How to Raise Strong, Healthy and Resilient Children with Dr. Nicole Beurkens

August 17, 2021
James Whittaker

Check out this episode on the Win the Day Podcast

“The best kind of parent you can be is to lead by example.”

Drew Barrymore

We’ve got a BIG surprise in store for you today!

We’re joined by Dr. Nicole Beurkens, who is widely regarded as the world’s leading holistic child psychologist. As the only doctoral-licensed clinical psychologist with advanced degrees in psychology, education, and nutrition, there’s no one more qualified to reveal proven strategies and the latest research to raise strong, healthy, and resilient children.

If you’re a parent in particular, and / or working through issues of your own from when you were younger, this might just be the best podcast you’ve ever heard.

Plus, in addition to her unparalleled professional qualifications, Dr. Nicole is also a mother to four children, so she’s chalked up real world experience on all fronts.

Dr. Nicole has dedicated her 20+ year career to providing parents with simple, effective, research-based strategies that get to the root of children’s attention, anxiety, mood, and behavior challenges so they can reach their highest potential. 

In a world flooded with parenting information, therapies, and conflicting “expert opinions”, Dr. Nicole’s down-to-earth approach inspires thousands of parents to trust their instincts, focus on one step at a time, and never give up hope that they and their child can change for the better.

She’s built and runs a multi-disciplinary evaluation and treatment clinic, is a best-selling author, published researcher, award-winning therapist, in-demand speaker, media expert, and experienced mom who is determined to show the world that with healthy foundations in place every child and family can thrive.


Check out the YouTube or podcast version where Dr. Nicole Beurkens answers questions from the Win the Day community, including: when you should give your teenager a mobile phone, advice for parents raising children with special needs, how to discipline a toddler, how children deal with trauma, and more. 🚀


In this interview, we’re going to talk about:

  • The biggest mistakes parents make
  • What parenting style is best
  • How sugar and processed foods affect cognitive development 
  • What screen time you should give your children (and when you should let them have a mobile phone)
  • How to raise strong and resilient children, and
  • A whole lot more!

Before we get started, remember that the right bit of inspiration can completely change the trajectory of someone’s life, so if there’s a friend or loved one who needs to hear this episode, share it with them right now. 

Let’s WIN THE DAY with Dr. Nicole Beurkens!

James Whittaker:
Dr. Nicole, great to see you! Thank you for coming on the Win the Day show.

Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Thank you so much for having me!

Well, a big shout-out to our mutual friend, Dr. Michael Breus, a.k.a. The Sleep Doctor, for putting us in touch. As a parent, I'm super excited for this one, plus in the Win the Day Facebook group we had more people than ever submit questions, so we'll see how many of my notes we can get through!

Awesome.

What was the defining moment that put you on the path you're on today?

Oh gosh, it's a great question. And there probably were lots of moments, but I would say it goes back to probably even my childhood of always wanting to be a helper, always rooting for the underdog. I remember even being in elementary school and really having a heart for kids who were outside of the norm, protecting kids who were bullied, wanting to include the kids who were different in some way.

As I think about it, it really goes back to that. I've always had a heart for people. And as I went through my educational journey with college and all of that, I really just got passionate and interested in psychology, educational psychology, child development. I had some great experiences working with kids — particularly kids with different kinds of needs and challenges. My career just evolved from there.

You're the only doctor or licensed clinical psychologist with advanced degrees in psychology, education and nutrition. Three amazing fields. How important is that holistic focus rather than seeing someone who might be a specialist in just one of those fields?

I think it's really important to look at people holistically, particularly when we're talking about children, because most of the time the focus with kids is on their behavior, their development, what's going well, what's not going well — just a whole range of behaviors that parents wonder about and get frustrated with, particularly if a child has some clear identified needs. Parents want to know whether it's normal or not.

Behaviors are really just the surface level symptom that tells us there's something deeper going on here. Now, in the case of typically-developing kids, it may be something as basic as they just need a little more one-on-one time with mom and dad, or somebody to really tap into, "Okay, what do you need to communicate with me here?" And for other kids, those behaviors are real red flags for underlying physiological things that are going on that haven't been identified, or bigger picture brain-based or developmental things.

Behaviors are really just the surface level symptom that tells us there's something deeper going on here.

Because the behaviors themselves just tell us more about what's going on beneath. We have to be able to look at all the aspects within a child — within their life, within their environment, their relationships, their activities, their food, their sleep, all of these things, that play into how they're able to function and how they're feeling. Unfortunately, typically in the fields of medicine and mental health, that holistic view is not taken into account. It's very much focused on what are those surface level symptoms and then an intervention that's targeted at stopping or reducing that.

