Monday, October 28, 2013

PART II: Will You Be My Friend? An Interview with Craig Knippenberg

Introduction: In this post, I am continuing with the conversation I had with child therapist Craig Knippenberg regarding his video series and upcoming book, Will You Be My Friend? Understanding Your Child’s Social Brain Into Adulthood. The video series is available for viewing on YouTube and

I enjoy how Craig thinks about the social brain. So, this interview has more on that but also you will see how Craig is an innovator when it comes to using outdoor adventure to help teens. He makes a great point about helping our children (and ourselves) disconnect from the electronic world in order to boost the lasting emotional connection. 

Question: #6 You talk about the social brain having three regions or types of functions: The President, the Furnace, and the Mirror System.  How do these three regions change in the teen brain throughout adolescence?

As any parent with a teenager knows, this is where the real fun and challenge begins. Everything changes as all three of the main social brain systems undergo massive growth. Aristotle had it pegged long ago when he said, “Teens today are as fickle in their desires as they are vehement in expressing them.” While the President is getting ready to become the master controller of a more complex adult brain, it doesn’t work very well. So, you see lots of rapidly changing impulses fueled by a doubling of emotion from the Furnace. On top of that, the social Mirror System is speeding up and growing to help form tomorrow’s leaders and politicians. While teens are learning how to influence others around them in a more complex way, lots of social hurts are going to happen. It’s sort of like taking a group juggling lesson and being asked to toss steak knives back and forth on your first try. Eventually, the group will get there, but it will take time and a lot of bandages! Many current environmental biologists argue, however, that the teen brain is doing what it is designed to do: take risks while conquering the environment, bond with the peer group, and find a mate for the procreation of our species. Sadly, while designed for species survival in ancient times, many adolescents don’t survive well into adulthood within today’s social culture.

#7 Are there differences between boys and girls when it comes to our social brains?

Neurologists can tell you that the differences between the male and female brain is very small. In terms of the social brain however, there are some significant differences which compliment each other for the long term survival of our species. Go to any kindergarten classroom and you can see how the Presidential functioning is much stronger in the majority of the girls. In the teen years, you also see males making some very risky decisions and not fully thinking through the consequences to their actions. For the social brain, girls process a whole lot more non-verbal data and do so at a much faster rate. While I don’t know if he ever took a neurology class, the comedian Jeff Foxworthy was close when he joked, “When it comes to social processing, women have an eight lane super highway while men have a two lane country road.” While boys are capable of being more emotionally and socially sensitive, our ancient brains helped females carry out traditional roles like taking care of infants and working together in often hazardous environments. When taken together, these differences are designed to compliment each other and promote living and working together.

#8 How does understanding these three social brain systems help parents?

First of all, as I mentioned earlier, understanding why your child is acting the way they are can really help you be more patient and effective. Secondly, understanding your child’s unique make-up in these areas helps you provide them with the structure and guidance that they need. For example, a child who has a great social mirror system but with a weak President and Tigger emotions is going to make a lot of friends, but is then is going to need a lot of monitoring and structure to keep them and their friends safe and out of trouble. A child with a hard working President, average social mirroring skills and the anxiety of a Piglet, is going to need reinforcement for taking risks and moving past his/her anxiety. The child with low mirror abilities, a weak President and an overactive Furnace on the other hand is going to need lots of social teaching and reinforcement for handling the social world in a more positive manner. These approaches with your child’s unique make up will help them more successfully relate to others and ultimately help them structure their lives into adulthood.

#9 I know you love parent/child adventures, so tell us how they help social development.

As you know from being a parent, Scott, kids are very hands-on and learn best when they are actively engaged. This is especially true when it comes to developing executive functions, learning to manage one’s emotions, and learning how to work with others. Going on outdoor adventures (be they in town or in nature) with your children and teens gives them ample opportunities to learn about natural consequences as well as opportunities to work through the many frustrations which arise while you are out in the environment. As kids get older, it’s great to bring friends and other parents along as you learn to share the work load and navigate those challenging emotions which are impacting the entire group. Most importantly, time away from modern life (especially electronics) allows you to bond with your kids, create emotional memories and participate in some life changing experiences. You can’t microwave your child’s development, just as you can’t speed through their academic growth. It takes time together. That’s the main reason I created All parents need a few ideas and tips in order to create their own adventures that will bring them closer to their kids.

#10 How does the social brain help us live in community?

On a larger scale, we know that the survival of the human species has favored those who can live and work in a community. It’s hard to entrust one’s future into the hands of others who can’t remember to complete their work, act on impulses, overreact emotionally or who can’t empathize with others around them. It’s our positive social skills which allow us to survive together. When children feel good about their pro-social skills, it allows them to serve the community and those around them. That’s the purpose of our social brains and for children having healthy self-esteem.

