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.