Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Work for Children?

Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Work for Children?

Now is as an important time as ever to ensure children receive the mental health services they need. Research suggests that one in six children in the United States has a mental health disorder that is treatable1. Does

Unfortunately, only about 50% of those children receive counseling or mental health treatment from a professional1. The other 50% go without any mental health treatment, left fending on their own.  Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is an accessible and useful form of treatment for many of the issues faced by youth today. Whether a child is suffering from a mental health disorder or just going through a stressful time and not managing it well, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help. If you are concerned that your child is experiencing emotional difficulty, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional to see if Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the right fit for their needs.

Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Work for Children?

What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a common and effective form of therapy used by mental health professionals to treat people of all ages, including adults, adolescents, and children. Mental health professionals utilize several therapeutic techniques, but the goal of all therapy is generally the same: to help people process feelings, resolve problems, and improve overall mental health. CBT involves exploring harmful or negative thought patterns, identifying emotions and feelings, and recognizing how those thoughts and feelings impact behaviors. This process helps children explore and discover different ways to look at situations to ultimately improve their response to situations.

CBT helps children replace negative thought patterns with more helpful or positive habits of thinking. For example, a child who is having difficulty completing tasks, such as homework, may think, “I’m stupid; I can’t do this.” However, after utilizing CBT with a therapist, the child learns to challenge this negative thought pattern and to replace it with a more adaptive way of thinking, such as, “I can do this, even if it is hard.” The child learns to reframe their cognitive distortions to act, feel, and respond to situations in an adaptive and helpful versus destructive manner. 

The CBT process is typically a team effort between the child and therapist with input and support from caregivers. Each child and their situation are unique, so the level of parental or caregiver involvement will differ, but caregiver support for the child is essential to the overall treatment outcome. The child, therapist, and caregiver(s) will work together to identify relevant issues and set treatment goals. CBT will often include “homework” or CBT exercises for the child to practice at home. Feedback from caregivers might help assess how the child is progressing toward their treatment goals both inside and outside the sessions.

How Can CBT Help Children?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is one of the most commonly used mental health therapies for adults, adolescents, and children. Studies indicate that it is also one of the most effective. Anxiety and depression are two of the most common treatable conditions with CBT. Anxiety and depression are also considered two of the most common mental health disorders experienced by children and adolescents. CBT not only helps treat childhood anxiety and depression, but it is also useful in treating the following conditions in youth:

  • Eating Disorders
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Major Depressive Disorder
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Phobias
  • Panic Attacks
  • Chronic Pain
  • Social Anxiety
  • Personality Disorders
  • Separation Anxiety Disorder
  • School Refusal

A diagnosable mental health disorder is not necessary to benefit from CBT. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is also beneficial in helping children work through everyday developmental hardships and challenges. Whether it be educational expectations, extracurricular activities, social media, or home life, children are bombarded with daily life stressors. Children are often ill-equipped to adaptively foster self-care, coping strategies, and realistic ways of thinking, feeling, and working through these daily challenges. If left unchecked, what may initially be typical “growing pains” may eventually develop into something more serious. Take bullying, for example. Though bullying is not necessarily a mental health disorder, it can lead to detrimental mental, physical, and emotional turmoil. CBT has been proven to mediate bullying’s negative impacts, including low self-esteem, sadness, anxiety, school refusal, etc. Here are some of the additional concerns CBT can help a child with:

  • Low Self-Esteem
  • Impulsivity
  • Tantrums
  • Stress or Chronic Stress
  • Bullying
  • Substance Use
  • Anger Management
  • Affective Regulation

That’s not all. In some cases, when issues like anxiety, anger, and depression are addressed with CBT, it can improve difficulties in areas such as sleep and school attendance. Sometimes CBT will be used in conjunction with other interventions such as medication if CBT alone does not address all of the child’s needs.  Here are some additional benefits children can experience from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:

  • Increased problem-solving skills
  • Better social skills and participation in activities
  • Enhanced self-control
  • A better understanding of emotions
  • Increased emotion regulation
  • Reduced depression and anxiety
  • Positive thinking
  • Resilience
  • Improvement in anger, irritability, and aggressive behaviors

How Does CBT for Children Work?

The foundation of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy remains the same across people of all age groups. CBT will help individuals identify negative thought patterns and unhelpful behaviors and replace them with more helpful thoughts and behaviors. The process will look different with children than it will with adults. Children go through several different developmental stages, where they are mentally and physically growing, changing, and learning new skills. During certain development stages, children process information differently and have different abilities to identify emotions and understand how their actions impact others. Therefore, the therapist’s CBT techniques will differ based on the child’s age, developmental stage, and individual needs to best work toward therapeutic goals.

Mental health professionals, such as psychologists, social workers, and counselors, are trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. These professionals can meet with children individually or in groups to provide CBT. There are several different activities the child and therapist can engage in that help them learn skills to improve their mental health.

For example, CBT-based play therapy is a form of CBT where the therapist uses play to engage the child in tasks that help them meet their therapeutic goals. Children learn through play, especially when they’re young, so it’s best to meet them developmentally rather than engage in talk therapy sessions that might not be as effective for that age. These activities might be card games, board games, or crafts that allow children to express themselves and for the therapist to teach the child new skills. Each CBT session is focused on working toward therapeutic goals and improving mental health. As a parent or caregiver, it’s important to discuss any concerns you have about your child’s mental health with a professional to determine the best treatment options.

If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health, reach out to us to discuss how our qualified therapists can help! Washington Psychological Wellness offers assessments that help you understand whether a mental health diagnosis is indicated and which concerns CBT can help you and your child address. Washington Psychological Wellness provides play therapy, individual therapy for adolescents and teenagers, and family therapy with qualified mental health professionals.