When it comes down to the family level, these social/emotional skills help couples form lasting, trusting relationships. Their marital relationships form the foundation for children to grow their relationship skills into the future. As I’m sure you feel the same way about helping couples, it’s very exciting and gratifying for me to help children and teens transform their negative skills and take responsibility for their social and emotional relationships.  Having at least one friend to share life with is the difference one candle makes when placed in a dark room.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Will You Be My Friend? An Interview with Craig Knippenberg

I’ve got something new and different for you in this post (and the next). I want to introduce you to Craig Knippenberg.  I have long known and admired him and his team because of the innovative, social-development training they do with children. He is widely known around Colorado for this work that he and his team do to help children thrive and learn social awareness and skills.  What I will present here is a little background on Craig Knippenberg and an interview I recently did with him. In addition to that interview, Craig and his team have recently produced some videos on YouTube that you can access for free and watch. If you know a parent or someone who works with children and families, check all this out.  I think you will appreciate these ideas. (I especially love how he uses the characters from Winnie the Pooh to teach concepts to children and parents!)    

Craig is a child and family therapist and pastoral counselor here in Denver. He and his staff have been facilitating social, emotional and self-esteem development groups for children and teens for over thirty-three years; this model of social skills groups has been perfected and has helped bring him success. This is one of the things that I have most admired about Craig and his group. I am delighted to introduce you to their work and some of the thinking.  (I have no financial involvement here. I just really believe in what these folks do, which is why I’m posting about it here.)

Craig and his team recently produced a series of videos on the “social brain” and Craig is currently writing a book entitled: Will You Be My Friend? Understanding Your Child’s Social Brain Into Young Adulthood. The videos are available now on YouTube &, and the book is expected before too long. Check out the videos (maybe after you read the interview below!). 

Craig and I recently sat down and talked about his work, and what follows here are some outtakes from our talks.

Part I

Question #1:  Why did you want to make a brain based video and book?

There are several reasons Scott. First, my job as a child/adolescent therapist is to understand what is driving a child’s social/emotional difficulties. When I look at these difficulties from a brain-based perspective, it gives me great insight into why things are happening and then guides my decision making for more precise interventions. Second, my ultimate therapy goal is to help the children themselves understand why they act and feel the way they do, and then use this insight for longer term behavioral change and responsibility taking. Finally, as a parent myself, understanding why my kids act the way they do, at each stage of development, helps my patience and my creative problem solving around discipline issues. In 1st grade, it might mean being more patient when addressing why focused attention is so difficult; in 6th grade it might mean understanding the dramatic increase in pre-teen social and emotional behavior, while in 12th grade it might mean appreciating the fundamental drives for peer connection and family separation.

This same process of understanding is also very applicable in work with couples, Scott. Rather than reacting toward one’s spouse, you are trying to help couples slow down, think about and empathize with what is truly happening within themselves and their partner, and then handle things in a calm, insightful manner.

Ultimately, I want this book and video project to help parents and educators understand children/teens’ “social brains” in a way that is simple and easy to comprehend. While there are many brain-based books on the market for parents, most are too difficult to understand; even for me! Will You Be My Friend? however, puts the brain in easy-to-understand terms, stories and pictures. So easy in fact, that each chapter includes activities for parents to do with their kids so that their children themselves can share the same vocabulary and insights.

Question #2: Tell us more what you mean by “social brain”

As you know Scott, our brains are incredibly complex and sophisticated. So, no, there isn’t one area of the brain that governs our social actions and relationships. There are however, three main areas of our brain that, when combined together, give you a good snapshot at how our social and emotional personalities are wired.

Question #3:  Ok, tell us about this part of the brain you call the “President”.

If you have a class of children tap their foreheads, you can then start telling them how the very front part is in charge of the rest of the brain. Quite literally, it is this frontal lobe that is in charge of what psychologists call “Executive Functioning”. Or, as I like to tell students, it is their “President”. Those very presidential skills include skills like paying attention, organization, working memory, time management and the very important social skill of controlling one’s impulses. Starting in preschool, that President really starts to grow and carry out those functions in a very basic manner. As children mature, you see massive changes in Presidential Functioning during the teen years and then a settling in of a more mature President in young adulthood; almost like a 2nd term President.

Question #4: I love how you use the characters from Winnie the Pooh to illustrate your points. What does Winnie the Pooh have to do with kids and their emotions?

In my mind, everything! While I don’t know if Mr. Milne had this in mind when writing his stories, using his characters is a very easy way for children to understand their emotions and how each of us is born with an emotional temperament. Some children handle life’s stresses like Pooh does. They have an “oh bother” response, followed by a quest for the silver lining in whatever the problem is (i.e.: “There must be honey somewhere near here.”). Other children may be prone to anxiety like Piglet, anger like Rabbit, or sadness like Eyore. In a class full of children, you will see these different temperaments come out. And, of course, they come out within any one child over time and situations. Then of course, there are the Tiggers of the world who see excitement and fun in just about everything. As one student yelled out while jumping up in his chair: “I’m a Tigger!” When parents understand their son or daughters temperament, they can create an environment that will help him or her flourish. More importantly, is the ability of children to understand themselves emotionally and then take responsibility for managing their own non-Pooh responses. 