While that can be a Band-Aid, it doesn't get to the root of: How do we actually address these things for kids? How do we help kids really thrive and become the best people that they can be? Looking at all those pieces is so important. And I have the ability to take a unique, integrated perspective on that, because my first career was in early childhood education, special education, child development. Then I became a clinical psychologist and added all of that knowledge and all those tools into the mix. But then really started to see these commonalities in my patients, in the families I was working with, of kids who had these brain-based neurodevelopmental or behavioral kinds of issues, but also had histories of lots of physical things going on.

And it hit me one day, this can't be a coincidence — kids with really picky diets or chronic ear infections or chronic strep throat or chronic constipation. I started looking into the research literature and it's like, wow, there's a lot here about the connection between chronic physiological health issues and mental health and behavioral things in kids. I was a parent at that time myself, and seeing some of those connections in two of my own children. That really led me to getting the additional degree in nutrition and integrative health to pull those pieces in too, to better help the people that I was serving at my clinic, but also for myself, my own personal kids, friends and family members. That really, I think, it sealed the deal for me of that trifecta of things.

In addition to being a parent myself, which I think is helpful for people to know, it's easy for professionals to talk about parenting, but if you're not in the trenches doing it, that's a whole other thing. To me, those four pieces of education and child development, the psychology, the physiological health and nutrition, and then being a mom myself, it allows me to really understand and look at what's going on with kids and families in an important way.

How refreshing to hear that holistic approach, rather than being told to take a pill. I really struggle with the over prescription of medications, especially in the US, that people are told to take for the rest of their lives.

What's the number one reason that people come and see you professionally?

Typically it's kids who are having behavioral challenges, whether it's inattention, hyperactivity, those kinds of things, they're getting into trouble in school, or they can't focus, they're not listening, parents are frustrated with them, they're having trouble getting along with other kids. Those tend to be the reasons people come to the clinic. I tend to now see kids, teens, young adults with more severe, really longer term mental health and developmental needs where parents have been to lots of people in lots of places. They're on lots of medications. They're not getting better.

And at this point in my career, those cases are really interesting to me to peel back the layers to dig into what's really going on and to help these kids and these individuals actually get better. But overall it's stuff that falls in that whole behavioral route — my kid's not behaving or managing things in a way that's conducive to them learning, to them developing relationships and parents go, "I've read all the books. I've looked at all the Pinterest accounts. I tried all the one, two, three strategies or whatever, and it's not working, and what do I do?"

So, when they get to you, they're at the end of their tether. They just want the result and will do whatever it takes?

Right.

Out of all the people you've worked with, is there a particular transformation that you're most proud of?

Oh my goodness, there's so many. We could spend the hour talking about interesting cases! One little girl's coming to mind. She's nine now. She was placed in foster care with her now adoptive mom out of a very abusive, lots of early trauma, lots of exposure to things that no young child should be exposed to. And we know that those kinds of things can have a very, very detrimental effect on kids' physical development, as well as their brain development and their development in general and their functioning. A lot of those kids who come out of early trauma situations end up with a lot of challenges.

For the first five years that she had this child in her home, the very educated mom was reading all the strategies, doing all the things but this child was really struggling and displaying very, very aggressive behaviors. Putting holes in walls, screaming a lot of the time, going to school and getting sent home all the time. Teachers saying, "We don't know what to do with her." She wasn't learning well. Mom diligently sought out all the types of care that she was told to, went to the pediatrician, got sent to a psychiatrist. The child spent a few years on just a rollercoaster of different kinds of medication. Most of which made her situation much worse. Mom was in counseling doing the parent groups, doing all the things, and her child wasn't getting better.

She had read something about food intolerances and holistic health, so she reached out to me, and to make a long story short, over the time that we worked together, quickly identified that this child was having a lot of underlying physiological issues. She had chronic urinary tract infections that no matter how much they medicated, weren't going away. She was eating carbs and sugar like crazy. Like just couldn't get enough. Mom would have to lock the cupboards.

Our perspective as parents and our willingness to be curious about what's going on is a key foundation for change with any kid.

We did some lab work on her, spent some time with her, and really what started to shift things was, number one, getting her off of the psychiatric drugs that were doing more harm than good, which was not all of them, but was a good portion of them that mom had noticed since she started on them, was just escalating the behavior out of control. So we worked with her prescribers to come off of those. We took her off of gluten completely, because testing showed that while she wasn't celiac, she was not tolerating that well. We added some good, strong micronutrient supplements. And for her, again, based on her symptoms, within three days of removing gluten from this child's diet, which mom thought would be impossible to do based on what she was eating, mom emailed me and said, "I cannot believe the difference in this kid!"

We continued to make changes and to dig into things, but really for this child, dealing with some of the underlying physiological things allowed her nervous system, her brain, her body, to stabilize enough where it took the intense behaviors, the inattention, all of those problems, down to the point where it was much more manageable for her, for mom. And then we could utilize other approaches in the realms of counseling and relational therapies and starting to dig into dealing with the trauma that she had experienced, giving mom more effective parenting tools. Those things were able to work and get consistent movement forward because this child's body and brain were better supported to be in a place where she could benefit from those.

