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What Does DBT Therapy for Adolescents Entail?


DBT stands for dialectical behavior therapy. This type of talk therapy is based on CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). However, while CBT is used in many different contexts, the primary purpose of DBT is to help people who deal with very intense and hard to control emotions. 

The “dialectical” in DBT refers to the way this type of therapy combines opposite ideas. The ideas involved in DBT are often referred to as DBT skills. During the different stages of residential DBT programs for teens, adolescents learn the skills of mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and emotion regulation. We’ll cover these in our DBT skills list down below.

What Does DBT Treat?

A DBT treatment plan can be used for a number of different mental health conditions, including all of the following:

  • Depression 
  • Anxiety 
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
  • Self-harm and suicidal ideation 
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Substance use disorder
  • Eating disorders

How Does DBT Work?

How does DBT work? To understand a DBT treatment plan, you need to know about the different treatment settings, skills, and stages involved with DBT.

Treatment Settings

There are several different treatment settings that a DBT treatment plan can work within. These include:

  • Individual therapy: This is one-one-one DBT therapy with a counselor. The goal of these sessions is to help teens address problematic behaviors and set goals for behavioral change and overall life change.
  • DBT group sessions: DBT skills can also be taught in groups. These groups more closely resemble teaching in a classroom than a standard group therapy session. 
  • Crisis coaching: A key aspect of DBT is getting support during situations that are overwhelming and intense. Many therapists offer crisis coaching over the phone, allowing clients to call them in difficult circumstances and go over how to navigate a situation together.

DBT Skills List

In a residential program for teens, mental health professionals will teach all of the following DBT skills:

  • Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a DBT skill that teaches teens to live in the moment instead of staying stuck in the past or catastrophizing about the future. Mindfulness takes time and practice to learn but is one of the key aspects of DBT success.
  • Distress Tolerance: This DBT skill entails distancing yourself from your emotions in a healthy way in order to avoid an emotion-driven response to a distressing situation.
  • Emotion Regulation: Similar to distress tolerance, this DBT skill involves recognizing and gaining awareness of your emotions in an effort to have more control over them, especially in a crisis. 
  • Interpersonal Effectiveness: The DBT philosophy recognizes that healthy relationships are key to a healthy life. This DBT skill involves learning how to set healthy boundaries, respect yourself, and respect others while navigating challenging social dynamics. 

In residential DBT programs adolescent therapy, teens build resilience through these four skills. They can take this resilience with them into the different aspects of their lives, making it easier to navigate a complicated world while dealing with complicated emotions. 

4 Stages of DBT

After you choose a treatment center, your teen will go through the following four stages of the DBT treatment plan:

  1. The first stage involves identifying problem behaviors, life-threatening behaviors, and any behaviors that will interfere with DBT’s effectiveness. During this stage, the therapist and client work together on what’s called behavioral stabilization. 
  2. Stage two of DBT focuses on trauma — processing it and identifying its symptoms. This is the aspect of DBT that primarily addresses traumatic experiences from the past, particularly childhood trauma.
  3. Stage three involves building self-trust and reaching the individual goals the client has set
  4. Stage four involves the client connecting with their spiritual self and attaining a deeper meaning in life.

How Long Does It Take for DBT to Work?

Many DBT programs are outpatient and only involve weekly 45-to-60-minute sessions with a counselor, our DBT treatment plan can be intensive outpatient or inpatient. Working in an inpatient or intensive outpatient context can expedite the process of DBT treatment, yielding faster results than only weekly sessions can. 

How to Find Treatment for Your Teen

If your teen is struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, our DBT program can help. Call us at 1-833-487-0852 for a free consultation to learn more about the benefits of DBT for your teen and what we offer.

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