Monday, 14 April 2014

Teens and Depression: The Danger Signs

In it’s mild form, depression is the most common psychological problem for teenagers. While it was uncommon a generation or two ago, we now see more diagnoses than ever among our youth, and some psychologists predict that depression will become the psychological ‘flu’ of the 21st century – only the effects are longer lasting, and the illness is harder to treat.

We usually describe depression as ‘feeling sad’ but there are other symptoms that are critical for us to recognise and understand in relation to depression. In fact, without these other symptoms, we may be misdiagnosing sadness as depression.

How to know if your teen is depressed

“I hate me. I really hate me. I hate the way I look. I hate the way I feel. I hate the way I talk to people. I hate how I do everything wrong. I have feeling hopeless. The world would be better off without me. My family would be better off without me. I shouldn’t even be alive”

Depression has emotional symptoms (like sadness, and a loss of enjoyment in activities that were once fun), but it also has cognitive symptoms (like pessimism and hopelessness). It has motivational symptoms – things like a loss of interest, and feeling apathetic. And it also has physical symptoms related to eating and sleep disturbance.

According to the psychological model that has been used for the last two decades, adolescent depression requires a person to be:

  1. Extremely depressed (for at least 2 weeks) – and it is important to note that for teenagers and children, that sadness may be shown through an irritable mood.
  2. A loss of interest and pleasure in most or all activities
  3. Significant weight loss or weight gain – and in children, it may simply be that your child is not gaining weight as expected
  4. Insomnia, or sleeping too much
  5. Physically, your teen may be agitated, and constantly moving (psychomotor agitation). (To add to the confusion, sometimes people with depression don’t want to move at all).
  6. Fatigue
  7. Feelings of worthlessness, or feeling inappropriately guilty for anything and everything
  8. Being chronically indecisive, having difficulty concentrating on anything, or not wanting to think about anything
  9. Feeling like life would be better if they were dead – experiences of suicidal ideation

Most psychologists would give a diagnosis of depression to your teenager (or you) if they exhibited at least five of these nine symptoms at the same time, consistently during that two week period. But the symptoms cannot be related to grief, and they cannot be due to the direct influence of drugs or a medical condition.

How common is depression in children and adolescence?

Depression is relatively uncommon in children, although there has been a growing number of diagnoses in the past decade. Typically, studies indicate somewhere around 1-2% of children (prior to adolescence) who experience depression. Some research suggests that up to 50% of children do experience several depressive symptoms, but not enough for them to be diagnosed with clinical depression or it's milder forms.

Adolescents appear to experience depression at similar rates to adults. Close to 20% of us will experience depression at some point in our lives, with around 5-6% of our teens (and us) having a clinically depressive episode in any given year. Our daughters are particularly vulnerable, with research indicating that depression is twice as likely to affect females than males.

Where does depression come from?

There is a wide range of factors that could be causing depression. Most psychological research supports a model that indicates depression has at least some biological roots (or vulnerability), but that the environment makes a significant and important contribution. In short, we suspect depression develops like this:

A biological or psychological predisposition (genetics) combines with stressful life events (environment) to leave us feeling depressed. The stressful life events will vary from person to person, but might include loss, being rejected, failing, or being humiliated. While many of us experience these things regularly with no depressive outcomes, some people (and teens) develop inadequate or ineffective coping strategies, and fail to deal with the setbacks in their lives well. This can spiral into negative cognitions (stinking thinking), and depression occurs.

What do I do if I think my teen is depressed?

