Dr. Courtney Knapp

Child & Adolescent Psychologist Serving Orange County, California

Parenting Tweens


I find a lot of parents struggle to parent their tweens who have “bad attitudes”, are “disrespectful”, and “emotional”.  A great article from parenting.com discusses ways to parent your tween.  The article states that with cell phones and other technologies tweens are developing closer bonds with their peer groups and, as a result, pushing away from their parents at earlier ages and with adolescence looming, kids naturally feel compelled to start going their own way.  Boys and girls tend to act out differently. “Girls get dramatic and overreact, while boys alternate between withdrawing and being defiant,” says Lowry.

The article offers 7 helpful tips on how to parent your tween.  

  1. maintain your parental status, this is not the time to become your  child’s friend.
  2. draw clear lines in the sand, you’ll need to come up with some new rules based on what’s most important to you, like right and wrong, honesty, and grades, and let go of stuff that doesn’t matter in the long run like keeping his room neat or eye rolling  Communicate as clearly and as calmly as you can as soon as any unacceptable behavior begins.
  3. choose a tween-appropriate punishment for infractions, like taking away video games or cell phones and it is important to follow through once you’ve set the consequence.
  4. reciprocate respect, remember that respect is a two-way street-especially when you start to get caught up in an emotionally charged argument and that it’s okay to apologize for mistakes you make as a parent.
  5. Let her stew When a “discussion” between you and your tween leads to screaming, step back and wait for things to calm down. Encouraging your child to take a break from a situation is a good way to defuse high emotions all around.
  6. set aside some face time, take your tween out for breakfast or invite him along to walk the dog, just the two of you. Don’t push an agenda, but do let your child lead the conversation. Along the same vein, be ready to talk when your tween needs to. Ultimately, experts point out, your tween will continue to come to you if he knows you’re likely to listen to him without jumping in to judge unimportant details.
  7. fan the home fires, as much as your child wants/needs to begin separating from Mom and Dad, he’s still a kid and wants/needs to have a safety net. For example designating one night a week as “Family Night, ” meaning no friends, no activities, no computers, no texting, no video games.

Lying..Maybe Not All Bad


A study shows children as young as 2 are capable of telling small lies. The study found 25% of children that age say little lies. It’s not just to cover-up things, but instead to show how capable they are.  As children grow, so can lying. Eighty percent of 4 year olds are said to lie. However, the percentage decreases through adolescence.  I have found when working with families that children will lie when questioned about a misbehavior such as, “Did you hit your brother?”  As I mentioned in my previous post, questions put children on the spot and can make them feel anxious, hence parents end up hearing a lie rather than the truth.  I encourage parents to confront children with statements if they know what happened “You were frustrated and hit your brother, but it’s not okay to hit, instead you can let me know why you’re frustrated” as one example.  Often parents are concerned that lying is a symptom, but this behavior can be part of normal development in children especially under certain circumstances such as the one described above.  Sometimes children make up elaborate stories about their day “I went on a hike and saw a bear.”  I say, if your child seems to be telling tall tales, just go with it “Oh wow, that sounds like fun!”  If a child is lying to get out of trouble you can reflect “You don’t like being in trouble.”  I think it can be helpful for parents to view lying as normal development rather than a symptom when responding to a child’s lies.

Why So Many Questions



Early on in my play therapy career I learned that asking questions during a play session with a client is frowned upon.  I understood the reasoning behind it right away….questions put me in charge of the session and pull the client out of the moment, out of his/her play.  Questions also put children on the spot and can make them feel anxious.  Just because I understood why I shouldn’t be asking questions did not mean that it was an easy task.  It took me at least a year to master the statement driven interaction versus the question driven interaction.  To this day I still catch myself asking questions, but at least I’m aware of it now!  I teach this concept to parents as well and encourage them to have special play time with their child…avoiding questions during that time.  I also challenge parents to use more statements throughout the day with their child rather than questioning.  For example: “I wonder how your day was.” instead of “how was your day?”.  It’s a very subtle difference but children pick up on these small communication changes.  Until you’ve been challenged not to ask questions, you don’t realize just how many questions you ask your child everyday!

When to Set Boundaries


Janet Lansbury discusses when to say “yes” to something as a parent versus when to set a boundary in an intriguing article.  She says to say “yes” to your child’s feelings and to your child’s self-directed play.  These are two things that I emphasize in the play therapy I do with young clients.  Janet states that children need freedom to express their deepest, darkest, oddest, or inappropriate-seeming feelings because emotions are connected to “self” and who we are.  By accepting a child’s emotions, we are accepting who they are.  Janet states, “Encouraging the expression of feelings and acknowledging them is the key to our child’s emotional health and also to self-worth”.  This means not stopping the emotions with distractions, punishments, or other invalidating responses.  The other thing to say “yes” to is self-directed play as children learn a great deal through their play.  Boundaries should be set for safety, when the child is testing, and during transitions.  Janet also addresses the “annoyance factor” which can be summed up by a quote from the article “when we placate children by allowing them to do what we don’t really want them to do, we end up being the ones who want to explode, and that can be dangerous.”  In other words, if we will be irritated by a behavior, it might be better to set a limit rather than endure the behavior and become resentful of the child.