That's just one example. It's probably two years later now, and she had a wonderful year in school this last year. That's not to say that she doesn't still have some challenges, but she doesn't get sent home anymore. She's feeling good about herself. She's engaged in activities. The stress level at home has calmed down. Mom is feeling so much better. So that's just one example of the kinds of transformations that we see for kids when we delve into what's really going on, instead of saying, "Here's your three prescriptions, and mom, you should put her on a sticker chart to try to encourage good behavior and try to get the school to do something and send her to counseling." Those things sometimes work, but when we're not getting to the root of it, they don't work very well, and they don't get us the kind of lasting change that we want.

There's an old saying, "Experience isn't the best teacher, it's the only teacher." You're a mother of four children. And I've only got one child, but being a parent seems to be about as comprehensive of a learning experience as someone can go through! How did becoming a parent of four children shape your clinical work?

It shaped it a lot. I started having children pretty young, shortly after I finished college. I was sort of in the trenches as a mom while I was starting my career and working with kids and working with families. That was so valuable because, as I said earlier, it's really easy to tell a parent, well, you just need to do this or just be consistent or say this or handle it that way. But when you're in it, you start to realize that it actually is a lot more complicated than that.

First of all, every child is somewhat different. Second, as parents, we have our own stressors, needs, issues, things that we bring into the mix. There's just a lot of practicalities, that when you're you're actually parenting, you realize, oh yeah, this isn't so simple. It's easy to say "Here are the tools" but it's a whole other thing to help people figure out how to overcome the obstacles to implementing those things, which is, I think true for anyone who works with people in any capacity — whether we're talking about business consultants or managers at a corporation or teachers, or working with families.

As parents, we have our own stressors, needs, issues, things that we bring into the mix.

The real challenge of it is in helping people to actually put things into practice. That means understanding the dynamics of who they are in their environment and helping them think about, what obstacles are you likely to run into? And how do we make this work for you and for your kid, the customization of that? So I think being in it and doing it with four kids of my own — there's six years between my oldest and my youngest, so I had them all close — it gave me a much more realistic viewpoint and a lot of empathy for what families are dealing with, for what parents are going through. And for the challenges of actually putting these things into practice, because it's viewed that parenting is sort of the great equalizer, and that's true.

I mean, I work with families and teach this stuff for a living, and I still screw up! And I still have moments with my kids where it's like, oh, that probably was not the best way to handle that. So I think that's just as important for people to know too, that none of us has it all down and none of us is perfect and that's a completely unattainable goal. And all of us are a work in progress as human beings, as well as in our parenting. What I have discovered both through my work with families, but also now with my oldest being almost 22, they still come out okay. Even though we don't hit the mark all of the time, even though we're not perfect, if we keep trying, if we keep progressing, it all works out. That should be a reassuring thing for parents to know.


Check out the YouTube or podcast version where Dr. Nicole Beurkens answers questions from the Win the Day community, including: when you should give your teenager a mobile phone, advice for parents raising children with special needs, how to discipline a toddler, how children deal with trauma, and more. 🚀


You've dedicated your more than 20 year career now to providing parents with simple, effective research-based strategies that get to the root of children's attention, anxiety, mood, and behavior challenges, so they can reach their highest potential. If you had to break it down, what are the most powerful tips you've got to help parents raise strong and resilient children?

There's so many pieces we could talk about, but let's go through some of the core tools or areas that I encourage parents to think about. The first is to be aware, again, as I said, the behaviors are just the surface level. It's just the red flag. It says, hey, there's an unmet need here. There's a skill that needs to be developed. There's something here that needs to be addressed. And when we can get curious as the parents or adult, it shifts everything in terms of our amount of empathy for the child and how we approach it. If we just view a child's behavior as, you're being naughty, you know what you're supposed to do, and you're refusing to do it, you woke up today determined to make my life miserable, then that really is reflected in how we relate and respond, and the strategies that we use.

Often that just leads to continued power struggles, and getting nowhere. Our perspective as parents and our willingness to be curious about what's going on is a key foundation for change with any kid. And I think that fits within the idea that the parent-child relationship is so key. Again, whether we're talking about our kids who are typically developing, or we're talking about a child with neurodevelopmental issues like autism or ADHD, or we're talking about kids maybe with significant behavioral disorders or mental health diagnoses, it doesn't matter. The parent-child relationship is key and foundational. And that doesn't mean that parents cause their kids problems, not at all, but it does mean that relationship is the foundation for the child being able to progress and grow.

None of us has it all down and none of us are perfect, and that's a completely unattainable goal.

We need to be willing to learn the types of communication that are going to be more effective. We need to be willing to understand specific tools for how to respond to some of the behaviors, how we might be contributing based on our emotions stress levels to what's going on, how to set up the environment. We have to be willing to look at ourselves and learn some tools, because kids don't come with instruction manuals, so we can't be expected to notice right out of the gate. I think that piece — understanding the importance of parent-child relationship and the stance that we take as parents with our own mindset and getting curious — is key.

