Talking through difficult emotions with a therapist may seem like something only adults could benefit from. But kids also struggle with complex feelings and problems. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy, can help them work through it. Here are some important things to know about CBT.
What is cognitive behavioral therapy?
CBT is a form of therapy that gets kids to look at their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. It shows them how to replace negative thoughts with more realistic, positive ones.
For example, if a child thinks, “I’m stupid and I can’t learn,” the therapist might help her challenge that thought and replace it with, “I’m good at lots of things. My dyslexia can make learning harder, but I have tools that help me. I’m just as smart as other kids.”
With some types of therapy, the therapist is considered the expert. With CBT, the therapist and child work together to set goals, identify problems and check progress. Kids often get assignments to do between sessions to build the skills they are learning.
Rather than focusing on the past, CBT helps kids focus on the present and the future, and to realize they have control over their behaviors.
How does cognitive behavioral therapy work?
With CBT, kids meet with a therapist who may be a psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker. They can meet individually, in a group with other kids or with family members. The therapist first tries to find out what they hope to achieve. That could be anything from stopping being bullied at school to feeling more confident.
There are a number of techniques therapists use in CBT. One is called modeling. In this approach the therapist demonstrates the desired behavior, like standing up to a bully.
Another technique is called cognitive restructuring. This is the approach where kids learn to recognize and replace negative thoughts. For instance, they might turn “I stink at math” into “Some parts of math are hard for me. But there are many other parts I can do.”
Therapists use other techniques to help with things like bedwetting or specific phobias, such as a fear of dogs.
How long does cognitive behavioral therapy last?
CBT is much shorter than some other kinds of therapy, which can go on for years. The average number of sessions adults or kids attend is 16. This takes about four months. But each person is different, and the number of recommended sessions can vary.
What are the benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy?
CBT can help kids learn important skills. It can teach them to question their negative thoughts instead of just accepting them. And it can improve their ability to deal with problems. Kids learn to be proactive by breaking down challenges into steps and conquering one step at a time.
Studies show that CBT can be as useful as antidepressant medication for some people dealing with depression. It can also help kids who struggle with anxiety.
What children are best suited to cognitive behavioral therapy?
It’s not unusual for kids with learning and attention issues to struggle with anxiety or depression at some point. The challenges they face can take a big toll on their self-esteem. CBT is especially helpful in dealing with those problems.
CBT is also used to treat eating disorders, substance abuse problems and sleep disorders. But its benefits aren’t limited to mental health issues. CBT can also help kids who just want to learn better ways to manage stress.
CBT can be helpful for kids as young as age 6 or 7. They have to be able to understand their underlying thought patterns, however. Some kids won’t have that ability until they’re older.
How can I find a therapist who practices cognitive behavioral therapy?
It’s a good idea to find a therapist who specializes in kids. Your child’s doctor may be able to refer you to one. The doctor may even know therapists who specialize in kids with learning and attention issues.
You can also check with friends and family who have been in therapy, or with local associations of psychologists or social workers. The National Alliance on Mental Illness also has an online directory.
Only you can decide if your child might benefit from therapy. Your child’s doctor may have some recommendations for what type of therapy might be best. CBT teaches people how to recognize and stop negative thoughts. And for kids with learning and attention issues, positive thinking is a powerful tool!