Our natural reactions to our adolescent’s depression may be to give them a good shake, tell them to change their thinking, and ‘man-up’. However, only rarely will this be an effective strategy. Instead, I suggest the following:

  1. Have a good heart to heart. If they are feeling depressed and the symptoms match those above (and have lasted for a couple of weeks), suggest a visit to the GP for more advice. Then get a referral for a psychologist.
  2. If depression is diagnosed, research generally suggests the best treatment is a combined pharmacological (drugs) and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) approach. If your psychologist doesn’t offer CBT, be cautious. Research indicates other forms of therapy are less effective.
  3. Research tells us that even if our teenagers get good help they will struggle to work through their symptoms if their parents are depressed. There is a strong intergenerational transfer of depression. Every parent needs to be ok so their children will be.
  4. Work hard with your children on supporting good friendships. Encourage them to spend time with friends who help them feel good about themselves.
  5. Make sure their school environment is a positive one. Relationships with parents and friends and school environment are some of the most powerful predictors of our adolescent’s wellbeing.
  6. Discourage alcohol and drug use – and be clear about it.
  7. Reduce stress in their environment (but don’t baby them and do everything for them – it’s a fine line).
  8. Encourage exercise, appropriate sleep, and healthy eating.
  9. Help them be good at something. Developing competence builds confidence and feelings of worth.

Lastly, if you spot your adolescent slipping into any stinking thinking habits, talk to them about it. Build your relationship with them. Help them know how much you value them by spending time with them. Your relationship with them may be the thing that makes all the difference.

LIFELIFE blurb??

Should my teenager get a job?

Most kids begin earning money at a relatively young age. Many get paid for chores or for baby-sitting, car-washing, or odd jobs around the neighbourhood. By around the age of 15, many children are working in supermarkets, food outlets, and other retail stores. ABS figures reveal that up to two-thirds of teens are involved in the workforce at some level.

Should Teens Be Working?

The Pros

The arguments for working are simple and logical. Teenagers learn

  • responsibility
  • independence
  • the value of work (and money)
  • interpersonal skills

Research tells us most parents believe they developed these attributes for themselves through their own experiences working as teens.

Additionally, many teens want to work. They want their own income and independence.

As a plus, when teenagers earn money, they generally rely less on parents for cash, which may impact the family budget too. Research shows most teens get satisfaction from having a job and experiencing the benefits employment brings.

The Cons

Pressure to work can impact on education, with research suggesting that as hours at work increase, grades suffer. More than 20 hours of work per week is related to increased school absenteeism, and drop-outs. And some studies indicate that teens working more than 20 hours per week have higher take-up of alcohol and tobacco use.

Parents also complain that working intrudes on extra-curricular activities and friendships. Plus, some parents find having their kids working is inconvenient. It disrupts planned family events, or time together.

Middle Ground?

Some researchers have discovered that the pros and cons may be less about ‘work’ and more about the individual. A teenager with high academic goals will typically limit employment hours. Students who have little interest in education work longer hours, and are also more likely to engage in ‘problem’ behaviours.

Making work ‘work’

Teen employment is not typically a contentious issue for families with adolescents. Parents and children are generally in agreement about the positives of employment, and parents typically support teens in their job-seeking efforts.

Additionally, the challenging behaviours (drinking, smoking, etc.) associated with teen employment are not usually caused by the job so much as the work facilitates the teen’s ability to be involved in those behaviours. So if your teen wants to do those things, work will help them. But otherwise, the negatives revolve around pressure on school, family time, and extra-curricular activities.

Here are some things to consider if your teen wants to work:

What kind of work?

For some kids, any job is good enough. Working for a fast-food outlet or retailer is a chance at independence and cash. And sometimes any job will do, just to get a foot in the door.

But research shows that when we have work that we find meaningful, and when we feel that what we do ‘matters’, we enjoy greater job and life satisfaction. The first job to come along isn’t necessarily the right one. Work, whether part- or full-time is best when it is directed towards longer-term goals.

For the career-oriented teen, paid work might be postponed in favour of volunteering. Obviously some jobs are not available to teens. Perhaps your daughter wants to be a vet or an engineer, or your son wants to be a radio DJ, or an air force pilot. By volunteering in the background, they may begin networking, and often gain valuable experience in an otherwise unreachable profession – and they’ll discover whether they really love it or not.

