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Modes of Psychotherapy for Adolescents and Children

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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Therapy for Adolescents and Children

There are many reasons why adolescents and children might need to seek the help of a psychiatrist, psychotherapist or counselor. The most commonly held conception is that only children with significant issues need to talk to a professional, but this is not always the case.

Although it is true that some young people struggle with clinically diagnosable mental illnesses (such as depression, severe anxiety, bipolar disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder) and that other young people face challenges with serious behavioral issues (such as attention-deficit disorder, hyperactivity or oppositional/defiance disorder), it’s important for teachers, school administrators and parents to recognize that there are a wide range of relatively benign issues that children need help sorting out. 

Sometimes it’s best for that help to come from someone other than a friend or family member.

For instance, things like changing schools, moving, academic pressure and social pressure might all build up inside the mind of a child, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with consulting a mental health professional to talk things through. This article will identify and briefly discuss the primary modes of psychotherapy available for adolescents and children facing both minor and major psychological and emotional issues.

Adolescents and Children: Major Approaches in Psychotherapy

There’s a great deal of debate in mental health circles surrounding the best therapeutic approaches for psychological and emotional issues. Some professionals advocate medication, others advocate psychotherapy and still others are certain that a combination of psychotherapy and medication is the best way to address these issues. This article, however, will only discuss different modes of psychotherapy (a.k.a. talk therapy) as related to adolescents and children.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), the four major modes of psychotherapy for youth are:

Family Therapy

Family therapy is mainly concerned with helping families find positive and productive ways to communicate. Sometimes children and parents are involved in therapy sessions and sometimes therapy sessions involve only parents or only children. Therapeutic sessions can also include siblings or grandparents. On the whole, the goal of family therapy is to find solutions which work for everyone involved: parents, children, siblings and any other relevant individuals.

Group Therapy

Group therapy involves more than one patient and sometimes more than one therapist in each therapy session. Peer feedback, group sharing and group dynamics form a large part of group therapy. Group therapy can be effective for many reasons: some individuals find comfort in listening to others who face the same challenges, as well as relief in sharing with groups of their peers. Also, some individuals are not comfortable in a one-on-one therapeutic setting and group therapy puts them at ease. Finally, group therapy sessions are often less expensive and therefore a more feasible option for some individuals and/or families.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, known as CBT, is a method by which a therapist helps a child identify how their emotions and moods can directly affect their behavior. Therapists give children tools to positively and proactively process these emotions and also work with children to replace negative or self-destructive patterns of thought with patterns that are helpful and constructive. This method of therapy has proved beneficial in helping children cope with anxiety, depression and, in some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder.

Play Therapy

Usually reserved for younger children, during play therapy a therapist uses games, toys, drawings and other things that are generally fun for kids in order to help them recognize and discuss their emotions. Through observation of a child’s play, the therapist pieces together the child’s emotional life and then uses a combination of conversation and interactive play to help the child productively process his or her emotions, thoughts and behaviors.

Child and Adolescent Development: The Need to Talk

Most adults can relate to the idea that there are some things they would rather not share or talk about with their family and friends. Although that’s what friends and family are for—support through both the hard times and the good times—there are some things that, for any number of reasons, may be embarrassing or difficult to bring up. Therefore, people end up keeping these things to themselves. Most adults also know that this is not always the healthiest thing to do and that fears and anxieties, whether they’re large or small, can build up until they become hard to handle.

These facts aren’t just true for adults; they’re true for kids, too. Psychotherapy is a time-tested method for dealing with psychological and emotional issues and is effective for children and adolescents as well as adults.

For teachers, school administrators and parents who have or know children that they suspect may need the help of a professional to address big issues such as depression or severe anxiety, or to work through relatively small issues such as academic or social stress, offering parents information about the option of psychotherapy can be a significant step in making things better. In fact, it can be a game-changer: sometimes all it takes is the right person to talk to.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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