It's what we all want, isn't it? When we dream about having a family, we picture it as one big happy family. Everyone loves one another, shares toys, helps out. You play board games together, go on picnics and driving holidays. You have deep and meaningful conversations and your kids happily share their joys and struggles with you as you sit around the family table.
Then reality hits.
If your family is anything like mine, that's just not how it happens. There's fights and squabbles, tears and tantrums... at least they're cute when they're little.
And then they hit their teen years.
Who would know better about what it's like to be a parent of teen girls, than a man who lives in a house with six daughters! Dr Justin Coulson, one of Australia's leading and most trusted parenting experts joins us for our Parent Life series. Justin is passionate about helping others transform their relationships and to create a happy family through building connections.
We had the opportunity to speak with Justin about life as a dad and he shares with us his personal stories as well as some words of wisdom and practical advice when it comes to parenting teen girls.
Justin, what's it like being a father to six daughters?
Wonderful! It really is. We’ve had to work super hard to make it wonderful.
And there are times that it’s so far from wonderful that we become really concerned that we’ve totally got this wrong, but most of the time, it’s just a delight!
Our kids usually love each other and they love us and the best part of the day is when they come in for morning huggies. And several afternoons a week we try to make time to go down to the park and go on the flying fox or ride bikes or throw the frisbee. We just do our best to find ways to enjoy being together and most of the time it is wonderful.
What has been your scariest dad-of-teen moment?
Teaching your kid to drive a car with a manual transmission. It’s scary.
[Justin then proceeds to describe the time their daughter insisted she could drive immediately after completing her theory test, despite the fact that she had never driven before. The result?]
Well, the front wheels got stuck near the driveway gutter. Chanelle (Justin's daughter) didn’t really know what to do so she pushed the accelerator and Kylie (Justin's wife) said, “More revs, more revs”. So Chanelle hammered the accelerator, dropped the clutch, spun the wheels, the car did a 180, mounted the curb a few metres down and she actually crashed into the nearby church building. She left skid marks across the grass, the airbags went off, she wrote the car off.
In a more serious vein, life with children is scary as they take on new adventures and live their lives with increasing levels of autonomy and as they start to make some of those decisions that we know are going to put them into situations that may not always be safe and healthy.
...life with children is scary as they take on new adventures and live their lives with increasing levels of autonomy and as they start to make some of those decisions that we know are going to put them into situations that may not always be safe and healthy.
And we’ve certainly experienced many of those with various children. We currently have one daughter who’s married and moved away, three teenagers and another two to come after that, and watching them make decisions for themselves that sometimes put them in situations where there may be a values clash between what we believe and the morality that they’re developing. So I would say that that’s probably the scariest thing for a parent.
For us, on a very personal level, knowing that they could be going to a party where there could be alcohol and other drugs, and there could be people disappearing into bedrooms for intimate encounters that they may or may not remember, or that they may or may not regret the next day, for me that’s the scariest thing because I know what the research says around the impact that certain choices can have in our daughters lives.
If they make those choices unwisely, the very long shadow a poor and unsafe and unwise decision in those circumstances could have, and we really want to protect our kids from that.
What is the one thing you love most about being a dad to teen girls? (I asked for one, but Justin just adores being a dad to his girls so much, he couldn't help himself and gave me five things he loves.)
One of my favourite things is their energy. Their energy is different to when they were younger. I love the enthusiasm they have for life and their gusto and their delight in discoveries. It’s a different kind of delight and a different kind of discovery to when they were toddlers or in their middle childhood years. I just love their positive energy. I know that some parents, they’re dealing with kids who have depression, anxiety, body image dramas and all other kinds of issues, so I recognise that not all parents will relate exactly to that, but when I look at my kids and they’re in a happy mood and they’re dancing around the house and they’re singing to whatever the latest, hottest song is and the enthusiasm when they’re going to go out with their friends…I just love that energy.
I think the second thing that I would say is their optimism. There’s something about having a conversation and hearing their dreams and aspirations and just getting that sense that they know their entire life is still in front of them. They know that they are on the cusp of leaving the nest and launching into adventure, whatever that adventures ends up being. And I love to listen to their dreams and be a part of these conversations...watching the dreams develop and seeing the optimism and hope and a future. I really love that.
The other thing that I would say I really love about raising teen girls is seeing them actually grow into themselves and watching them really develop their identities and become comfortable in their own skins as they discover what their own skin actually is. It’s a really profound kind of experience and an absolute delight.