How much work?

Before going too far down the employment path, have a conversation with your kids about when it’s suitable to work. How will it fit with their current timetable? How will their contribution in the home be maintained? How will they keep up with their schooling? How many hours is enough?

Much of this discussion will be guess work. Until they’re working you won’t really know. But the discussion is useful for setting boundaries and establishing a clear line around priorities: school, family, friends, and extra-curricular activities vs work.

Emphasise values

As your children develop an interest in employment, talk about honesty, integrity, income, contribution, and what matters. As your children develop an understanding of what will make them ‘tick’, they’ll make better career decisions.

Be ok with change

In all reality, your children will probably try a number of jobs – and even careers – before they settle into one central focus. There is great value in experiencing new things, but success will ultimately come from stability and long-term focus. So be ok with change. But always encourage your children to look at the long-term picture and how it aligns with their values.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The most important thing parents can do for their kids

In my work, I travel a lot. I’m in and out of cabs, trains, and planes regularly. Whenever I catch a taxi, my occupation invariably comes up. I write and speak about parenting. And when my cabbie finds out how I earn a living, the driver almost always asks me for parenting advice. (For free! They never offer to pay for it:) )

Recently, though, I was asked something unexpected. While normally the driver might tell me all about the drama he has been experiencing with one of his children, this time my ride simply said,

“What’s the one thing parents should do for their kids that matters more than anything else?”

Then he added,

“So, when I go home after my shift, what’s the one thing I should do with my kids?”

These questions were unusual. Normally parents want to know how they can get their children to behave in ways that benefit mum and dad. Whether it’s tantrums, chores, schoolwork, extra-curricular motivation, or whatever, most parents ask me questions about how to make their kids better. But this man wanted to know how he could behave to benefit his children. He wanted to be a better dad.

(I know that most parents who ask me how to make their kids better do it with the best of intentions, and they are good, devoted parents. But few parents ask me “what can I do for my children?”)

The driver had three children, aged 2, 5, and 10. I thought about his two questions for a second – if that – and then responded:

“The most important thing you can do for your kids is to love them. And show that you love them by giving them your best self, and your best time.”

Then I gave him my advice for what to do when he knocked-off work that afternoon:

“When you walk in that door, put on your happiest dad face. Then call out to the children, lay down on the floor, and let them jump all over you for at least ten minutes. It will change your day, and it will change their day.”

More than almost anything, children feel our love when we invite them into our world and let them spend time with us there. Or, when we enter their world and spend time with them, there.

One of my favourite parenting quotes is this:

“To a child, love is spelled T – I – M – E.”

It is a simple lesson.

This is a reminder.

Tonight (or now), pull yourself away from the screen, look into your children’s eyes, and tell them that you love them more than anything. Then walk together, play together, ride a bike together, make something, cook something, experiment, or just ‘be’ together.

Whether your kids are 2 months, 2 years, 12 years, or 22 years, it’s a universal need. Give them your time. Do it now.

Try it. It will change their day, and yours. It might even change your lives.

Ask Dr Justin: My son says he’s dumb

Hi Dr Justin,

My 7 year old son has recently started saying things like "I'm dumb or I'm stupid" if he makes a mistake. This might be when trying to sound out a word, or if his behaviour has been redirected. How would you approach this?

Thank you,

Sheree

To answer your question, I’m going to draw fairly heavily on studies conducted by motivation researchers. I think it is applicable to your son’s challenge, and to many other difficult situations our children (and we) regularly face.

When we are asked to complete a task – like your son reading – we typically show one of three motivations: performance approach, performance avoid, or mastery. The orientation, or approach, we bring to the task has a significant impact on how we feel about attempting it. For example:

A performance approach orientation means we’ll have a go at something because we are reasonably confident we can do it well. You probably find that your son is quite happy to take on reading challenges that aren’t particularly, well… challenging.

