What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?

Treating Troubled Teens

CBT helps teens change the way they think.
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Cognitive behavioral therapy, often referred to as CBT, is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on making connections between thoughts, behavior, and feelings. Psychotherapists who use CBT help patients identify and change dysfunctional patterns.

Currently CBT techniques are being used to treat a wide range of problems in troubled teens including eating disorders, substance abuse, anxiety and depression.

The Basic Principles of CBT

CBT is based on the idea that there is a clear link between thoughts, behavior, and feelings. Here's an example:

  • Thought: I'm socially awkward
  • Feeling: Anxious
  • Behavior: Teen sits in the corner alone while at a party

As a result, the teen doesn't talk to anyone all night. Then, his belief that he's socially awkward becomes reinforced.

A psychotherapist may help a teen challenge his negative assumptions with a behavioral experiment. So rather than sit by himself at the next party, he may set a goal to start a conversation with at least five people. If he experiences some social success, his belief that he's socially awkward may not be as strong.

How CBT Works

Teens often develop distorted core beliefs about themselves. CBT helps confront and modify those distortions.

A teen who believes she's unworthy, may always look for evidence that reinforces this belief. For example, if she gets a bad grade on a test, she may think it's because she's stupid.

And if a friend doesn't call her back, she may assume it's because her friend doesn't like her anymore.

A psychotherapist using CBT would help the patient identify those unhealthy thought patterns that contribute to mental health problems. A therapist may ask a series of questions and ask a patient to keep a thought record to help identify dysfunctional thoughts.

In later sessions specific techniques are utilized that teach new ways to think about maladaptive thought patterns and behaviors and may lead to more effective ways of getting one's needs met. For example, CBT can be effective in treating a teen with bulimia by exploring and helping change thoughts, attitudes and feeling patterns about their body and food that lead to purging behaviors.

The Benefits of CBT

CBT seems to work by helping teens learn how to interpret their environment differently. Compared to certain other therapeutic approaches it is more short term and very problem focused, dealing with issues in the present. It teaches ways to identify distortions in thinking and how to make changes by dealing with these distortions in more positive ways.

This type of therapy can provide the following potential benefits:

  • Improve communication with others
  • Reduce fears and phobias
  • Interrupt thoughts that lead to addictive or other self-destructive behaviors
  • Improve self-esteem
  • Identify positive responses to stress
  • Change negative thought patterns

The CBT approach is likely to be most effective for teens struggling with issues related to distorted thinking who have the interest and cognitive ability to make connections between what they think and how they act.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is increasingly being used to treat teens struggling with emotional or behavioral disorders, and is offered in both individual therapy and group therapy sessions.