Helping Children with Mental Health Challenges
In May of 2014, the Centers for Disease Control released the first ever comprehensive, federally funded report on the state of children’s mental health in the U.S. Using data collected between the years 2005 and 2011, the report estimates that close to twenty percent of children ages 3-17 experience mental health challenges each year. It also found that over two-hundred forty-five billion dollars per year is spent offering children support for these challenges. The issues children face are varied. From behavioral and social challenges to anxiety, depression and mood conditions, from autism spectrum diagnoses to Tourette’s syndrome, the CDC concludes that “children’s mental disorders are an important public health concern in the United States.” This article will define and discuss a mode of therapy which has proven successful for the treatment of almost all of the mental and emotional challenges our kids face: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?
The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines CBT as:
“…a form of treatment that focuses on examining the relationships between thoughts, feelings and behaviors. By exploring patterns of thinking that lead to self-destructive actions and the beliefs that direct these thoughts, people with mental illness can modify their patterns of thinking to improve coping.”
CBT for children has been utilized as an effective treatment for psychological and emotional challenges in the following areas:
Kids with oppositional/defiance issues can benefit from the self-reflective aspects of CBT. CBT practitioners speak in frank and honest ways with children. They get to the heart of the issues they are facing, and offer a range of practical, positive behavioral strategies. CBT practitioners teach kids to see how their behavior is either helping them or hurting them. Then they allow them to make choices based on evidence and facts.
Kids with excessive worry can benefit from the aspects of CBT which include mindfulness practices and specific coping skills. Evidence demonstrates CBT dramatically reduce the number and intensity of panic attacks in children.
Kids facing challenges with self-regulation can benefit from the learning step-by-step techniques to help them control emotions, actions, and reactions. CBT teaches kids how to rule their instincts, rather than let their instincts rule them.
A CBT practitioner can teach kids to recognize and act on social cues, and give a child step-by-step techniques to create and manage positive social interactions.
CBT practitioners create a safe, non-judgmental environment in which kids can see the self-destructive aspects of eating disorders. CBT practitioners will use logical measures—such as scales and mirrors—then compare them with growth charts and pictures of typical kids in order to retrain the way a child sees his or her body.
A CBT practitioner will enter into an honest and open dialogue with a child in order to get at the root of the issue that’s leading to substance abuse or experimentation. Next, a CBT practitioner will discuss with the child whether the choices they’re making are positive or self-destructive. Finally, within this context of informed free-choice, a child (or adolescent) is able to make informed decisions about choices based on evidence and facts.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Empowering Kids
One thing that parents and children alike most appreciate about CBT is that more often than not, it’s effective without the use of medication. Skilled CBT practitioners work to educate children about what’s going on with them. They use evidence, logic and data—all embedded in an atmosphere of unconditional compassion, support and understanding—to lead them to make choices and practice behaviors that are positive and healthy.
After going through a thorough getting-to-know-you process, a CBT practitioner teaches a kid to be like a detective. They learn to recognize their positive and neagtive inner states. They learn to identify their typical reactions to those states, and decide whether they’re helpful or not. Kids then learn actionable strategies to handle their specific challenges. CBT addresses problems and offers practical solutions for dealing with them by focusing on patterns of thought. In essence, CBT helps change negative thought patterns to positive ones. It helps transform behaviors that might be self-destructive into behaviors that are healthy and productive. Most importantly, CBT teaches children that they are capable of handling anything that comes their way and gives them tools that empower them to lead the life of their choosing.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.