A performance avoid orientation means that we shy away from anything we think might lead to failure or mistakes. This particular motivation seems to be what your son is showing in relation to reading unfamiliar words, or if he is asked to change his behaviour. Somewhere in his mind, he feels like he is failing. He verbalises ‘I’m dumb” as a way of justifying his performance, and demonstrating that he shouldn’t keep reading, or to play the ‘victim’ in relation to his actions. ‘I’m dumb’ means I can’t help it. It’s not my fault. There are aspects of me that simply cannot change.

A mastery orientation is seen when we look for tasks that we are going to be challenged by. They’re too tough for us to breeze through, and we’ll probably make loads of mistakes. Yet this is exciting for us because, even though it can be embarrassing when we get it wrong, we love the idea of learning and growth.

Research suggests that people with a performance motivational mindset generally adopt both the approach and avoidance strategies, depending on the circumstances. But they rarely, if ever, adopt a mastery orientation. And research also tells us that the performance and mastery orientations to challenge are about equally distributed.

How it affects behaviour

There’s an old saying attributed to Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” The idea is that we can do whatever we put our mind to. The great challenge is that many children don’t recognise this, and many parents don’t teach this to their children.

Studies clearly demonstrate that people with greater ability but a performance mindset will actually perform more poorly over time than will people with less ability but a mastery mindset.

Teaching kids mastery matters

When your son tells you he is dumb or stupid because he can’t spell a word, or because his behaviour needs correcting, the messages you send him can promote one mindset or another. By telling him,

“No you’re not dumb. Look at how smart you are. You read all of those words!”

you actually promote a performance mindset. This happens for a couple of reasons.

  1. Arguing with your son about his intellect will not change his mind. He’ll move into defensive mode and, whether he says so or not, will actually solidify his position with evidence that he is really dumb.
  2. Research shows that when we tell someone how smart they are (or how beautiful, or artistic, or talented), they feel a need to protect that reputation. Protecting their reputation (or label) means that they will take on fewer risks and do more of what they feel safe doing, knowing they are competent to a particular level. But they stop stretching themselves.

There is something else you can do that may help much more. I recommend that you tell him:

“You feel embarrassed when you can’t work out the words sometimes, don’t you.”

“Reading can be really tough sometimes can’t it.”

By recognising the emotions he is feeling, your son will feel understood. Spend some time on those emotions. Then you might say something like:

“Did you know that everyone has some challenges and difficulties with words sometimes. It’s pretty normal. It even happens to me when I read some of my books.”

This helps your son recognise that not only is what he is feeling and experiencing able to be named and described, but it is normal, and it can be controlled.

If your son is like most people, once he feels understood and realises that he’s not the only one who has these kinds of struggles, he will calm down. Once calm, he will be teachable. (While he is upset, defensive, or frustrated, he is unlikely to be teachable in any way.) At this point you can share other feelings…

“It makes me sad when you say you’re dumb.”

Additionally, you might find it helpful to ask him questions:

“Why do you think you’re stupid?”

“If you want to get better at something, what do you need to do?”

“I love trying new things, and making mistakes. Can you think of why?”

These question will guide your son to a recognition that he is progressing and learning. And they will orient him away from believing there are labels that define him. They will promote a mastery, rather than a performance, mindset.

Beyond these ideas, I suggest that when your son does something easily, you point it out and then tell him it’s time to try something harder where he’ll make mistakes because that more fun. Point out that challenges make us better at things. And lastly, be a model of attempting new things, failing, and putting new learning into practise.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

I’ve got the power! (Or do I?)

In my parent-coaching, I regularly talk with parents whose children are pushing against boundaries. While toddlers and young children can have ‘issues’ with limits, teenagers may be the most challenging when it comes to power struggles.

Power struggle are unavoidable

Kids push boundaries. It’s normal. It’s appropriate. It’s a pain! But let me ask you a question.

Do we want to avoid power struggles?

