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Teen DBT Programs Part One: What Is DBT?

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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[seriesbox]DBT Residential Treatment For Teens
Teen DBT Programs Part Two: How DBT Helps Teens
DBT the Gold Standard for Treating Adolescent Self-Harm and Suicidal Ideation
How do Adolescent DBT Programs Help Depressed and Anxious Teens?
Family DBT at Evolve: How We Do It[/seriesbox]Can Dialectical Behavior Therapy Help My Teen?When your teenager receives a diagnosis for a mental health disorder, life changes – for everyone in your family. Things change for your child, of course. They also change for you, your partner/co-parent/ spouse, if you have one, and your other children, if you have more than one child.

The changes aren’t always drastic. They’re proportional to the severity of the disorder. That means the more distressful, disruptive, and the more challenging the symptoms of the disorder are, the more changes you and your family will have to make.

Some teens need one-on-one outpatient therapy every other week, while some need it once a week. Some teens need more support than weekly or bi-weekly office visits. You can find these higher levels of support in intensive outpatient programs (IOP), partial hospitalization programs (PHP), or full-time treatment at a residential treatment center (RTC) for teens.

The level of care your teen needs depends on the recommendation of the therapist who administered the initial psychiatric assessment, your family circumstances, and a combination of the diagnosed disorder and types of treatment and support proven effective for that specific disorder.

For instance, a teen with moderate depression may receive a referral for once-a-week cognitive behavioral therapy, then switch to biweekly therapy as they make progress. Or, a teen with general anxiety disorder may begin with biweekly therapy, then switch to once-a-week therapy if their symptoms do not improve.

However, teens with more severe disorders characterized by symptoms that cause highly reactive behavior and painful, overwhelming emotions, often require a more intensive level of support. They need a therapeutic approach and environment designed to meet their level of need.

For these teens, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) – specifically, a comprehensive DBT program – might be the best fit.

Where Can My Teen Get DBT?

The safest and most reassuring way to find a qualified DBT therapist for your teen is to ask their current therapist for a personal recommendation. A personal referral is a good first step for three reasons:

  1. Your teen’s current therapist will know their present state of mental health – including any needs unique to your teen and family – better than anyone else.
  2. They’ll understand your family’s resources and help you find a program that matches those resources.
  3. They’ll communicate with your teen’s DBT therapist or program to ensure continuity of treatment. They can re-establish a therapeutic relationship with your teen after they finish the DBT program.

Next, you can navigate to our page How to Find the Best Treatment Programs for Teens and download our helpful handbook, A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health Treatment for Teens. This guide discusses and defines various approaches to mental health treatment for teens, including DBT. Finally, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) is an excellent resource for locating licensed and qualified psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors in your area. You can navigate to their therapist finder, type in your location, and find a list of qualified therapists.

When you make contact with a therapist or teen treatment program, ask them whether they offer DBT. If you find a residential treatment center that’s a good fit, ask them if they offer a Comprehensive DBT Program for Teens.

But first, read on to learn about DBT and how a comprehensive DBT program is different than a typical DBT program.

What is DBT?

DBT is a therapeutic approach to the treatment of mental health and behavioral disorders developed by Dr. Masha Linehan in the 1980s. Dr. Linehan developed DBT to help women with severe borderline personality disorder when she found that in some cases, a traditional method like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) did not help them manage their extreme symptoms. The approach she developed – which became DBT as we know it today – proved effective in reducing suicidal ideation and self-harming behaviors.

Dr. Linehan and her colleagues then adapted DBT for the adolescent population. She realized DBT had potential as an effective treatment for teens with extreme mental, emotional, or behavioral issues – and she was right.

What Types of Issues Does DBT Help?

Since the 1980s, scores of studies confirm the effectiveness of DBT for teens with high emotional reactivity, overwhelming, out-of-control, and risky patterns of emotion, thought, and behavior. Where other approaches to treatment and support prove ineffective, evidence shows DBT works for teens who experience:

Teens with those types of issues benefit from DBT treatment – that’s well-established in the research and clinical communities that focus on adolescent mental health.

But why is DBT effective for teens?

Why DBT Helps Teens

We’ll start with the why. We’ll address the how in our next article on DBT.

The reason why DBT helps teens is there’s a subtype of DBT that’s designed for them. Over the years, therapists have adapted various treatment approaches from their original purpose – supporting adults – to support children. However, teens – who exist in that tumultuous period between youth and adulthood known as adolescence – often fall through the cracks. They’re not adults, and they’re definitely not children. They face a host of issues unique to their developmental stage, which a new form of DBT, called DBT-A, or dialectical behavior therapy for adolescents, is intentionally designed to address.

DBT-A helps teens by teaching them techniques they can use right away to help manage extreme and dangerous thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. DBT tools help teens develop skills that allow them to transform these negative, life-interrupting behaviors into positive, life-affirming ones.

That’s the why: DBT gives teens practical skills they can apply today. Not tomorrow or next week. After a DBT skills session, a teen can start using their skills to improve their lives in the present moment. They don’t have to wait. That’s another reason why DBT works for teens: teens in distress need help as soon as possible, and DBT skills can give them that help.

Now you know what DBT is. You know the types of disorders it’s most effective in treating. And you also why it works for the adolescent population.

But there’s more coming.

The Next Question: How Does DBT Work?

We’ll answer that question in our next article on DBT:

Teen DBT Programs Part Two: How DBT Helps Teens

You’ll learn more about several aspects of DBT. You’ll learn about the specific skills teens learn in DBT programs. Then you’ll learn about the two different types of DBT programs. Finally, we’ll discuss how a mental health professional can help you find a DBT program that best meets your family’s needs.

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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