.


Setting chores for "tricky" kids and teens - the ONE important detail that gets forgotten

One of the ongoing challenging tasks for parents is to help children and young people to get their jobs done.  Trying to help children and teens follow through on mundane tasks like cleaning rooms, unpacking bags, putting their toys and doing assigned chores.

This is hard enough for parents with kids who have easy going personalities and few life demands - but when you are trying to help a child who struggles with worry/frustration management, attention problems and other life challenges - getting them to do their chores is extremely hard work.

Parents in our clinics talk about the immense frustration that comes with reminding, nagging, yelling at young people in order to get them to do these simple things - and how they end up just doing it themselves.

There's no easy solution for helping young people get things done, but in my experience there is ONE detail that can potentially make a big difference.  If we get this detail right, then it is significantly more likely that children/young people will do their jobs, and if we don't - it's much less likely this will happen.

What's this details?

It's the "When"

Working out with children/teens exactly WHEN they will do each assigned job and making sure that it happens at that specific time - results in children far more likely to follow through.  The WHEN might be after or before a certain activity or it might be at a particular clock time - but either way, everyone knowing WHEN the job will happen helps tremendously.

Let's take some examples.

Let's say a household rule for Jody's family is for Tom and Tracy to keep their room tidy.  Jody nags, complains and begs the kids to just maintain basic level of tidiness - clothes away, food out their room etc.   Jody doesn't feel like she asks that much - but constantly walks in their room to find it a disaster area.

What Jody needs to do is to specify a WHEN.  She implements a rule that after breakfast every weekday Tom and Tracey will spend 5 minutes cleaning their room, and on Sunday night before dinner is served,they both spend 10 minutes cleaning their room.  Yes, Jody needs to remind, monitor and follow up - but knowing when she has to do this, and the kids knowing when they have to do the tidying - it makes it more likely that clean rooms will result. 

Let's take another example.  In Trevor's house, the rule is that you need to put your lunchbox on the sink at night.   Trevor is sick of telling the kids about this every single day of the week and having to call out in the morning - lunchboxes!  Kids! Lunchboxes!   So Trevor specifies the when.  From now on, the rule is that as soon as you walk in the door, before afternoon tea, your lunch box comes out of your bag and is on the sink.  Now Trevor knows when he has to monitor, remind and ensure the kids do their job,and the kids know when they have to do it.

One last example.  Let's say in Helen's house, the teen kids - Lorraine and Katie are expected to unpack the dishwasher.  Helen always asks but often ends up doing it herself.  She is now going to specify a WHEN. This might be harder because there is more variation (it depends when it's full!).  So we have a "when" that varies, for example:

The dishwasher gets checked after tea and after breakfast.  Lorraine empties it when it's clean after breakfast on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wedesdays, and Katie empties it when it's clean after breakfast on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.  This is written down.  Helen reminds the girls regularly about not just "you need to unpack it" but when they need to do it, and Helen knows she needs to coach at THOSE particular times.

As parents we still need to be around for many months to train up, coach and cheerfully remind and assist until the skill is learnt.  And sometimes there needs to be a negative consequence (ie nothing else happens until job is done) in place if the job isn't done (but this will usually only help if the parent is right there, reminding and coaching).  However, having this extra detail helps a lot.

This is particularly true for "tricky" kids and teens.  Young people who feel things deeply and have strong independent traits, need as much predictability as possible in order to deal with the ups and downs of life.  Having parents nag and ask them to do things in a way which isn't highly consistent and predictable makes life much harder.

Next time we get frustrated with kids who are not doing their jobs/chores, think about whether we need more WHEN details - it can help a huge amount.

Teenage girls - their eating and weight decisions: why we can't leave it entirely up to them

Let me tell you about Cindy. Cindy is the representation of many, many teenage girls I have seen over the last 20 years.  She is 14 and and very self-conscious.  She is desperate for approval by her peers and struggles with anxiety and confidence. 

One day, Cindy looks at herself in the mirror and decides she is fat.  Cindy is not fat.  But she weighs herself and is shocked to find she weighs much more than she did when she last weight herself when she was 10.  She starts to try to lose weight.  She skips some meals.  She tells people she isn't hungry.  She does 100 push ups at night in her room.  She cuts her portion sizes down to tiny amounts.   She weighs herself several times a day.

Cindy loses some weight and is thrilled by this.  The weight loss gives her a sense of power and reward which is very seductive.  So she tries to lose some more weight - and then some more.  

Her parents start to notice her weight loss and reduced eating, and are concerned by it - but they don't feel they can do anything - after all Cindy still eats.  In fact she still eats junk food.  Her weight loss is small. She is only *just* in the underweight category for her BMI.  They don't feel it is their job to question her - or to "force" her to eat more.  After all, she is old enough to make her own eating and exercise decisions.  Isn't she?

Now let me tell you about Jenny.  Jenny is the representation of many, many teen girls I have seen over the last 20 years.  Jenny is also 14, also self conscious and also desperate for approval, and struggling with anxiety and confidence.  Jenny also feels she is fat.

But Jenny doesn't skip meals.  Instead Jenny starts eating more food.  Feeling depressed and miserable, eating is her only solace.  She begs her parents to buy her junk food at every opportunity and they do.  Jenny stops playing sport because she is too self conscious to be in gym clothes.  Jenny looks for the block of chocolate in the cupboard and eats it in one sitting.  Jenny refuses to go for walks with her family. She spends most of her time sitting in front of the computer. She starts putting on weight.  Which makes Jenny more depressed, and more likely to binge eat and more likely to avoid exercise.