Power struggles are important markers of our children’s development and growing independence. It is what they’re supposed to do.

Whose fault is it anyway?

As parents, we are in a position of power for the first 12-15 years (or thereabouts) of our children’s lives, and most of us use that power to our advantage. We punish behaviour we don’t like by smacking, removing privileges, and other nasties. We reward behaviour we do like with treats and rewards. We ‘manage’ our children with what psychologists call external contingencies.

But external contingencies (punishments and rewards) – or behaviour management – can prevent our children from internalising why something is right or wrong. They stick to the rules and limits because of what’s going on outside of them, rather than inside. In other words, we’re managing their behaviour. They’re not.

Ideally, we want our kids to stick within the boundaries whether we are around to enforce those boundaries or not. But when we carry a big stick, we promote compliance and obedience only when we’re around – or when we might find out what happened later. If the kids know we’ll never find out what they did, they’ll push the limits… unless the limits are inside them. Again, while we are managing their behaviour, the limits are in us and our power rather than in them.

Here are five ways to change the power balance in your relationships with your children and get the limits inside them:

Solution 1: Be an example

Children who grow up in homes where parents have good discipline and good habits will generally follow their parent’s examples. Parents who speak softly often have soft-spoken children. Parents who are fit and healthy often have healthy, fit children. Our children see us as models, and follow our examples.

Solution 2: Invite challenges

This seems a strange thing to say, but it has remarkable power in it. When your teenager comes to you with a request that you allow her and her friends to have a party at your home – and to allow the other kids to bring alcohol – tell her you’re fine with that if she can prove to you that it’s a reasonable request.

The process your daughter will follow will go like this:

“Everyone drinks Mum.”

You can reply that recent research shows most teens don’t want to drink, and send her to this survey.

You’ll be given some other excuses that demonstrate that your daughter has limited awareness of the law in relation to underage drinking, how adolescent brains are affected by alcohol consumption, and how adolescents (and most adults) have difficulties assessing risky situations when under the influence.

As your daughter goes through the process of trying to convince you that it will be ok, the evidence she discovers will convict her of the fallacy she’s bought into. While she may not like it, and may not admit it, she will have internalised the arguments you want her to understand, and she’ll have done so without YOU having to do the arguing. (These conversations are draining and can continue for a week or two, but they are powerful for having our teens internalise our values.)

Solution 3: Say yes, but in ways that you feel good about

Let’s flip around the previous scenario a little bit. Your teenage son wants to go to a party. There will be alcohol. You know it because you weren’t born yesterday. It’s not a friendly get together with a handful of friends. It’s a ‘party’ with dozens of teens, a poorly lit backyard, and limited adult supervision.

You don’t want him to go there. But you also don’t want him to be ostracised by his friends and feel like he’s the only kid from school missing out. Plus, you generally trust your teenager’s friends and want to show trust in your teenager to make good decisions.

In this situation, you might have a conversation about expectations, and agree that he can attend the party so long as you can personally pick him up at an agreed time. Your son gets the party privilege, and you can feel good that you’re keeping him safe and accountable.

Solution 4: Don’t make it about power

This may be the toughest and most ‘advanced’ response to power struggles. The more you try and use your power to force an issue, the more you raise the stakes. Teenagers who are trying to form their own identity, separate from us as parents, and be seen as independent young ‘adults’ naturally push against power, attempting to assert their own. So when you start throwing your weight around, via threats, punishments, or even rewards, they feel almost compelled to resist us.

How do make it ‘not’ about power?

Tell them you trust them, you have faith in their ability to make good decisions, and you want them to grow to be responsible.

Tell them you’re deferring the situation to them, but you’d like them to discuss it with you. Then, instead of rejecting their decisions, ask them to help you understand why they’ve made their choices. Probing, careful questions, combined with logic and patience and love remove power and allow ‘adult’ conversations around decision making and limits.

