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People of all ages can benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), including young children and teens. Behavior is affected by thoughts and emotions in cognitive behavioral therapy. Using CBT doesn’t require that your child has a mental health diagnosis.

People of all ages can benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), including young children and teens. Therapy usually involves an agreed upon goal and a set number of sessions. Your child will learn to replace negative thought patterns with more productive ones under the guidance of the therapist. Your child can practice handling stressful situations through role-playing and other methods.

In this article, we’ll discuss what you need to know about CBT for kids and how to find a qualified therapist.

How does cognitive behavioral therapy work?

The goal of cognitive behavioral therapy is to help people recognize and change unhelpful thoughts and behaviors. Instead of focusing on the past, therapy focuses on the present and the future.

In addition to complementing other therapies, CBT can help improve specific symptoms of conditions such as ADHD.

Children can benefit from CBT in their everyday lives. With this therapy, your child can learn how to replace negative thought patterns with more positive ones. Learning new ways to view things helps a child improve rather than worsen stressful situations by responding differently.

Therapy of this type can provide your child with realistic strategies to improve their lives in the present. It is possible for the new skills to follow them throughout their entire lives once these strategies become habitual.

As a result of CBT, children can learn to control:

  • Thoughts that are self-defeating
  • Impulsiveness
  • Disobedience
  • tantrums

Negative reactions can be replaced with:

  • Self-esteem improved
  • Coping mechanisms
  • Ability to solve problems
  • Improved self-control

What is the process of CBT for children?

Treatment plans are usually developed by a parent or caregiver, the child, and a therapist together. The goal of CBT is to solve problems in a specified number of sessions utilizing a structured approach. The number of sessions can range from six to 20 or more, depending on the child’s needs. CBT is a type of talk therapy, but it’s so much more than that. Your child’s therapist will help him or her take control and empower themselves. Skills will be taught that can be applied immediately.

In addition to CBT, your child may need medication or other therapies as well. Cultural or regional differences can be incorporated into the treatment plan.

Techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy

  • Play therapy. Children can address problems and work out solutions through arts and crafts, dolls, and puppets, or role-playing. Keeping younger children engaged can also be helpful.
  • Children affected by traumatic events, including natural disasters, are treated with trauma-focused CBT. Behavioral and cognitive issues directly related to trauma will be addressed by the therapist.
  • Modeling. During therapy, the therapist may act out a desired behavior, such as how to respond to a bully, and ask the child to follow suit.
  • Restructuring. A child can learn this technique by taking a negative thought process and flipping it into a positive one. As an example, “I’m terrible at soccer.”. I’m a loser” can be changed to “I’m not the best soccer player, but I’m good at a lot of other things.”
  • Exposure. Anxiety triggers are gradually introduced to the child by the therapist.

There are several ways in which CBT can be conducted, including:

  • Individual. There is only one therapist and one child involved in the sessions.
  • Parent-child. Together with the parents, the therapist teaches parenting skills so the child is able to benefit from CBT.
  • Family-based. Parents, siblings, or other relatives can participate in sessions.
  • Group. This includes the child, the therapist, and other children who have similar problems.

CBT may be helpful for certain conditions

CBT can benefit your child regardless of whether he or she has a mental health diagnosis. In some cases, however, it can be quite effective, including:

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

In children with ADHD, sitting still is difficult and impulsive behaviors are common. In some cases, medications aren’t the only or first choice of treatment for this disorder.

Despite medication, some children still suffer from persistent symptoms. CBT can be more effective than medication alone for some teens, according to research by Trusted Source.

Disorders associated with anxiety and depression

Anxiety and mood disorders in children and adolescents can be effectively treated with cognitive behavioral therapy. There may be a role for parents as well. For children with anxiety ages 3 to 7, CBT with active parent involvement showed promise in a 2010 study by Trusted Source. A total of 37 children were involved in the study, but they showed significant improvements after 8.3 sessions on average.


Autism spectrum disorder and anxiety

Anxiety is common among adolescents with high functioning autism spectrum disorder. Preteens with autism spectrum disorders and clinical anxiety were given a CBT program in a 2015 study by Trusted Source. Among the topics covered were:

  • exposure
  • The challenge of irrational beliefs
  • Caregiver-provided behavioral support
  • Autism spectrum disorder-specific treatment elements

33 children between the ages of 11 and 15 were involved in the small study. Anxiety symptoms were reported to be reduced by CBT by parents.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Short- and long-term benefits have been shown for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in children and adolescents.

Based on a 2011 review by Trusted Source, there was significant improvement at 18 months and four years after the review. The use of cognitive behavioral therapy after traumatic experiences, even for young children, has been shown to be effective for acute and chronic PTSD.

The following conditions may also benefit from CBT:

  • adolescent substance use
  • bipolar disorder
  • depression
  • disordered eating
  • obesity
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • self-harm

Children’s CBT worksheets

It is important to explain CBT in simple terms to younger children. To help children visualize certain concepts, some therapists use worksheets.

Children may fill out blank thought bubbles on a worksheet, for example. Children may be asked what the person in the picture is thinking about by the therapist. Children may be taught to recognize warning signs of losing control through worksheets that include stop signs.

The purpose of worksheets is to help children and adolescents understand the connection between thoughts, feelings, and actions. They can consolidate their learning with these worksheets. Planners, checklists, and rewards charts may also be used in CBT for children in order to help them remember and complete tasks.

What is the effectiveness of CBT for kids?

For a variety of issues, CBT has been shown to be effective.

CBT for anxiety disorders has been shown to be effective in treating up to 60 percent of youth, with significant improvements in symptoms after treatment. Those recovery rates are likely to persist at 4 years after treatment for children treated in community mental health clinics.

Several studies have shown that CBT significantly reduced the severity of ADHD symptoms in adolescents.

Trauma-focused CBT can significantly improve PTSD, depression, and anxiety symptoms in children with PTSD. 92 percent of participants who underwent CBT no longer met criteria for PTSD, according to a study published by Trusted Source. Six months after the initial study, the gains were still evident.

A child’s CBT options

Many therapists are trained in CBT, but it’s important to find one who has experience working with children. Check out these things:

  • Credentials. Licensed counselors, family therapists, clinical social workers, psychologists, or psychiatrists are a good place to start. Professionals who are licensed in your state have met the legal standards for practicing.
  • Experience. Look for a professional with experience working with children and adolescents.
  • Transparency. After an initial assessment or session with you and your child, seek out a professional who will state your child’s goals and offer a treatment plan.

What you need to know

Children can benefit from CBT by understanding how thoughts and emotions affect behavior and how changing these thoughts and emotions can change this behavior and how they feel.

Kids with a wide range of conditions and concerns can benefit from CBT, a safe, effective therapy.