Dr. Courtney Knapp

Child & Adolescent Psychologist Serving Orange County, California

Special Time with Teens


I often teach parents of young children about “special time” and advise parents to carve out about twenty minutes a day to play with their child. During this time the child is in charge and I will show parents how to make special time with their child an important way to reduce conflict between them. That is why I loved this article about how to continue “special time” with teens.

It seems there are a lot of resources for how to parent younger children but when it comes to teens (who are still children) there are not as many materials available. I think this is due in part to our society mistakenly viewing teens as more capable of adult sense than they really are. Something I have seen several times in regards to parenting teens is that it is important for parents to be the initiator of connection and to make a conscious effort to connect with their teen. This is important because developmentally teens are drawn to peer interaction but it is important not to forget that they are also needing parent time. Because it may be harder for a teen to express this need than his or her need for time with friends it is crucial that parents reach out. The author states it may have to be a subtle “just hanging out” kind of feel as teens may be less open to this special time than a young child would be. The article discusses some guidelines for “special time” with a teen including discussion of expectations and just as with a younger child much of the time should be lead by the teen not the parent (for example don’t use the time to discuss worries about grades).

Before beginning special time with a teen, the article notes that it may be important for a parent to have a “listening partner”. This is someone the parent can vent to about his or her own feelings regarding the relationship with the teen and even his or her own memories of being a teen. As the adult, having a safe place to be heard and understood increases the likelihood one can then do this for his or her child. So while special time with a teen versus a young child looks different the basic concept is still the same. Special time is an opportunity to connect with your child in a way that is different from the rest of the interactions you have with him or her. What makes special time different is that the child is in charge and the parent tries to be free of judgement and simply offer undivided attention and observation. This is easier said than done but in time and with practice it is possible to build these moments with children.

Sleep Struggles

Empty Bed

So many parents, new and seasoned, have dealt with bedtime or middle of the night crying from their child at least once and for some this is an ongoing struggle. There is an abundance of advice on how to help children sleep and every family needs to choose what feels right for them. I came across this article and think the approach is respectful of the child’s needs and also lends itself to eventual independent sleep.

The approach is based on the idea that children cry in order to offload negative feelings that have built up during the day and unlike adults children are still good at doing this if we allow them the time and space to do so without becoming overwhelmed ourselves. This is easier said than done especially in the middle of the night. So the first step would be to allow a child to cry during the day while one listens and is supportive. This may decrease nighttime crying but if nighttime crying still happens (which it likely will) then do the same at night….listen to the crying in a supportive way. To do this the article points out that one would reflect the feelings “I hear you are upset” and then gently touch the child to offer physical comfort without picking the child up. If the crying intensifies then one can pick the child up and cuddle with them until they are ready to be put down. Again this is just one method amongst many but I found it to be an intriguing view on why nighttime crying happens and how to approach it.

How is Emotional Regulation Learned


Emotional regulation is the ability to manage one’s feelings. As adults we have trouble with this at times so imagine a child trying to navigate such a huge task. This article discusses how children may learn this skill. As the author points out, there are different approaches to helping children learn emotional regulation and he goes on to share his approach. Barish states “…children most effectively learn to regulate their emotions when they are confident that their feelings will be heard. When a child expects that her feelings and concerns will be appreciated and understood, her emotions become less urgent.” In my own experience I have seen a simple reflection “you are angry” can calm a child almost instantly. Not to say that this is always the case, but at times that is all a child needs…to be understood. I encourage parents to take their children’s feelings seriously at any age and take the time to listen!

Reframing your Child’s Behavior


I believe that as adults we sometimes get stuck in thinking that our children think like adults which is what leads parents to view their children’s acting out behavior such as defiance, talking back, and arguing as something their child is doing on purpose to make them mad or manipulate them. This is where reframing comes in. Reframing means to try to view something we perceive as negative in a more positive light. This is a great article that discusses viewing your child’s behavior differently. We can reframe anything from sitting in traffic to our child saying “no”. I think that when parents constantly view acting out behavior as negative they begin to feel angry and exhausted which leads them to parent less effectively. The view that your son or daughter is always trying to upset you can lead you to always feel upset with them and disconnected from them and also makes it harder to notice the positive times you may have together. I try to point this out to parents I work with and encourage them to view their child’s acting out behavior as “Sally is having a problem and I need to help her.” If a parent can view behavior differently they are more likely to parent from a calm place rather than out of frustration. Children may be little but they still deal with big feelings and sometimes their way of dealing with these big feelings means acting out. I suggest parents use reflections “you are really angry” to help validate feelings rather than constantly punishing for misbehavior. Consequences have a place, but the more tools you have available as a parent the more capable you’ll feel to handle difficult behavior.