Solution 5: Choose your battles

There are some power struggles that you might argue are worth fighting. Our teenagers should not be drinking or using drugs. They should not be viewing pornography. They should not be breaking laws.

Depending on the age of your child and what they want to do, ‘no’ might be the only appropriate answer. But even in these circumstances, minimising our emphasis on power and using reason and logic will generally bring out the best results – because these habits emphasise internalisation rather than compliance due to extrinsic contingencies.

 

There is great irony in our use of power. The more we have to show we have the power to shore up our position, the less power we really have. When our teens are pushing us and we use our power to defend our position, we actually lose power to them. Counter-intuitively our demands for compliance indicate our powerlessness. We are out of control, and we show our desperation to cling to that power by using force. We have the most power when we don’t have to use it, but instead, encourage and empower our children to make decisions for themselves.

I am not the maid! How to stop chasing your children about chores

There are dozens of strategies for teaching our children that we do not exist solely to wait on them. Some are more effective than others, but none are guaranteed to work every time. Here are some of the more common strategies, along with a rating (out of 5 stars) for how effective they will be in most circumstances.

Refusing to do it anymore (0 stars)

From time to time an article will appear online praising the courage of the parents who stopped doing the housework until their teens realised they would have to take on some of the responsibility. Dishes sat in the sink. Clothes festered on the floor. Food failed to cook itself. And eventually the teens couldn’t stand it any longer. Perhaps it works in some situations. However, I suspect that the mess, the need for yelling and threatening, and the poor modelling make this about the least effective strategy for teaching children to pull their weight.

Yelling and Threatening (1 star)

It’s true, yelling and threatening will get things done. If you make yourself big, loud, and scary enough, you can usually force just about anyone to do just about anything. But this approach comes at a cost. The kids stop listening unless you sound really angry. The relationship between you and your children suffers. And everyone feels lousy. In spite of these drawbacks, this 1-star strategy is very common.

Nagging (2 stars)

The softer version of yelling and threatening is to nag, harass, bother, badger, carp, prod, and urge our children to “please, please, please do as I have asked.” Nagging and pleading discourage initiative, put children into a position of power, and rarely aid in getting things done. When children respond to nagging, they generally don’t do a particularly good job. Again, this strategy leaves everyone feeling ordinary. But at least there’s no shouting and less anger or passive aggressive behaviour compared to the previous strategies.

Payment (3 stars)

Paying children for completing chores can provide minor motivation in some circumstances. Children know that they have pocket money if they do their chores, and they’re broke if they don’t. It’s a strategy that may, in some cases, reduce nagging or yelling. But research tells us that such a strategy may actually reduce motivation for those tasks UNLESS the payment remains (and sometimes even increases). Take away the payment, and you take away the motivation. Additionally, many parents argue that doing chores is simply part of being in the family. Parents don’t earn income for work around the home, and nor should children.

Chore Charts (3.5 stars)

Chore charts can be effective in mapping out clear expectations for children. One quick glance at the poster on the wall or fridge and children know what is required of them, and on what day. Parents can direct their children to the chart and ask them to mark off the chart when tasks are completed.

Democratic discussion and divvying (4 stars)

When families talk about responsibilities and each person takes on tasks willingly through a consultative process, the likelihood that chores remain undone will be greatly reduced. This process can help ensure that everyone is understood, that chores are divided according to ability and capacity, and that there is appropriate accountability and follow up. Used in conjunction with a chore-chart, this kind of approach is proactive and reduces pressure and stress around chores (although there is usually still some need to gently remind some family members to do their share).

Working together (4.5 stars)

Perhaps the best way to get chores done is to work together. While talking it through, taking on individual responsibilities, and following a chore chart can have a positive impact, parents who offer to spontaneously help their kids while they complete those chores will find that working together is highly motivating for everyone, and it strengthens relationships. Children who were already willing to work get the bonus of having parents help out so chores are completed faster. And helping one another promotes positivity!