Also, the physical health piece is key. If your child is struggling with aspects of their behavior, their learning, their communication, their socialization, their ability to communicate, whatever it may be, understanding that everything that goes on in the body is directly connected to what goes on in the brain.

Unfortunately, the fields of medicine and mental health have perpetuated this, that everything from here down, that's physical health, and everything from here up, that's mental health — and neither shall the two mix. Those are two separate things. And of course it's ridiculous, because the brain and the body literally are completely interconnected. So parents must understand that when there are things going on in your child's body, that has a huge impact on how their brain is developing, how they're functioning and their behavior.

For example, a child who's chronically constipated, you may think, well, that's a GI problem, it has nothing to do with their brain or behavior. It has everything to do with it! Because guess what? If they're not having bowel movements regularly, they're not detoxifying. Kids that aren't detoxifying and getting toxins out, that can build up and create brain-related issues.

Also, just from a discomfort perspective, how on top of our game are any of us, if we're experiencing GI issues? So a kid is chronically constipated and having discomfort, maybe even pain, anxiety around that, that's going to impact a lot of their ability to focus, to regulate their emotions and their behavior, and what they eat. Understanding that the things we feed our kids play a huge role, not only in their physical growth and development, but in their brain development and their mental health.

So if our kids are eating diets primarily high in sugars, artificial ingredients, chemicals, simple carbs, things like that, not only does that have an effect on their weight and their physical health and growth patterns, but the research clearly shows it has an impact on their emotional and behavioral regulation on developing the pathways and the neural connections for being able to focus, attend, learn, and lots more.

These pieces are connected physically to what's going on in the brain, and that includes things like movement. That's another core of what I talked about — making sure kids are getting enough movement. Don't overdo the screen-time in place of movement, it's so key.

Sleep is another huge one that's overlooked. So many kids aren't sleeping well. If they're not sleeping well, they're not going to have good regulated behavior the next day. It's going to impact their ability to learn, to focus, to attend. Again, for parents to understand that these physiological foundations, these lifestyle pieces, are not just related to their physical health, but play a very key role in their brain function and in their behavior.

In the digital world, everyone now has a platform to broadcast messages. People can claim that they're experts and as a result a lot of misinformation gets out there. Out of all the misinformation you've seen — of which I'm sure there is an absolute ton — what's the most damaging parenting tip you see that people tend to believe?

I'll say two of the most damaging things from the big picture perspective, and then I'll do a tip. So one of the most damaging messages that's perpetuated out there, and it's a myth really, in the field of child mental health, is that if a child is diagnosed with something — let's say ADHD, depression, or anxiety, whatever it might be — that it's a life sentence. "Well, this is just genetic, there's nothing you can do about it. Give them some medication, try to get them some counseling, put them in school." This is kind of how it is.

It's very, very damaging, because first of all, there's so many myths that are not research-based. But also it can be very defining for all children when they're told, especially at an early age, "Well, this is something that's wrong with you. You are broken. You have this thing and there's nothing you can do." Talk about having a child develop with no sense of self-efficacy, no sense of having gifts and strengths to offer! They're just labeled as, "Well, you have a problem, and guess what? It's going to be here forever." That's very damaging for parents to get that message, too.

Now, that doesn't mean that some kids don't struggle with things throughout their lifetime. But this idea that you get your kid diagnosed, and then this is forever sort of who this kid is, I've seen so many young adults who talk about how damaging that was in their earlier years for how they saw themselves, what they believed they were capable of, what people expected of them. So I think that's a big picture thing that I see perpetuated out there that's just not accurate.

One of the most damaging messages that's perpetuated out there in the field of child mental health is that if a child is diagnosed with something that it's a life sentence.

And from a tip standpoint, boy, there's so many! But one of the things that I think is really problematic in tips that parents are given around behavior is that we should respond in a punishing way in order for them to learn. People say, well, how are they going to grow up to be responsible and manage anything if I don't punish them in this way or teach them that these things are okay? Well, you can punish your kids. That's been done throughout history. A lot of us were raised in those kinds of environments.

But while you will probably, for most kids, get compliance, they will learn to be afraid of you, or they will learn to comply, because they don't want to lose certain privileges or whatever, it damages the relationship that we have with our kids. And ultimately it doesn't get to the root of what's going on and teach them how to think about solving the problems that they engage in and how to think about expressing their needs in better ways. It sort of shuts down all of that. So this very behavioral-compliance space, punishment-based approaches to that stuff, it's just not effective. And we know that there are much better research-based ways that we can approach those things with kids.

You mentioned labels there. That was one of the big questions that I wanted to ask you about because in my experience, the wrong label can be used as a crutch to completely destroy someone's potential for the rest of their life. But using a label, even if it's a false label done in a positive way, is that a responsible and a beneficial thing to do? And if so, are there any labels that parents should be using? Because on occasion we've seen that manifest much greater outcomes than the person was initially credited for.

