Therapy in general can provide effective treatment for many kinds of issues related to mental and emotional well-being. During therapy sessions, different approaches can be used as part of a treatment plan. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy commonly used due to its effectiveness and short-term approach. Knowing more about this type of therapy as a parent can help you better understand how it might help your child handle stress, depression, anxiety, or other mental or emotional issues.

What is cognitive behavioral therapy?

This form of treatment involves helping individuals identify and change or reshape negative thought patterns. This can help change negative or undesirable behaviors that occur due to these thought patterns. How effective is CBT? This form of treatment is considered the “current gold standard of psychotherapy,” according to a 2018 review published in Frontiers in Psychiatry. A 2016 study published in Lancet Psychiatry showed that CBT has long-term effectiveness for individuals with depression. Advances in CBT have helped make it a highly effective type of therapy for several emotional and mental health issues.

Key elements and basic principles

Cognitive behavioral therapy has a few key elements and basic principles, which include:

  • The role of negative or unhelpful thoughts in emotional and mental health issues
  • The role of behavioral patterns that develop due to negative thoughts
  • The ability to reshape thought patterns in order to change behavioral patterns

CBT helps individuals recognize how their thoughts can affect their actions. This form of therapy also focuses on changing negative thought patterns. For example, your child might assume the worst when they have an unpleasant or disappointing interaction with someone. This might cause them to avoid certain people or situations. CBT can help them think about these interactions in healthier or more positive ways, leading to positive changes in their behavior.

Family Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

5-Step Model of cognitive behavioral therapy

CBT traditionally includes five steps or parts that are connected, which include:

  • Situation
  • Thought
  • Emotions
  • Physical state
  • Behavior

Situation refers to what triggers or leads to thoughts. For example, your child might say hello to a friend who doesn’t respond. This can lead to your child having negative thoughts, such as that their friend is mad at them or doesn’t like them. After having these thoughts, your child might experience emotions, such as feeling sad or hurt. These thoughts might also cause physical reactions, such as crying or feeling tense muscles from being anxious or upset. How your child reacts to these physical and emotional sensations refers to their behavior, such as avoiding their friend or acting up in school. CBT helps your child become familiar with how different situations lead to specific thought patterns and behaviors. Your child can then learn to reshape these thoughts and manage their emotions and behaviors in a healthy manner.

Length of cognitive behavioral therapy

One of the advantages of cognitive behavioral therapy is its short timeframe. Rather than having to spend years in therapy, individuals typically spend up to 20 sessions doing CBT. In some cases, only five sessions are spent doing this kind of therapy. The number of sessions needed can vary depending on different factors, such as how severe your child’s symptoms are, how quickly they make progress, and how much support they have during treatment. When you meet with a therapist, you can discuss the length of treatment your child might need while doing cognitive behavioral therapy.

Keep in mind that this type of therapy won’t produce immediate results. Although it’s a short-term treatment, it can take time for your child to get used to identifying and changing thought patterns. If you have any concerns about how therapy is progressing, you can bring these up with your child’s therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy can sometimes be more effective when combined with other forms of treatment, such as other types of therapy or medication.

What problems can this therapy help?

Cognitive behavioral therapy can be used for a wide range of emotional or mental health problems. In fact, individuals do not need to be diagnosed with a mental health disorder in order to go through and benefit from this type of treatment. CBT can be helpful for several difficult situations, such as:

  • Stressful life situations, such as a death in the family or moving to another town or state
  • Emotional trauma
  • Medical illness diagnosis or chronic medical problems
  • Stress from school issues, such as bullying
  • Help with managing emotions in general

This type of therapy can also be used as part of a treatment plan for diagnosed metal health disorders, such as:

  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Eating disorders
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Sleep disorders

CBT might not be the most suitable treatment option in some cases, such as when individuals are experiencing severe symptoms. Your child’s therapist can create a treatment plan based on specific symptoms, severity, and other factors.

Couple sitting through cognitive behavioral therapy

Can cognitive behavioral therapy be done at home?

Exercises that are part of CBT, such as identifying thought patterns, can be done at home. In fact, this form of treatment is more effective when individuals practice what they learn during therapy in their everyday lives. Can people do CBT on their own? Although you might find online worksheets and tutorials available, keep in mind that a trained and licensed therapist can help ensure that your child learns the right ways to do this type of therapy. A therapist can guide your child through CBT, which can help make it a more effective treatment overall.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can provide your child with help managing emotions, improving their behavior, and learning to handle stress in healthy ways. If your child has a diagnosed mental health disorder, CBT might help them develop effective ways to manage symptoms. Your child’s therapist can determine if this is the right type of treatment or if it should be combined with other types of treatment.

About the Author: Amanda Delgado

Amanda Delgado has been writing about therapy and other mental health topics for more than a decade. She has a bachelor's degree in Psychology and a strong interest in therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.