You’ll note that there are no 5 star options. There’s a reason for that. There is no fool-proof solution. Children are people, and they have real feelings and desires that can be complicated and challenging to deal with. Sometimes chores are a pain, plain and simple. Sometimes kids are tired, hungry, sick, or not in the mood. When this happens, the best strategies can vary based on any number of factors. Sometimes the best strategy is tough love and assertion, and other times, compassion.

No, parents are not the maid.

Yes, our children can and should contribute.

But what they do is less important than how and why they do it. The way we invite their contribution will have the most significant and important impact on their involvement in the family.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

7 Habits for Pro-active Parenting

Let’s face it. As a society, we’re pretty highly strung. Our work lives are full-on. Our family lives are far too frantic. And the feeling that everything is under control is infrequently felt.

Truth be told, many of us are highly reactive. We recognise the value of planning, but generally we fly by the seat of our pants, responding to incidents, putting out fires, scratching every itch, and trying to be everywhere for everyone at once.

The result of reactivity is that the important things are easily overlooked. Priorities crowd for attention and too often we give our best selves to our work, our tasks, and our devices, only leaving the scraps for what was supposed to be ‘quality’ family time. 

But strong families don’t happen by accident. They’re the product of consistent, proactive efforts on the part of parents who make family a priority.

Here are 7 habits for pro-active parenting that promotes strong families:

Habit 1: Family Focus 

Do you know what your family is really about?

It sounds very corporate, but do you have clear objectives or goals for your family? We need to know where we are going!

The widely quoted interaction between Alice and the Cheshire cat (Alice in Wonderland) is instructive in this regard:

Alice: ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'

Cat: `That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.'

Alice: `I don't much care where--'

Cat: `Then it doesn't matter which way you go.'

Mission statement, manifesto, or guiding principles – regardless of the name, proactive parents know what their family is about and they work towards it.

Habit 2: Parent’s Retreat

Proactive parents take regular retreats for two reasons:

First, it rejuvenates their relationship and re-establishes strong connections within the couple relationship. (And it allows for intimacy without the constant threat of a child disturbing you at a sensitive moment.)

Second, it provides a chance to re-focus priorities and plan for family needs.

I recently spoke with a father who described how he and his wife would disappear for two or three days, once or twice a year, as their children grew. They spent time together as a couple, and worked through a serious agenda of planning around their family (and other aspects of their lives). They discussed each child and what they could do to guide and help them during the coming months. They considered their needs, their progress, what was going well, and where they could make changes to help their children do better.

Habit 3: Regular family holidays

While many of us see school holidays as a logistical challenge (and they can be), this time is a perfect opportunity to get away from everything for a week, take some leave, and concentrate on the kids with no agenda. Do it four times a year and watch how it changes your family.

Habit 4: Family dinner

Regular family dinners lead to family satisfaction and stability and positive outcomes for our children. Families do best when there is a time set aside daily (or at least several times a week) where everyone is together and connecting.

Habit 5: Devices away

Proactive parents have boundaries around where and when Internet and electronic devices are used, and they stick to them. They know that time with family means time spent talking, being attentive, looking at someone, making eye contact, and being present with them.

Habit 6: Weekend time

Taking time to recharge our own batteries, and spend quality outdoors/nature time with our kids builds relationships. Proactive parents make time to explore the world on weekends, even if it’s only a trip to a nearby park, beach, or mountain with the family.

Habit 7: Interviews

You may or may not like this idea, but I think it’s powerful. Some of the more proactive parents I’ve spoken with arrange for time once a month to be one-on-one with their kids for an interview. They talk about challenges. They teach principles. They get into the detail of their kids’ lives. They stay close to their kids.

Strong families require discipline, consistency, and a commitment to put family first, particularly when life is intense, challenging, or even out of control.

One of the greatest predictors of our children’s success and wellbeing is the quality of their relationship with their parents. These strategies – all based around time together – are proactive ideas that can help make families stronger and happier.