Dr. Kimberley O'Brien is one of Australia's most trusted and recognised child psychologists. With over 20 years worth of experience, we thought she'd be well placed to share insights into some of our biggest parenting questions...
Let’s be frank: Kimberley pulls no punches. She’s honest, up-front and realistic. While she’s sadly not here to make us feel amazing about our every parenting choice, one thing is very clear: she only has the best interests of our children at heart.
As the co-founder of Quirky Kid in Sydney’s Woollahra, Dr. O’Brien is an expert in child development and mental health. As well as her thriving clinic and regular media placements, Kimberley also consults for a range of companies, from Lego to the Cartoon Network, and Telstra through to Toyota. So when we say she’s qualified to give her opinion on our children, we’re understating it.
We spoke to Dr. O’Brien about the common issues plaguing our children today, the impact our behaviours have on them (hello, parental arguments and screen time – our own, that is), how to deal with tantrums, and so much more.
We’re ready to hear it as it is, and we know our children will be better for it.
What led you to open Quirky Kid?
We opened Quirky Kid because we wanted to create a clinical and creative space for young people to express themselves. We wanted to provide practical strategies to help parents to support their kids at home and at school and it’s been an absolute pleasure for the last 22 years working with young people to create a space that I’m really proud of.
What are the most common things you treat children for these days?
Our number one reason for referrals is anxiety. We see a lot of separation anxiety and also autism spectrum disorder and behavioural issues. We predominantly treat children in the primary or elementary school age group and we teach social skills and social and emotional learning to help kids understand their emotions and express them in an appropriate way.
Nobody has perfect childhood, or a perfect parent/child bond. How do you know what’s normal?
We like to value difference, so we called the clinic Quirky Kid because we think being different is just part of being human. Every parent/child relationship is different but at the same time, some are more positive than others. So we feel that positive parent/child relationships are normal if you want to use the word ‘normal’. That’s what we strive for at the clinic, so we have parent/child sessions and family sessions to work out what they like to do together, what activities are working and why? Then we encourage them to do more of that and also better understand when things are not working, what’s happening there and how we can change it.
What are the most common issues that arise from divorce?
For the children we work with, divided loyalty is a big issue in that one parent might be speaking negatively about the other and that makes it really difficult for kids, because they don’t want to hear it when someone is speaking negatively about someone they love. So what works is living in the same suburb or somewhere close by, doing pick-ups and drop-offs from a neutral place, such as the school gate so that parents don’t have to interact at either parent’s home. It’s also great to have clothes and everything you need in each place, so they don’t need to have a suitcase or a little toilet bag or something to go with them. Also, most importantly is a clear plan so that kids know where they are going, when they are going, how long they are going for and what’s going to happen while they are there. Informed kids are happier kids.
When parents fight in front of kids, what impact can this have?
In short, stress. It’s very stressful to be around yelling, screaming and blaming, so when kids are stressed, they may struggle to sleep or may regress and start bed-wetting, for example. They may also not feel safe and may not want to visit one particular parent. So it can lead to a whole lot of stress.
What about if parents are disconnected?
Kids can definitely pick this up. If parents can’t contain frustration, anger and negativity, it’s better that they don’t interact because that’s stressful for the children even if they are non-verbal. They will pick that up and it will impact them emotionally.
Parents are often distracted by their digital devices or answering emails. How do kids feel?
Kids feel ignored and unimportant. If you’re going to need to use your phone or laptop, schedule a period of time that you need to do that, and then let the kids know that it’s your scheduled time. Then, make it visual when that time is up. That means putting your device either in a fruit bowl or in a locked cupboard, preferably at the same time as everyone in the family’s devices are locked away. Parents should take their own lead on devices and screen time, and that means being disciplined and respectful of the house rules.
What’s your opinion on sugar?
It is risky, it’s addictive and it does change behaviour, so if you can avoid it, then definitely do. There are so many other options for kids and once you start introducing sugar, then they will want more of it. So where possible, just don’t introduce it.