There's so much controversy around labels. The primary purposes of diagnostic labels are to meet needs within the healthcare system of coding appointments, getting reimbursement, insurance, things within the school system of getting kids services. So those are really the reasons that they exist, but there's some benefit. And some people will passionately argue that getting a label was so helpful to them because it helps them find community with other people having similar kinds of issues. There certainly can be benefits to that.

There can also be, as we talked about, real downfalls. It's important to remember that when we're talking about the realm of mental health kinds of issues, brain-based types of issues for children and adults, almost across the board, those are subjective diagnoses and labels. We do not have objective ways, like in medicine, they can give you certain blood tests and say, "Yup, you have Type 2 diabetes." That's an objective thing. It's very different in mental health.

Everything that goes on in the body is directly connected to what goes on in the brain.

You can bring a child with their symptoms they're exhibiting to 10 different clinicians and feasibly get several different labels and interpretations based on the subjective opinion of that clinician of what's going on in there. And that happens to a lot of parents. When their child is diagnosed with one thing, and then it's not a thing. Before you know it, they're going, "Oh my goodness, my kid has six different problems!" And that kid is going, "Look at all of these things. Look how bad I am. Look at how many problems I have."

So I prefer, and this makes me a somewhat unusual clinical psychologist, because in clinical psychology, the focus is very much on evaluation diagnosis. I really don't like to label kids, unless there's a compelling reason to do so. If there is a need for that, for insurance, for school services, or department of health and human services kinds of opportunities, I think that it's really going to be helpful for the family to find a community of support, than I will do that.

Overall, our goal should be understanding the unique strengths and challenges of each child and helping to put together a plan that's going to improve their quality of life, support the family, and move them towards their best potential. To me, that should be the goal for kids and adults in the realm of what we do in mental health. Not, well, get on a list, wait and have some testing and evaluation done, then get your diagnosis, then wade through a whole list of things that you could go and try to do.

No, we should be getting to know who is this kid really? What is this kid really about? And as much a focus on their strengths and the goodness that they bring to the table, as we focus on the challenges and the symptoms they're exhibiting, and helping parents and kids to really understand that. I always say to parents, when I do give a label or a diagnosis, before I even do that, I say, it's really important that you know that regardless of what I'm about to tell you and the label and the diagnosis we're going to talk about, your child is still the same amazing, wonderful, beautiful, talented human being they were when you walked into my office today. Giving you a label or a diagnosis, doesn't change any of that.

And I really try to frame that in a way that is empowering and uses the label more as just some knowledge and maybe an anchor for getting services and supports., something that doesn't send the child and the parent into a realm of defining who this kid is and what their potential and their future is going to be based on that.

Yeah, that's so inspiring. I'm sure people who are watching this or listening to this podcast are going to be feeling really empowered themselves about what you've just shared there. So, thank you.

When our daughter was born, as I was doing research on parenting, I always heard about these people who at the minute had to rush home to put their kids to sleep so they could align to some sleep schedule. I know that works really well for a lot of people, which is great.

However, for me, I wanted a family that was much more adaptable, so when our daughter was born the big focus for me was to get her used to three things: travel, noise and people. I didn't learn that; it was just something instinctive based on who I am and the work I do, plus being from Australia and living in the US I knew there would be a lot of travel in our future (at least pre-covid).

How quickly should we expose children to discomfort and adversity so they can be adaptable and resilient to tackle the challenges they're inevitably going to be faced with throughout their lives?

Well, it's interesting because discomfort is really in the experience of the person who's going through it. What I might find uncomfortable or overwhelming could be very different from you. The same can be true for us even from infancy onward. You see some babies who seem to have nervous systems that are much more tolerant of noise and activity and all of those kinds of things. Then we have some babies with much more sensitive nervous systems, who seem to not do as well.

It really comes to observing the child we have and seeing what seems to work well for this child. If it is a child with a sensitive nervous system where you notice from early on, wow, lots of activity or having a busier schedule or just a busier environment or more people around seems to be more overwhelming, then I think you can work at slowly exposing to more and more of that through that first year, through the toddler years, to get them comfortable and acclimated.

What doesn't work is to take a young child with a sensitive, nervous system and say, "Well, you're going to have to get used to it, so jumping in the pool we go. And we're just going to do all kinds of loud, busy overwhelming things so that you can get used to it."

Overall, our goal should be understanding the unique strengths and challenges of each child and helping to put together a plan that's going to improve their quality of life, support the family, and move them towards their best potential.

That will tend to have the child shutdown, become they're fearful of those kinds of situations. If you have a child who's more sensitive, you need to ease them into that. And the key there, as with anything with our kids, is the modeling that we provide. So to realize that if we are in a situation and feeling stressed and tense, and our face looks like we're worried or upset or whatever, kids from infancy on feed off of that, and they go, "Oh, dad looks really stressed and nervous." And then that fuels that in them.

