Using Cognitive Reframing for Mental Health

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Reframing is a technique used in therapy to help create a different way of looking at a situation, person, or relationship by changing its meaning. Also referred to as cognitive reframing, it's a strategy therapists often used to help clients look at situations from a slightly different perspective.

The essential idea behind reframing is that a person's point-of-view depends on the frame it is viewed in. When the frame is shifted, the meaning changes and thinking and behavior often change along with it.

Another way to understand the concept of reframing is to imagine looking through the frame of a camera lens. The picture seen through the lens can be changed to a view that is closer or further away. By slightly changing what is seen in the camera, the picture is both viewed and experienced differently.


Reframing may be used with adults or teens to change the way they think, feel, and behave. Here are a few examples of how reframing may be used in therapy: 

Family Therapy

In a family therapy session, Carla complains bitterly that her mother is overly involved in her life, constantly nagging her about what she should be doing. In attempting to shift Carla's negative view of her mother, the therapist offers this reframe: "Isn't it loving of your mother to teach you ways to take care of yourself so you'll be prepared to live on your own without her?"

Individual Therapy

A teen in individual therapy is struggling to accept the limitations of having a chronic illness. The therapist attempts to reframe how the teen views his illness by saying, "Can you think of your illness as a built-in reminder to take care of your health throughout your life?"

A teen is upset they didn't make the basketball team. The therapist asks them what positive things could come from not making the team. The teen is able to say they will have more free time and with enough practice, they might be able to make the team next year.

A boy says his mother has ruined his life by taking away his smartphone privileges because he was caught texting while driving. A therapist talks about the dangers of texting while driving and the reasons his parents may want to teach him not to do that. Eventually, he is able to see that his mother's actions weren't meant to ruin his life, but instead, were meant to save his life.

Reframing the Situation

While this technique is often used in therapy, it's something that you can use with your teen at home as well. With practice, your teen will learn to remind himself that his initial conclusion is only one possible explanation.

Teens often think their outlook is the only way to see a problem. If a friend didn't call back she must be mad. Or, if a teen fails a test it must mean he's stupid. Ask questions like, "Is there another way to look at this situation?" or, "What are three other possible reasons this could have happened?"

Help your teen see that there are likely dozens of potential reasons a problem exists. For example, her friend might not be returning her text messages because she's busy or because she got her phone taken away. Pointing out alternatives to your teen's insistence that her friend is angry can help her see things from another view.

You might also help her reframe the situation by saying, "Your friend may need to cool down before she talks to you because she likes you a lot and doesn't want to say something mean out of anger."

Validate your teen's feelings by saying, "I know you are nervous that she hasn't called you back. I know when I feel nervous I always imagine the worst-case scenarios but often, those things I imagine aren't even true."

You also might help your teen stay mentally strong by asking, "What would you say to a friend who had this problem?" Your teen is likely to speak to others in a kinder and more compassionate way than she talks to herself.

The goal should be to help your teen develop healthy self-talk. Eventually, she'll learn how to coach herself as she begins to recognize there are many ways to view the same situation.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Wenzel A. Basic Strategies of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Psychiatric Clinics of North America. 2017;40(4):597-609.