How do you handle tantrums in public?
Just handle it like you would do at home. Don’t change anything – just use your calm voice and have your consequences already considered (so maybe one warning and this equals early to bed). Stick to it so the kids know that you are serious. Also, most people in a shopping centre know what it’s like to manage a toddler or an older child that’s pushing back on boundaries. It’s okay to be hardcore and stick to what your consequences are if the behaviour is not acceptable. Just let them know what the consequence is and move away. You don’t need to touch your young person or grab them and pull them away. Just walk away and leave them within your line of vision. They will soon follow you and in most situations, things will de-escalate when you move away and give them some space.
Are children’s attention spans getting shorter?
I don’t believe they are. I think that kids have a great attention span, we just need to broaden their interests and limit screen time. Give them more opportunities for play dates (face to face, not online) and outdoor activity and science experiences. Stimulating activities, projects at home or in your community and interacting with same-age peers will broaden their interests and give them better social skills.
What are your thoughts on letting children get bored?
I think it’s really important to have clear plans, so if you’re going to suggest a screen free day or a digital detox, then pick up a big piece of butcher’s paper and brainstorm alternative activities. You may like to make a plan like, “Tomorrow from 9 – 9:30 we are going to do a tidy of the backroom, then you can have your friends over and we’re going to be doing these three activities. We will start with a walk or building a treehouse or making a billy-cart, making play-doh, and then you can do some cooking.” Introduce structure and the stimulation so they feel challenged and excited.
What advice do you have on mother’s guilt?
I think that all parents know when their children are not thriving, and that’s where mother’s guilt will stem from. Kids who aren’t thriving may be withdrawn or aggressive or anxious or sad. Everybody has ups and downs, but if this is going on for longer than a day, then you will know that something is up and something has changed with your young person. So if they’re not thriving at school or they don’t want to go, definitely call a meeting and have regular email contacts with the teacher so that you can check in and make sure that everything is okay. Then definitely call on your support networks, whether a learning support coordinator or school counsellor, a local private practitioner or psychologist. Make sure that everything that can be done is being done for learning difficulties or anxiety. Any issue impacting a young person is not worth ignoring. It needs to be addressed and there are so many strategies to put in place to make a difference. You will know when your child is thriving because they are going to be happy, active and social, and with that, you can be rid of mother’s guilt.
What is the impact of smacking on a child?
Number one is a lack of trust and a negative relationship with that parent or carer. It’s a huge power imbalance to have a huge person hitting a smaller person and it’s not okay. I also don’t think it makes a difference to the behaviour, it just makes the relationship worse and there are so many other ways to manage behaviour without smacking.
How do we deal with conflict?
It’s worth listening to young people and verbalising what your child is expressing. When kids are acting out, they’re basically telling you that they want to be heard. So you can use words to say things like, “I can see that you’re really upset right now,” or, “You definitely look like you’re angry,” to try to clarify what they’re expressing. Definitely don’t laugh, mimic or make jokes about how they are expressing themselves, because expressing emotions is a really tough thing, especially when you’re a young person and you don’t have the communication skills to help you. So try to empathise, slow things down and take some deep breaths. Don’t set time limits, just let them express themselves and try to clarify what the issue is by listening.
What are three tips on how to nurture your child?
Stimulation – so lots of educational materials and things they can learn from, whether that is outdoor play in the garden or science and fact books or trips to the museum. Stimulation will bring up better behaviour.
Lots of support – because we all need support and love.
How important is routine in a child’s life?
Very. It gives them predictability, and it’s very reassuring to have routine. As parents, it might feel restricting, but for children – especially when it comes to sleeping, eating and getting the best out of our bodies – it’s important to have routine to help us all recharge. That means that your children will be bright and engaged, and they won’t be tired or overtired. Routine just helps to keep things in check.