What You'll Learn
- What is behavioral therapy?
- What kinds of behavioral therapies can be helpful for kids?
- Which behavioral therapies work best for specific disorders?
If your child has an emotional or behavioral problem, behavioral therapy can often help. There are lots of kinds of behavioral therapy for kids, and each kind is designed to help with specific disorders or challenges. Behavioral therapies are tested on kids who have those specific disorders. They are also manualized, which means that the therapy has clear steps in a specific order that has been shown to be effective. Behavioral therapies have clear ways of measuring the child’s progress and knowing when it’s time to end treatment.
Here are the most common behavioral therapies for kids, along with the disorders or challenges that they are used for:
- Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is used to help kids with autism spectrum disorder develop skills and reduce problem behavior.
- Behavioral activation is used to help kids dealing with depression improve their mood by joining in positive activities.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps kids understand the connections between their thoughts, feelings and behavior. There are many kinds of CBT for specific challenges, including trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy for kids who have experienced trauma.
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) helps kids with borderline personality disorder, eating disorders and other challenges learn to deal with difficult thoughts.
- Exposure and response prevention is used to help kids with OCD, phobias and other anxiety disorders confront their fears and learn coping skills.
- Habit reversal therapy teaches kids with Tourette’s, tics and other repetitive behaviors how to control those behaviors.
- Interpersonal psychotherapy helps kids with a number of challenges explore how their relationships affect their mood and behavior.
- Motivational interviewing is used to help teenagers get motivated to change risky behavior, like substance use.
- Parent-child interaction therapy helps parents and kids build stronger bonds and more positive habits of interacting.
- Systematic desensitization helps kids with extreme anxiety or fears learn to deal with those feelings in a safe environment.
If your child has an emotional or behavioral problem, you might be told that behavioral therapy would be a good treatment for them. But what kind of behavioral therapy? It can be challenging to sort out the different therapies and what they are for.
There are a lot of different kinds of behavioral therapy because each is customized to work effectively with a specific disorder or set of disorders. They have been tested on children with that specific disorder, and they have been manualized— that is, spelled out step-by-step to insure that the techniques are use in the manner and sequence that have been shown to be most effective. There are also clear measures of a child’s progress, and an estimated duration for the treatment.
Here’s a look at some of the most common behavioral treatments that are effective for kids.
Applied behavior analysis:
Who is it for? Children with autism spectrum disorders.
What is it? ABA is an intensive intervention designed to help children with autism develop behaviors they don’t pick up the way neurotypical children do, including social, verbal, and motor skills, and decrease behaviors that are problematic or self-injurious.
How does it work? ABA uses close observation of your child’s behavior and positive prompts or reinforcement to increase desired behaviors. Problematic behaviors are addressed by studying what occurs before and after the behavior and altering those triggers or reinforcements rather than focusing on the behavior itself.
Who is it for? Children and adolescents who are struggling with depression.
How does it work? In behavioral activation therapy, kids who are depressed are asked to participate in activities they may have lost interest in. The therapy uses activities to jumpstart momentum towards reengagement by offering your child increased access to positive reinforcement. The goal is also for your child to learn to see the link between their activities and mood, understand avoidance patterns, and learn to choose more adaptive patterns.
Cognitive behavior therapy:
Who is it for? Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is used to treat children and teenagers with a wide range of disorders and difficulties.
What is it? CBT is based on the premise that thoughts (cognitions), feelings, and behaviors all influence one another. CBT is an umbrella term for many specific kinds of therapy tailored to specific psychiatric disorders.
How does it work? A therapist can use CBT to help your child identify how their thoughts influence their behaviors, or change their behaviors, which in turn can help them change the way they manage unwanted feelings and thoughts.
Dialectical behavior therapy:
Who is it for? Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is used to treat children and teenagers with a wide range of psychiatric issues. DBT was originally developed for people with borderline personality disorder, but has been used successfully to treat eating disorders, suicidal and self-injurious behavior, depression, and substance abuse.