If we want our kids to get used to certain types of situations, then we need to feel an ease about it, and we need to send the message that, "Hey, we're cool with this! This is comfortable. We can manage this. This is good." That's such a good rule of thumb for everything with our kids is they are such attuned little people, and they pick up on so much in our nonverbal communication and in the energy that we put out. We need to be conscientious about that.

In your book Life Will Get Better you mentioned that "parents are the most valuable resource children have." I really loved that one. To what extent does the parenting style you use affect your child's personality? Is there a particular parenting style that's best?

That's a great question. There's been a lot of research done on this. I will say in the big picture, there are several styles that can work — depending on the child, the culture, and the parents. So I certainly don't want to send the message that there is only one way to parent. No, there are lots of approaches and ways to parent.

When we think about parenting style though, the research has really identified four typical styles of parenting. There's the authoritarian style, which is very much the sort of Drill Sergeant, "My way or the highway, do it or else." A lot of directedness from the parents. So there's a lot of expectation from an authoritarian parent, but not a lot of warmth or support.

Then we have permissive parents, where there's a lot of warmth and support, and not so many expectations. These are the parents who can be thought of maybe more as a friend to their child, or are trying to be a friend as opposed to setting limits. They tend to be pushovers or allow kids to dictate what's going to happen.

The third style is uninvolved parents. Not too many parents fall in this category, but these are parents that don't have expectations, and also aren't warm and loving. These are the detached parents. The sort of "You're on your own, kid. I'm not really engaged or involved."

All three of those styles have been shown to not be as effective as the fourth style, which is authoritative parenting. I wish we would have a different name because authoritarian and authoritative sounds so similar, but authoritative parents have a great balance of expectations for their kids, but they're also warm and loving and engaged.

The difference with the authoritarian parent is that they'll say something like, "Do your homework. And I don't want to hear any complaining. You better not talk back to me about it." That's got an expectation, but there's not warmth there.

Whereas the authoritative parent could say, "Oh, I get it, homework stinks. You're so tired from the day. You really don't want to do it. I totally understand. Tell you what — let's figure out a plan. How would it work for you to take a 10 minute break, have a snack, maybe play outside for a little bit, and then we'll come in and tackle getting the homework done?" That's the balance. You're still expected to do your homework. I'm not going to be permissive and let you off the hook and say, "Oh, you're sad, you don't want to do your homework. It's okay. Don't worry about it." But it's, I expect you to do it, but I'm willing to work with you to understand your feelings, to be empathic and supportive and problem solve it. That is the style of parenting that the research shows, consistently, produces the most positive outcomes for kids.

Let's switch gears and chat about nutrition. In your book, you mentioned how the gut is now referred to as the "second brain", which of course is critically important for a variety of factors. What are the biggest mistakes that parents make from a nutrition perspective with their children?

Yeah, the gut is the second brain. We can almost even make an argument at this point with all the preponderance of research that the gut and the brain are pretty on par. We like to think that as sophisticated, cognitively advanced human beings that we are, that, oh, we have this big brain that's so in charge. In reality, actually the trillions of microorganisms that live in our gut and on and around us, really do run most of the show, it turns out.

But the mistakes that we make then from a nutrition standpoint? Not understanding how important the impact of what we eat on the health of our gut and our microbiome. We feed kids a lot of processed foods that tend to be high in sugar. That tend to have chemicals like preservatives, artificial dyes all kinds of chemical sweeteners and things like that.

Even the so-called 'natural flavors' which aren't so natural after all.

Yes!

The first time I found out that natural flavors aren't so natural or good for you, I was blown away. They're in everything!

It's almost impossible for parents — unless you have training and extra knowledge in this — to go to the grocery store and figure out what's good, what's not, because of all of the packaging. Well, I look at the ingredient labels on lots of things labeled natural, and I'm like, there's several things I wouldn't call 'natural'. But yeah, it's confusing for parents. And as a result, kids are eating and drinking more chemicals than ever before.

What we've seen as these chemicals, preservatives, sweeteners, and dyes have become more mainstream in the foods that people are eating, particularly kids over the last couple of generations, we've seen right along with that, a massive increase in things like obesity, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and Type 2 diabetes — and we never used to see those things in children. Pediatricians 50-100 years ago would go their entire career and never see a kid with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, Type 2 diabetes. It's rampant now.

But also the brain-based issues. ADHD is growing at astronomical levels. Almost 12% of U.S. kids are diagnosed or medicated for ADHD. We've got huge increases in the number of kids diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, learning problems, mood issues, and anxiety. So as we've seen our food dramatically change over the last couple of generations, we've also seen a major increase in the number of chronic physical, but also chronic mental health, kinds of issues. The data's clear that there's a connection there. That's a mistake that well-meaning parents make. They see things labeled for kids, and available on restaurant menus, and think they're good, without understanding how these less nutrient dense foods are negatively impacting their kids.