Her parents notice, and are concerned - but they don't feel they can do anything - after all, Jenny is not significantly overweight.  They don't want to make her feel worse.  They don't feel it is their job to question her - or to "force" her to exercise or eat more healthy food.  After all, she is old enough to make her own eating and exercise decisions.  Isn't she?

Unfortunately what I know about Cindy and Jenny is that they are standing on the edge of a metaphorical cliff. They are both at significantly high risk of the mental health problems including even more severe depression, anxiety and eating disorders.   This happens to boys too - and increasingly so in my experience.

In order to prevent them falling off this cliff,  adults need to step in.  Cindy needs to stop weighing herself, reduce her exercise and be required to increase her nutritional intake - whether she wants to or not. Jenny needs to increase her nutritional intake, have her junk food limited and be required to have a more active lifestyle - whether she wants to or not. 

None of these things are easy.  In fact it is one of the difficult jobs adults and parents will face.  But they are absolutely necessary for these girl's emotional health.

The reality is that 14 year olds are simply not old enough to make every final decision about how much and what they eat, and exercise.  This is especially true for 14 year olds who have or are at risk of a mental health disorder as are Cindy and Jenny.

If you are concerned about your teenagers eating and health decisions, contact your GP, click here to find out more about our services or contact the Butterfly Foundation.


When life sucks for teens has a chapter on "I hate the way I look" which is suitable for teens who are self conscious about their appearance. 

Click here to read more 

What to do when your child says "I wish I was dead"

Every week we see children, aged from 5 or 6 onwards who say something like this:

"I wish I was dead"
"I wish I'd never been born"
"I want to die"
"If I have to do this/if this happens I will kill myself"
"I want to kill myself"

and so on.

It's very distressing for parents to hear their children say these things.  As parents, our dearest wish often is for our children to have a happy, meaningful life - and hearing these words is often a shocking blow.

Here are some steps you can take if you have heard your child use sentences such as these.

1. Try not to panic.

Many children say something like this at some point, it is not uncommon.  It does not necessarily mean your child is depressed (they may be, but it's not a definitive sign) nor does it doesn't mean there is something else wrong with them.   It doesn't necessarily mean they are hiding something from you, that they are sad "deep down" nor does it necessarily mean they need help.  Of course some children who say "I wish I was dead" ARE depressed, or DO have immediate needs for support, but the words alone don't usually suggest this.  

2. Don't tell them off or get cross at them - empathise instead.

Don't get mad, don't lecture them about why they should not be sad.  Don't lecture them about all the good things in their lives.  Telling children off for talking about how bad they feel can sometimes make them feel more ashamed, and more unhappy.  

Instead, empathize. 

Say: "I'm so sorry you feel so bad", "I wish you felt better", "I'm really sorry you are hurting so much" or something similar.

2. Take time to find out thoughts and reasons for their distress

It is important to try to find out details about what the child is upset about.  Gently ask a few questions.  Here are some options if you can't think of what to ask:

What is the worst thing about this?
What do you think about when you feel upset?
What do you wish was better?
If you could change something what would it be?
What is most upsetting for you?
Is there something you feel most angry about?
What do you think could go wrong.
Which part of the day has been the worst?
When do you feel most upset?
And so on. 

Don't interrogate the child by asking more questions than they seem comfortable asking.  Also remember to pick your time to ask questions (you may need to wait until they are calm).

But do try to get some more details about what is going on for them.

4. Try to help them to express their feelings in other ways.

"I wish I was dead" thoughts are often about children telling us they feel really distressed - and this is the only way they can fully express their feelings.  It children can slowly learn to express this distress with more detail, and in other ways - then they will cope better with these feelings and we can help them more effectively. 

Gradually help children learn to use different types of "emotion words" and a reason for these emotions.  For example say "I feel so hurt about this friend right now" and "I feel very very angry and disappointed about that" and "It feels like I will never be able to do this" and so on.  You might need to suggest the sentence first for example:  "It sounds like you are feeling ...........does that sound right?"

You could also give them other ways to express their emotions, for example offering to draw with them, jump on the trampoline, or write a song or a poem about how they feel.

5. Check on safety.  

If you are concerned about your child's safety, then it is important to not ignore this - but instead take steps to keep them as safe as possible. 

First this means checking on whether they have any specific plans about when and how exactly they would hurt or kill themselves.  If a child has said they are going to hurt themselves, ask them about it.  Say something like:

"have you thought about how would you hurt yourself? or when"

Don't worry about putting "ideas in their head".  You are simply asking them the question, not suggesting anything to them.  If you are genuinely concerned about their safety, it is better to know about their plans.

Second, If they appear to have a particular plan or time, keeping children safe then also means trying to limit their ability to hurt themselves.  For example, this means keeping means and access of hurting themselves as far away as possible, and keeping them from spending long amounts of time on their own.

6.  Consider Getting help

Although it is important to know that not every child who says "I wish I was dead" has mental or emotional health problems - it is also useful to consider getting help as an option.  Children with strong emotions often benefit from counselling or support from others, as do their parents.  Speak to your GP, a school counsellor or teacher - or feel free to call our offices if you would like to know about support options.

One of our books, When Life Sucks for Kids is currently going through a "hot patch" for sales.  It is a book for 8 to 12 year olds and is a step by step guide for 8 to 13 year olds to help them manage the most common challenges Australian kids face. Plus it helps adults themselves know what to say, what advice to give and how to help kids with issues to do with friends, family, school and life. 

Click here for more information

Would you like to ask our child psychologists an anonymous question about YOUR child and get a detailed response within 48 hours?  Our online portal might be for you.  It also has a series of animated videos for your child to watch to help them understand feelings, cope with worry and tough times.  Check out