New Study on Temper Tantrums

temper tantrum

An article from Time magazine by Bonnie Rochman discusses a study from the journal “Emotion”.  The study found that the vocalizations involved in a tantrum actually follow a rhythm. Tantrums have recognizable peaks and valleys that can be analyzed in hopes of cultivating a better response from parents and teachers.  “Screaming and yelling and kicking often go together,” said study co-author Michael Potegal of the University of Minnesota. “Throwing things and pulling and pushing things tend to go together. Combinations of crying, whining, falling to the floor and seeking comfort — these also hang together.” An older theory of tantrums suggest that meltdowns begin in anger and end in sadness, but Potegal found that the two emotions were more intertwined. “The impression that tantrums have two stages is incorrect,” Potegal said. “In fact, the anger and the sadness are more or less simultaneous.”  Based on the sound recordings of kids’ breakdowns, the researchers found that sadness happens throughout a tantrum, and is punctuated by intense bouts of anger.  Potegal advises moms and dads to ignore their tantruming child, and soon enough, the fury will subside, leaving a whole bunch of sadness. That’s when parents can intervene.

Connecting With Your Child


I recently read a great article from Janet Lansbury called “Don’t Waste an Opportunity to Connect With Your Kids”.

The article discusses seven ways we can connect with children including: hearing and acknowledging the child’s emotions; providing the child with simple, truthful, empathetic limits; meet the child where he/she is at in terms of play; slow down and connect during care-giving duties such as bath time and bedtime; and express love, appreciation, and apologies to the child even if they do not seem to be listening.  These things resonated with me as a child and adolescent psychologist because this is the kind of relationship I strive to foster between the parents and children I work with.  A relationship that consists of mutual respect and one in which the child feels safe and understood.  Relationships of mutual respect with children who have temper tantrums and do not listen by the first or even tenth time we tell them something can be very challenging, but are possible and rewarding once achieved.  It’s the small changes in our daily communication with children that have the biggest impact.

Principles of Play Therapy

There are eight principles of play therapy derived from Garry Landreth and Virginia Axline.  These are things I like to keep in mind when using play therapy, but I also think about how each client may need something different and allow for that flexibility.  The eight principles are:

  1. The therapist is genuinely interested in the child and develops a warm, caring relationship
  2. The therapist experiences unqualified acceptance of the child and does not wish that the child were different in some way
  3. The therapist creates a feeling of safety and permissiveness in the relationship so the child feels free to explore and express self completely
  4. The therapist is always sensitive to the child’s feelings and gently reflects those feelings in such a way that the child develops self understanding
  5. The therapist believes deeply in the child’s capacity to act responsible, unwaveringly respects the child’s ability to solve personal problems, and allows the child to do so
  6. The therapist trusts the child’s inner direction, allows the child to lead in all areas of the relationship and resists any urge to direct the child’s play or conversation
  7. The therapist appreciates the gradual nature of the therapeutic process and does not attempt to hurry the process
  8. The therapist establishes only those therapeutic limits which help the child accept personal and appropriate relationship responsibility

Types of Play Therapy

There are several types of play therapy.  I generally work from a couple of models including child-centered play therapy and experiential play therapy.

In child-centered play therapy, the therapist does not assume he or she knows about and should, therefore, direct the therapeutic process.  The content and direction of the child’s play is determined by the child.  Child-centered play therapists believe in the child’s capacity to strive toward growth and maturity and that children know what they need to heal themselves (Kevin O’Connor and Lisa Braverman).

Experiential play therapy believes that children encounter their world at an experiential rather than cognitive level.  Play is a child’s medium of expressing his or her experiences as well as his or her feelings about him or herself.  Since children encounter their world, including therapy, at an experiential level they must disclose their emotions in more primitive ways than verbal communication.  By providing a secure relationship for the child, the therapist lays a foundation upon which the child may build his or her therapeutic issues, test them, then rebuild them in a way that he or she can understand, tolerate, and accept them (Carol and Byron Norton).

ADHD: Differential Diagnosis

ADHD is a common diagnosis among children.  Prevalence rates range from 3 to 7 percent  of children.  Due to ADHD being a widely known diagnosis other causes of inattention or hyperactivity can be overlooked.  While learning disabilities and ADHD are often diagnosed together, it is possible for a child to be struggling with only a learning disability which leads to the child not paying attention or checking out in class due to not understanding the material being presented.  It is important to rule out depression as a differential diagnosis because depression can include difficulty concentrating which can look like the inattention in ADHD.  Another important diagnosis to look for when a child presents with inattention and hyperactivity is trauma.

Peter Levine discusses how the hyperarousal and hypervigilance of trauma can look like the inattention and hyperactivity of ADHD.  In trauma the child is constantly looking for danger or threats in his or her environment and is therefore distracted.  Children who have a trauma history also have difficulty paying attention to the here and now because they may often be thinking about the traumatic event(s).  Children who have been traumatized may also have difficulty regulating their behaviors and emotions which can look like the impulsivity or hyperactivity of ADHD.

Introduction to Play Therapy

Gary Landreth discusses why play therapy is helpful for children.  Children lack the cognitive and verbal abilities to participate in talk therapy.  Since play is their natural mode of communication, play therapy helps children engage in the therapeutic process.  Play is to the child what verbalization is to the adult.  Feelings and thoughts that may be too threatening for a child to express directly can be safely projected through toys.  Play can reveal what the child has experienced; reactions to what was experienced; feelings about what was experienced; what the child wishes, wants, or needs; and the child’s perception of self.  There are many experiences in childhood in which children feel they have little or no control.  Through play the child experiences a feeling of being in control.  The Association for Play Therapy defines play therapy as “the systematic use of a theoretical model to establish an interpersonal process wherein trained play therapists use the therapeutic powers of play to help clients prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development.”