Sugar's a big one. Chemicals are a big one. Even on a very basic level, kids not having any produce in their diet is another big one. We see kids all the time with not a single fruit or vegetable in their diet. If they do, it's like a fruit snack or maybe a berry flavored Popsicle or something like that. So the nutrient density isn't there in our kids' diets.

Where that becomes problematic is not only does it impact the gut and being able to digest and have good bowel movements, but all those bugs, all those microorganisms, that microbiome, is negatively impacted when we're not eating nutrient dense food, and then that has a negative impact on our brain.

Food is information. If you're giving your child, let's say an apple, that apple contains all kinds of nutrients that provide information and the building blocks that your child's body needs for proper brain and body function. Contrast that with maybe an artificially-flavored sugar-added apple juice. Well, they're both technically 'apple' flavor, but that juice doesn't contain nearly the amounts or the types of information or the building blocks that your child needs.

So I think just the awareness that food provides the critical building blocks for your child's body and brain, and looking at how can we get more of those building blocks coming in through the food a child is eating, it's so, so critical.

Screen time is a hot topic right now. It's very stressful being a parent when you find yourself super busy with the chaos of regular life. And if you're a single parent, or you've got two working parents, it's even more chaos. When you give a kid a device, it's like a magnet — they just gravitate towards these things, which of course then greatly reduces the stress for the parents, but at what cost for the child's development? When should parents start incorporating mobile devices into a child's life? And how do you balance that being a stress reliever for the parent, with it being potentially damaging for the kids?

Yeah, great topic. And this is on parents' minds so much, especially with the pandemic. We know that kids were already spending a huge amount of time on screens, and the pandemic only escalated that even more. I would argue that, yes, while in some ways it's a stress reliever for parents in the immediate short term, ultimately, overuse of screens creates much, much bigger long-term stressors, because you have more irritable kids, kids who don't know what to do when they don't have their devices. And that creates a lot of stress for parents. I think overuse of devices is a problem for kids and for parents.

What the research shows and what the recommendations are from the major groups that have looked at this and have come out with recommendations, the American Academy of Pediatrics being the primary group that has really done that, is that children under the age of two years should not be using these devices. The exception is to use it, let's say, to FaceTime with a grandparent who is at a distance or a parent. I think during the pandemic that was so relevant. We've got an entire group of kids who were born during the pandemic, who have never met some of their family members, but Zoom and FaceTime has provided a way for them to do that.

That is the kind of exposure that's recommended for kids at that range, and nothing more than that. If they're going to be doing something on a device, make sure it's with a parent so they're not sitting there passively taking something in. Those are the recommendations.

I would argue that, yes, while in some ways it's a stress reliever for parents in the immediate short term, ultimately, overuse of screens creates much, much bigger long-term stressors.

Then when we get to the ages of two to five, the recommendation is no more than two hours a day. And I would argue that even two hours is a lot for kids, toddlers through kindergarten age. But the recommendation is only developmentally-appropriate, high quality programming in short bursts. It's not two hours all at once. And again, with a parent caregiver or an adult who can help engage around the content.

There's a big difference for a child, let's say, a three year old watching a show on their own versus sitting with mom or dad or a caregiver and having that caregiver engage in conversation, "Oh, look at that. Oh, I saw that. What do you think is happening there?" And exposing them to language and relationship around that.

Then from school age on up, there used to be time recommendations, and that has shifted, because in today's world where kids get a lot of required screen time through their schooling, it doesn't make sense anymore to say that school age children should be limited to two hours a day of use. Well, they can be in school and already exceed that before they even come home!


Check out the YouTube or podcast version where Dr. Nicole Beurkens answers questions from the Win the Day community, including: when you should give your teenager a mobile phone, advice for parents raising children with special needs, how to discipline a toddler, how children deal with trauma, and more. 🚀


So how we think about that for school age children, for teenagers, is that we want to prioritize non-screen time activities, which means that we want them to be getting in their educational work and opportunities, physical movement, extracurricular activities, chores, time with friends and family and in real life. Those are the kinds of things that we want to prioritize throughout the day. Then the other time can be used on screens.

And that's a more flexible way of thinking about that and helps families to think about, do we have a balance? Is my 12 year old spending all of the time that they're not in school glued to their device? Or have we set some priorities around making sure that they're getting movement and spending time with their friends and helping out around the house? And so I think it's a more flexible and doable way of thinking about screen time for kids.

I've got to ask, Baby Shark now has more views than people on the planet. What formula have they tapped into!?

Cocomelon is another huge one! You have a young daughter.

I know, I actually have a special Spotify playlist called 'Cocomelon' too!

