The journey of a parenting expert

Dr Justin Coulson’s drive to be a better father determined his dramatic career change

He’s carved out a reputation as one of Australia’s best known parenting experts, but this 24/7 job was not something that always came easily.

A former radio announcer at one of the biggest radio stations in the country, UOW alumnus Dr Justin Coulson admits that while his professional career was booming in his early 20s, his family life was quite the opposite.

It was 2002 and he had a three-year-old and a newborn. He acknowledges his capacity to tolerate his toddler’s tantrums was quickly diminishing. After a few self-proclaimed “outbursts and poor parenting moments” he realised it was time to make some drastic changes.

“On this one particular day, I completely lost it, I flipped out and I behaved in all the ways one should never behave and it was devastating. I felt like I’d been awful to my baby.

“I remember after the incident my wife came home and I told her what had happened, and I said I’m not really doing a very good job as a father. Instead of her offering any reassurance or support she just said “no you’re not, and you’re not doing a very good job as a husband either.”

“I just knew something needed to change, I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t know how to do it.

“I made a decision right then and there I was going to quit my radio career, go back to school, I did a TAFE qualification, got into psychology, did my undergrad, got a first-class honours and then did a PhD at UOW.

“The driving force behind it all was how do I not just improve myself but how do I become a protector to my own family? I don’t want my children to be scared of me, I want them to be safe with me. I don’t want them to be hearing no, I want them to be feeling and experiencing nurture, and I just didn’t know how to do it.”

Eight and a half years of full-time study later, Dr Coulson transformed his whole approach to parenting. He realised how much it had changed him, and this powerful knowledge he had acquired had the potential to help change other people.

This newfound confidence in his parenting abilities inspired Dr Coulson to share his knowledge across a range of platforms. He started writing blogs and articles and became a regular contributor to publications providing expert commentary in parenting - his field of postgraduate study. His writing then led to a range of speaking opportunities.

Shifting family dynamics

It wasn’t long before Dr Coulson formalised his desire to support parents, establishing his highly successful business, Happy Families, where his mission is to help transform family relationships.

“My overarching desire is to help families to be happy. What I’ve discovered is no matter how well somebody’s doing outside of the family, if family life sucks, life sucks. You can have all the success you want in a business sense. You can have the fancy car, the nice house, but if you come home to that nice house and everyone hates each other, it’s not worth it.”

Justin’s hunger and passion for his craft is unmistakable, he has left no stone unturned to provide the necessary resources for parents to have access to a range of information across all mediums.

He has the number one podcast in Australia for parenting and family, Happy Families, does presentations and speaking gigs and has written multiple books. As a parenting content developer, he provides free or premium content to people who want to make their family happier.

Achieving the work/life balance

With six children of his own, Dr Coulson attributes his ability to be able to manage his hectic schedule with having extraordinary support from his wife. This enables him to find the time to manage his vast cross-section of work and family responsibilities.

He explains maintaining this kind of momentum requires an ability to be very good at prioritising and focusing on what’s important.

“I’m very clear about what my priorities are, I’m very clear about what my goals are and what we’ve done in our business is we’ve developed a strategy process that facilitates efficiency and productivity.”

Tips for parents

Dr Coulson recommends his clients to ask themselves this important overarching question: ‘What am I trying to do as a parent?’

“I remember having this conversation with my mum years ago. She said her perfect dream of family is that all her adult children will want to come home, sit around the dining table and enjoy being in each other’s company over lunch or dinner.

“As I’ve reflected on that statement over the years, it occurred to me that if that’s what a parent wants for their child, wishing for it isn’t going to make it happen. We need to be intentional about how we can make it happen.

“So my number one tip is, be intentional – what do you actually want and what are the things you need to do to make sure that stuff happens?

“If you want people to enjoy each other’s company and if you want lots of connection, you’ve got to set your life up so that it facilitates lots of connection.

“If you want to enjoy being together, you have to make time to go down to the beach, or head to the park or go for that bike ride or pop into the café and have that milkshake – you’ve got to create to opportunities for connection so that people can like and know each other and build the connection that flows from that,” Dr Coulson says.
The second tip he says is crucial to creating these connection opportunities is to focus on the moments that are sporadically available. He refers to a concept known as ‘time confetti’ (a term coined by Brigid Schulte). In this case, it’s a series of short windows of time that present opportunities to be focused on really being present with children.

“People who are really effective with their relationships are those who recognise time confetti for what it is; they leverage that five minutes in the car taking the kids to school, or they leverage that 12 minutes as they’re tucking their kids in bed at night, having story time, tickle time, song time, prayer time or mindfulness time.”