Another easy way to conceptualize our emotions is to think of a coal burning furnace in a factory. Located in the base of the brain, this factory produces the many neurochemicals which circulate throughout our brains and bodies to produce the rainbow of emotions which humans experience. The furnace drives their production. When we are feeling relaxed and content, it glows and warms us like an electric blanket on a cold winter morning. In times of stress, the furnace cranks up and floods us with emotions like fear and frustration (like when you see your child heading out on their bike with no helmet on). Obviously, we need all our emotions and a furnace that can be regulated. Going back to Winnie the Pooh, some children have Pooh at the control’s that keeps the furnace glowing at an even temperature. Other children have Rabbit or Piglet at the controls. They crank up the furnace at the slightest perception of stress and often have a hard time turning it back down.

#5 How do kids learn to understand each other’s emotions and non-verbal social cues?

Try a game of emotional charades with your kids. Tell them a feeling, and have them make the face for the game. Then explain to your child how facial expressions cause a region of the social brain I call the Mirror to respond. Your brain sees their facial expressions and then recreates them in the right side of your brain. These “mirror neurons” pretend that they are making the exact same face as your child is making and then your brain figures out what feeling you would be having if you were making that face. Once that system starts developing, it goes through several phases of growth which help children/teens more understand in a more sophisticated manner what others are thinking and feeling just by scanning the people around them. These amazing mirroring skills are what allow us to notice friendship opportunities and then form trusting, intimate relationships. For your marital couples, it’s what allows them to recognize each other’s emotions, feel deep empathy, and then respond in an appropriately supportive manner. Adults who have more limited social processing skills (such as found with the Autism Spectrum Disorders) have a much more difficult time developing these deeper relationships. They have trouble decoding what’s obvious to others, which is why some people have said they are sometimes “clueless.” 

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I will continue with this brief interview with Craig Knippenberg in my next posting.  Stay tuned. And check out the videos at those links above. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

“I'll take anyone.”

You might have seen this story. If you have not, take a look here or here.

Davion Navar Henry Only is a 16 year-old young man, without mother or father or family. What he does have is guts and a deep desire to be loved. Last Sunday, with the encouragement of his case-worker, Connie Going, Davion went to church and made a request. It’s not so unusual to go to church and make a request. In my experience, however, those requests most often are sent God’s way, not expressed with such pathos directly to the congregants. Davion made a direct request to those he stood before. He asked for a family. Imagine what it might be like to do such a thing. The terror in asking, as a child, to be loved.

As the stories note, Davion said, “I'll take anyone. Old or young, dad or mom, black, white, purple. I don't care. And I would be really appreciative. The best I could be.”

You don’t hear every day of a 16 year-year old asking for a family. Yet the power of this story lies in the fact that it is very much an every-day story. There are scores of children who would love nothing more than to have a family to belong to and to love them.

I almost didn’t read this article because I knew it would be painful to absorb. Like so many others, Davion has a lot going against him in life. His mother gave birth to him in prison; nothing is said in the news stories of his father. In fact, as reported, he never knew his mother or father, and has been raised in various temporary homes for his whole life. He just discovered this year that his mother had passed on, which one of the stories suggests motivated him to wait no longer for what could not come from those quarters.

Not surprisingly, Davion has had some difficulties with anger and managing his behavior. But as the stories make clear, he’s attempting to turn that all around. If the stories are accurate, his motive is not only to be a better person but to earn what many children can take for granted. The poignant part is the obvious part. A young man pleads for what he’s never had, which is something too many children never will have: stability and love.

I usually write about statistics and trends and policies and personal behaviors that impact one’s odds of lasting love. I usually write without putting a face on the pain that is behind the ever-increasing numbers of children who have the hard luck to be born in what I clinically call “low-commitment contexts.” That’s a tidy and descriptive term for the increased odds of pain that come when children do not have adults committed to raising them. When I use this term, I do not mean to judge the parents of such children harshly. What would be the point? Many people who have children in low commitment contexts are hardly adults themselves (and I merely mean, age-wise), and many of any age grew up in contexts filled with family instability. While one can easily understand—hopefully with actual compassion—the difficulties that lead so many children to be exposed to unstable or even dangerous homes, that understanding does not lesson the consequences to individuals, society, and the hearts of children.

I wanted to draw attention to the story of Davion because he says so clearly what is rarely put into words. He wants a family, and he knows he’s running out of time to experience one as a child.

For those of you who work to help others better understand relationships, love, and commitment, Davion is the face of why your work matters. You are doing something important. And for those of you who have adopted and taken in children like Davion, you are heroes.  I cannot think of a more apt word for the love you dare to send into the world.