Transitioning Back to School


It’s that time of year again..summer is coming to a close and school is around the corner. This can be a stressful time for families as summer time may have been relaxing with less scheduling and arguing about waking up in the morning and doing homework after school! I think it is important to begin introducing more structure, starting even a couple weeks before the first day of school. This means waking up and going to bed earlier! Here is an article with some helpful tips on how to help you and your child have an easier transition back to school.

I particularly like the idea of going to visit the school with your child which may help reduce back to school anxiety. I also like replacing some screen time with reading or other quiet activity to help children transition back to school work mode. And if at all possible do as much the evening before school (pick out clothing, bath time, make lunch) so morning time is that much easier.

Make-believe Play

An article found here discusses the importance of old fashioned play time. As a play therapist this is something I am a huge advocate of and yet see it less and less in our culture as a whole. The article hits on several key advantages of allowing children to engage in free play without it being screen time or a structured extracurricular activity. One of the advantages discussed and that I educate parents about is that of self-regulation. Through pretend play children learn to regulate their feelings and behaviors meaning, for example, that if a child is upset they can problem solve the situation or talk it out with an adult. The article discusses another behavior developed during pretend play which is private speech. If you have ever watched a child engaging in pretend play they will often narrate what it is they are doing (“the baby needs a bottle now”). In children this private speech is said out loud. This narration-like talk observed during free play eventually becomes internal private speech (taking in our minds to ourselves) which we all use on a daily basis to help regulate ourselves (“ I hope this traffic clears up so I make it to work on time”). With my background as a play therapist I do believe in the power of certain kinds of toys which the article says children do not need toys at all but can just use the natural environment. A child using his/her natural environment especially during infancy and young toddler years can promote attention span and creativity. As a child ages I prefer what I call “neutral” toys such as a bucket of farm animals, a doctor’s kit, and a basic baby doll which can be hard to find these days with the specific themes of movies and television creeping into the toy aisles.

Keeping Children Safe

Most of us are familiar with the “stranger danger” campaign which was designed to protect children from sexual abuse.  At a recent family gathering, it was discussed how newer campaigns are not only focusing on the threat that strangers pose but also being aware that someone close to the child can be a threat. I like this shift in thinking because statistically speaking the majority of abuse survivors were abused by someone they know such as a family member, family friend, or neighbor.  A great article from Katia Hetter on CNN discusses this topic. It stresses the importance of not making your child hug or kiss a relative unless they want to.  We do not own our children’s bodies so when we say “Go give grandma a kiss goodbye” that is putting us in charge of something we shouldn’t be.  Katia writes: “She has to be polite when greeting people, whether she knows them or not. When family and friends greet us, I give her the option of ‘a hug or a high-five.’ Since she’s been watching adults greet each other with a handshake, she sometimes offers that option”.  I think that it is important for children to learn manners and social skills through modeling from adults but at the end of the day I do not believe that making the decision for the child to hug or kiss someone is the best way to teach children how to be polite. As the article points out it may actually be harmful for the child’s well-being as they may start to believe that one needs to be physically affectionate to please others.  

Emotional Expression in Children


Teaching children how to express their emotions in appropriate ways is possible.  This does not mean that your child will never have a tantrum or behave in ways that frustrate you, but children are capable of learning how to express big emotions in ways that adults consider more appropriate.  An article on Mama Smiles blog reviews ways to help teach children emotional intelligence.  Emotional intelligence includes perceiving emotions (in ourselves and others) using emotions (ie to problem solve), understanding emotions, (ie understanding complicated emotions) and managing emotions.  The article discusses 4 ways to help children increase their emotional intelligence which will in turn increase their ability to understand and manage their emotions.  These include: pretend play, family time, picture books, and labeling emotions.  In previous posts I have discussed the importance of play for children and I believe emotional intelligence is a big one.  Pretend play allows children to process their feelings much like adults use talking to process feelings.  Family time allows for modeling of how caregivers deal with emotions.  As parents, it’s important to model for children what we want to see them doing.  I think this can be very hard as nobody is perfect, but definitely an important thing to remember as we interact with our children and try to handle our own feelings throughout the day.  Children’s books cover a range of topics from defiance to death and can help children understand how to manage such things.  Labeling emotions helps children define what it is they are feeling.  As adults we know when we have a feeling that it is called anger or sadness or anxiety, but children are building their vocabulary and it is important that it include feelings words.  Using a feelings chart or stating “you are really angry right now” are ways to help a child begin to put a name to their feelings.  The idea is once children are able to put a name to their emotion they can use that rather than acting out (“I’m mad” vs. stomping on the floor).

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.