Coping with the COVID-19 pandemic

According to Dr Coulson, COVID-19 has exacerbated difficulties for children who were already struggling before the pandemic began. He says it has upended the key factors that children thrive on including security, predictability, familiarity, and safety.

“The data has clearly shown that hopefulness and optimism have dropped, depression has increased, anxiety has increased, stress levels have gone up, academic engagement has dropped, and children have started to, if not languish, which is already bad enough, struggle. Research shows that parents have as well.

“The research that I have been able to see and read establishes that lockdowns have exacerbated all of those symptoms and the more prolonged the lockdown and the more restricted it is, the greater the impact on wellbeing for children and adolescents.”

Resilience in children – parents as role models

COVID is just one of many challenges parents have been faced with when it comes to supporting their kids to maintain resilience in the face of difficulty.

According to Dr Coulson one of the biggest mistakes parents can make to try and support their children to be resilient, is to help them through everything. This is otherwise known as ‘helicopter parenting’ or ‘snowplough parenting’ where obstacles are pushed out of the way.

“There is plenty of evidence to suggest that doing this doesn’t build resilience at all, kids have got to learn how to stand on their own two feet,” he urges.

Dr Coulson explains there are many ways parents can be role models for their kids when it comes to resilience.

“That doesn’t mean having a stiff upper lip and pushing through no matter what.

“What Professor Ethan Kross from the University of Michigan’s research has shown is that if we can create some psychological distance between ourselves and the obstacle we’re facing, we tend to navigate it much more effectively, we don’t get stuck in that rigid tunnel vision, we have a flexible approach, we talk to ourselves differently.

“Instead of saying ‘Oh I’m such an idiot’, we say ‘come on Justin you know you can do this, just push a little harder’…. That way of speaking (to ourselves) creates the distance that allows us to have a different view on the challenge. And when our children get to see us doing that, they learn, they hear our self-talk, they learn how they can navigate those obstacles themselves.”

A range of other ways Dr Coulson says parents can assist their kids to become more resilient and increase wellbeing include; nurturing the quality of their relationships, spending time outside in nature and physical activity, focusing on strengths not weaknesses and helping kids to know who they are and have a sense of identity.

“Kids don’t know who they are, its not their job to know who they are, but we can ask them questions so that they begin to form a sense of identity. For example: What kind of a person do you think would do this well? What kind of person wouldn’t? What kind of person do you want to be?

“Another resilience concept that’s been really popular in recent years is Carol Dweck’s growth mindset - the idea that ‘I think I can therefore I can, versus ‘ I can’t, it’s too hard’ – the belief that the brain is a muscle and you can build it and our capacity to push through grows as we push through – all of these things build resilience,” he says.

Possibly the hardest concept of all, is the idea of parents becoming comfortable with seeing their kids uncomfortable.

Dr Coulson says studies have found that the more protective parents are of their kids, the more anxiety there is both in parents and children.

“Parental overprotection and control undermine kids’ anxiety. We need to support their autonomy which means sometimes we need to be comfortable with them being uncomfortable while they figure stuff out. It’s their job to do it but with our gentle support and encouragement, not doing it for them.”

Social media and screen time

There is a lot of discussion around the impact of how much time kids spend on their various screens, from TVs, iPads and laptops to mobile phones and computer games. And while everything in moderation is usually the answer, Dr Coulson explains the importance of the type of content kids are consuming.

“It’s not about how much, it’s about what kind and what you’re doing on it. Too much passive consumption (endless scrolling) is going to undermine wellbeing.

“If you’re already experiencing anxiety, depression, social isolation offline, you’re at even more risk online, this is particularly the case for teenage girls. Other demographics are not so much impacted by it.

He emphasises that screen time makes up only a very small percentage of variance in children’s wellbeing and other factors going on in their lives will have a significantly greater impact.

“Are they spending time with friends, are they getting a good night sleep, are they eating well, are they using their bodies and being active, are they engaged at school and feel a sense of belonging, do they have good family relationships, do they have a sense of purpose and meaning to their lives, are they optimistic about the future.”

The use of screens, he says, is not all bad, they can be used for good, if used productively.

“They’re an inextricable part of our lives now. If we’re using them actively by connecting and creating…I’m not particularly concerned about how much screen use is going on, if we are using it for consumption, I’m concerned as usually that’s going to be masking a deeper issue.

“Long story short, help your kids to live whole, balanced lives and you’re not going to have to worry about them.”

Dr Justin Coulson
Founder: Happy Families
Co-Host and Parenting Expert on Channel 9's "Parental Guidance"

Doctor of Philosophy, Health and Behavioural Sciences, 2012