What is it? Dialectical behavior therapy, (DBT) focuses on accepting rather than challenging difficult thoughts, while at the same time initiating change.
How does it work? DBT helps individuals focus on accepting — rather than becoming overwhelmed by — difficult thoughts by using what’s called “mindful awareness” while taking steps to improve interpersonal interactions and avoid problematic behavior. It’s called dialectical because it involves balancing both acceptance and change.
Exposure and Response Prevention:
Who is it for? Children with OCD, social anxiety, specific phobias, panic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.
What is it? Exposure and response prevention involves exposing your child to the things that trigger their anxiety in a safe and controlled setting. By introducing the trigger in tiny increments, the therapist helps the child learn to tolerate the anxiety without performing the compulsive ritual, or avoidance behavior.
How does it work? The OCD or anxiety symptoms diminish as your child slowly gets used to dealing with things that trigger their anxiety. As the therapy progresses, they’ll become able to deal with more and more anxiety provoking stimuli without needing to resort to compulsions or other problem behaviors to escape the stimulus.
Habit Reversal Therapy:
What is it? Habit reversal therapy is a form of therapy for tics that teaches the child to be aware of what’s called a “premonitory urge,” a fleeting sensation that occurs before the tic.
How does it work? By learning to recognize premonitory urges your child can initiate a what’s called a competing response — a less disruptive or problematic reaction that’s incompatible with the tic.
Who is it for? Interpersonal psychotherapy is often used to treat children and adolescents with depression, but can be helpful with a wide-range of psychological issues and disorders.
What is it? Interpersonal psychotherapy is a form of short-term therapy that focuses on helping your child explore how their relationships with peers and family positively (and negatively) affect their mood and behavior.
How does it work? Interpersonal therapy helps your child identify things that might be adversely affecting their mood—including conflicts, transitions, grief, and negative patterns in relationships—and make improvements that can positively impact their feelings and behavior.
Who is it for? Motivational interviewing is often used with adolescent substance abusers who have been directed to treatment by parents or authorities and are unlikely to succeed in it unless they perceive a benefit for themselves.
What is it? Motivational interviewing is focuses on exploring and resolving ambivalence to treatment in order to increase motivation to change problematic behavior.
How does it work? In a motivational interview, the therapist is collaborative rather than confrontational. The emphasis is on understanding the child’s point of view, eliciting the child’s ideas about change, and emphasizing the child’s responsibility for their behavior.
Parent-child interaction therapy:
Who is it for? Parents and children who are struggling to interact in a positive, productive way.
What is it? Parent-child interaction therapy is a therapeutic technique that restructures the interaction between you and and your child to reduce conflict, improve the attachment relationship, and reduce disruptive behaviors.
How does it work? A therapist will help teach you to give effective positive reinforcement for desired behaviors and consistent consequences for undesirable behaviors. Once you’ve learned these new skills, you’ll receive live coaching (via a bug in the ear) from a therapist who watches from behind a one-way mirror as you and your child interact. The goal of parent-child interaction therapy is to help kids and parents enjoy a more positive relationship by teaching parents to exercise their authority calmly and consistently, and helping children learn to manage their own behavior more effectively.
What is it? A therapeutic intervention that helps patients decrease fear and anxiety by gradually exposing them to the things that trigger those anxieties in a safe environment, while simultaneously substituting a relaxing response.
How does it work? A therapist will help your child work through a hierarchy of fear-inducing situations using relaxation techniques at each step to help them learn to stay calm. Eventually, your child will become desensitized to the situation or thing that was causing their anxiety and learn to manage it in a healthier way.
Trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy:
Who is it for? Children and adolescents who have experienced trauma.
What is it? A kind of cognitive behavioral therapy specifically geared to helping children and parents learn to process a disturbing experience in a healthy way.
How does it work? A trauma-focused cognitive therapist will teach your child skills that will help them manage distressing thoughts and feelings, rather than avoiding them, and allow them to recover their sense of well-being.