Another thing I like is their humour. They get stuff once they’re in their teen years. And you can share things with them and laugh about things with them that you just don’t [get to do] when they’re younger.
I also love the way we can start to invite them into our world, into a more adult-oriented world. Not that we’re trying to expose them to things that they’re not ready for...Once they get into their teen years, you see them to start to get really interested in the conversations that the grown ups are having. And there’s this desire for them to understand how the world works and why we’re talking about this topic and why that person said this. I love bringing them into the world that I inhabit. As much as it’s been fun to be in their world while they’ve been children, it’s just thrilling to bring them into the adult world because I think that the world that we live in as grown ups, is just so fascinating and exciting, especially when you’re a teenager and you feel like you’re almost there.
What is one piece of advice you'd like to share for parents with teen daughters?
I’m going to share a story... I got this idea from Dr Lisa Damour who is a teen girl expert in the United States, and I’ve kind of expanded it from her initial idea. She uses the metaphor of the swimming pool to describe raising a teenage girl. And what she basically says, is that…your teenage daughter is in the swimming pool and you are the concrete pool edge, which means that your daughter can hold onto you when things get rough in the water. She can catch a breath, she can take time to recuperate and a parent being the pool edge means we can support her when things get too much.
"...your teenage daughter is in the swimming pool and you are the concrete pool edge."
And so metaphorically, if she’s getting bullied or she’s got anxiety or school stress is getting too much, we’re there to support her. But because she wants to be in the middle of the pool, once she’s had a rest, she wants to be part of the action again, she wants to play and dive and splash around and as she gets older, she ventures out in the pool for longer and longer periods of time. And the pool’s very big obviously, cos the pool’s the whole wide world.
Sometimes she’s out in the pool for so long that we feel like she’s disconnected, but then, stuff happens, and she comes back to the pool edge and it’s so nice that as parents she’s resting on us again and she’s being supported by us and we feel like we’re doing it all right.
And just at that moment when we think we’ve got our daughter back, she kind of goes, I’m feeling good now. You’ve made me feel safe, you’ve made me feel strong, I’m ready to get back into the pool to swim and the quickest way for her to do that is to use both feet and to push off as hard as she can to get back out into the action.
And when you push off the pool edge with both feet, that kind of hurts right? Those two feet pushing against that pool edge, may be even cause bruising. Maybe she says “Leave me alone!” or maybe she ignores you or maybe she tells you to stop asking all these questions or maybe she picks a fight with you. That’s her, I’m pushing off again, I’m doing this on my own again, just get out of my space. And I think, as much as we want them to lean on us and rest on us and allow us to support them, this is actually the time of their life when they want to do it on their own.
They want to be independent, they want to feel strong, they want to live fully, they want to be exuberant in the life they’re choosing for themselves and quite often they feel like we’re getting in the way, they don’t need our support, they just want to do it.
"So I think my advice would be to remember, it’s not personal."
So I think my advice would be to remember, it’s not personal. And as long as we are doing everything we can to be there, to be that sturdy pool edge. Every pool edge has cracks in it. There’s no pool edge that’s perfect. We’re all slightly damaged in some way, but if we can just hold that pool together - the pool doesn’t exist without the edge but we’re there to support and we’re in a swimming pool and we’re going to get pushed off and that it’s not personal. She’s just trying to live her life. I think we will do pretty well.
I’ve written a book about teenage girls, Miss-Connection,why your teenage daughter hates you, expects the world and needs to talk, and I interviewed and surveyed about 400 Australian teenage girls for the book, and the consistent theme I got from one question in particular, is probably really important for this conversation.
“They need to know that I love them, even if I yell at them and argue with them and swear at them and disagree with them and all that sort of stuff. They need to know that I love them."
I just said to them, "You know, I’m writing this book for your parents. If there’s just one thing, that you want me to give them as advice, what would you want me to tell them". So I’m asking teen girls here. The most consistent response was, “They need to know that I love them, even if I yell at them and argue with them and swear at them and disagree with them and all that sort of stuff. They need to know that I love them", which I think is pretty cool.
Dr Justin Coulson is an author of several books, many ebooks and hundreds of blog posts. He has his own parenting podcast and is also also a highly sought-after international speaker. You can catch all his work over at Happy Families.
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