Here's the deal because as adults we go, "What in the world? What is this about?" So, young children, babies, toddlers, preschoolers, young children thrive on repetition. The brain is a pattern seeker. And when you think about it, babies come into the world, they're constantly trying to figure out the world by figuring out patterns. Repetition is really compelling, appealing, and important for kids at those ages. So the repetitive songs, the repetitive sort of way that the episodes are laid out, the repetitive character.

It drives us as adults crazy. You get those songs locked in your brain, you can't get them out!

I made the conscious decision that I would have to always enjoy it, otherwise it would destroy my life! Every time I hear it, I have to start singing, otherwise it would drive me crazy.

That's right! It gets locked in. So there's that repetition. Most of these programs, they tend to be simple, big characters, big like Cocomelon — big eyes, big faces. Babies, toddlers, preschoolers, they gravitate towards that. They're able to process and make sense of it. It's not overwhelming to them. Sort of the sing-songy voices, the simplicity of the characters, the colors, the brightness, those kinds of things. Those are all meant to be very compelling to the brains of young children.

Now, they certainly have hit the mark with that. But we can ask the question like, "Okay, that's great. They have figured out the formula to really get little kids locked into this, but what are the downfalls of that?" Some parents go, "Oh yeah, my kid will sit there for four hours." But that's not good. While I certainly am not going to tell a parent, having been there myself — I mean, of course my kids were babies before all these things existed. We didn't have tablets and all of that. I'm not going to tell a parent that it's unacceptable to put your young child, your baby in a safe space in front of a program or something that's appropriate with music for 30 minutes, while you try to get a shower and maybe eat some food yourself. Far be it from me, because I've been there and I know that's the reality.

But the focus should be on not making that the norm, where every time you need a break or need to be doing something else, that you're using the computer, the tablet, the TV, the whatever, as a way to capture their attention and babysit them. It's really important for kids from the first year of life on, to have the experience of not constantly having external stimulation. Because, while it keeps them engaged and they like that passive stimulation, it doesn't allow for the development of the pathways in the brain for problem solving, curiosity, creativity, critical thinking, and figuring out, how do I self-generate ideas, how do I initiate things, and how do I use my own time?

It's really important for kids from the first year of life on, to have the experience of not constantly having external stimulation.

There is a huge importance that we need to recognize, whether it's placing a baby on the floor with some things to look at and letting them explore on their own using their muscles and figuring out how to make their eyes and their hands work together, to a toddler who we place in a safe area with some blocks and some puppets and some other things, and let them play without us intervening, without stimulation and entertainment, to the preschoolers, the early school age kids, who I know they complain, "I'm bored. There's nothing to do."

But being bored is actually really good and important for kids. If your kids are never having opportunities to be bored, you're really missing out on a critical opportunity for them to develop important cognitive, emotional and behavioral regulation skills. This is why we want kids to not have these important opportunities displaced by constant external stimulation from the devices.

Let's end with this final question from Charlene in Australia, which I think is an important one. (If you'd like to submit a question for future podcast guests, join the Win the Day Facebook group.)

"My children watched me go through an abusive relationship. Since then I've remarried, and I'm in a happy relationship, but my children go quiet when we question them when they misbehave and they don't answer us. How do we help them know that my current husband is nothing like what they experienced and that they are safe now?"

Oh boy, what a good question. Kudos to this parent for asking the question and being willing to examine this. It takes time to build trust, especially when kids have been through the trauma of witnessing abuse. I don't know how long this relationship has been going on, but it takes time and it takes consistent modeling, consistent opportunities for these children to see that this new adult figure in their home responds to things in very different ways and is not going to have the same reaction that the other parent did.

I think that this is a really lovely example of where some family counseling and some parent-child counseling work can be very, very helpful. Because a skilled family therapist, child and parent therapist, will be able to help the parent be able to be open and honest and explore these things and talk with the children about things in a developmentally appropriate way, give some strategies for how they can build that trust and give the kids a safe container for talking about their fears, their concerns, what's going on.

There's a lot of things that we can do as parents on our own, but sometimes there are really important times and places to get some professional help. And this is a great example where a skilled therapist can really help with not only processing and helping kids navigate some of that previous trauma, but helping this new family unit come together and function in a really healthy way.

You're amazing! Dr. Nicole, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Thank you so much for having me! This was great.


I hope you enjoyed that interview with Dr. Nicole Beurkens. What an extraordinary number of tips to help us all raise strong children, protect our own mental well-being, and ultimately create a happier and more supportive household for the next generation.

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That’s all for this episode! Remember, to get out there and win the day.

Until next time…

Onwards and upwards always,
James Whittaker


Resources / links mentioned:

⚡ Dr Nicole Beurkens website.

📝 Dr Nicole Beurkens on Facebook.

📷 Dr Nicole Beurkens on Instagram.

👨‍👨‍👧‍👧 ‘Life Will Get Better’ by Dr Nicole Beurkens.

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🎧 The Better Behavior Show with Dr Nicole Beurkens.

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