Teens sitting together, learning about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

What is CBT for Teens?

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an evidence based therapy that helps teens explore the relationship between their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. CBT is an effective treatment for a wide variety of mental health disorders. CBT is appropriate for children, adolescents, and adults. The goal of CBT is to help an individual recognize their irrational or negative thought patterns and change them. As an individual’s thoughts change, their emotions and behaviors will change as well.

Benefits of CBT for Teens

A core premise of CBT is that your teens' thoughts impact their emotions, which then impact their behaviors. As such, if your teen experiences significant negative and irrational thoughts, it’s likely they will also experience intense and difficult to manage emotions. These strong emotions then lead to impulsive or destructive behaviors. 

However, if your teen experiences positive rational thoughts, they will likely also experience pleasant emotions and engage in adaptive and effective behaviors. Therefore, the goal of CBT for teens is to help them learn to identify and change their negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

For example, let’s say your teen texts their best friend and doesn’t get a reply back that night. If your teen experiences negative thinking patterns, they might have thoughts like “my friend hates me” or “I’ve done something wrong” or “what if something’s happened to them?”. These negative thoughts then lead to anxiety and sadness, which impact your teen’s ability to do their homework, participate in extracurricular activities, and engage with their family. CBT helps teens take a step back and look at situations more critically. Maybe their friend lost or broke their phone or maybe they were busy doing homework or at a practice. CBT helps teens learn to change their thinking patterns and not catastrophize every situation.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has shown to be effective in treating depression, trauma, problematic eating, anxiety, substance abuse, and self-esteem problems in teens, among other mental health concerns. Additionally, CBT is helpful for teens not suffering from specific mental health concerns, as it can help them develop healthy habits and thought patterns.

Common CBT Techniques

CBT uses several tools to help teach your teen about the connection between their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Some of the most common techniques are listed below.

Cognitive Restructuring

Cognitive restructuring helps teens identify the negative thought patterns they commonly use. Common thought patterns include all-or-none (also known as black-and-white) thinking, catastrophizing, fortune telling, personalization, and overgeneralization.

  • All-or-none thinking is a way of thinking that only focuses on the extremes. Taking the example with your teen texting their best friend, all-or-none thinking would have your teen believing their text message didn’t go through or their friend hates them, without room for any interpretations in-between those extremes.
  • Catastrophizing is going straight to the worst case scenario. In the texting example, this would be your teen believing their friend isn’t responding to them because they’ve experienced a life threatening injury.
  • Fortune telling is jumping to conclusions or making assumptions without having all the information. Your teen might jump to the conclusion that their friend doesn’t like them anymore which is why they haven’t responded, even though their friend has never said that to them.
  • Personalization refers to seeing every situation as though it is in direct response to who the individual is. Your teen might think their friend is texting other people and not them specifically. In other words, it’s personal.
  • Overgeneralization is a thinking pattern where one situation becomes magnified out of proportion. In this case, your teen might believe that because their best friend is no longer texting them back, all their other friends will stop responding to them as well.

Relaxation Techniques

Grounding techniques are skills that help your teen stop replaying the past or worrying about the future and instead bring them back to the present moment. Grounding techniques utilize your teen’s senses to help them shift their focus. 

  • A common grounding technique is called 5-4-3-2-1 and requires the individual to name and describe in the current moment 5 things they can see, 4 things they can touch, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell, and 1 thing they can taste.

Paced breathing is a skill that helps your teen regain control over their breathing, which helps calm down their bodies. There are many different variations of paced breathing.

  • One common variation is boxed breathing, which has an individual inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, and hold for 4 seconds before starting the sequence over again.
  • Another common variation is breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, focusing on having the exhale last longer than the inhale.

Progressive muscle relaxation is another relaxation strategy that helps your teen reduce tension in their body. Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing and then relaxing muscle groups in a set sequence to help relieve tension.

Goal Setting

SMART goals help your teen stay on top of what’s important to them and effectively problem-solve. The acronym stands for creating goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound.

Changing Behaviors

CBT helps teens identify ineffective and impulsive behaviors and replace them with more positive ones. For example, instead of your teen continuing to text their best friend concerned messages over the next hour, a positive behavior modification might have your teen doing some paced breathing, putting their phone on the other side of the room, and setting a timer before they can text their friend again.

Treatment Options

Over time, CBT can help your teen learn to modify their negative thought patterns, reduce their intense emotions, and change their unhealthy behaviors. Your teen will also develop a coping skills toolkit that they can use outside of therapy to help them manage stress and have positive social interactions.

It’s really important for anyone struggling with intense emotions to get help. If your teen is having difficulty with negative thinking, know that you, and they, are not alone, and help is available to you!

The fastest way to find relief is to connect to a licensed professional specializing in evidence-based care for teens and young adults, like the therapists at Joon Care.

If you’d like to explore therapy options and see how Joon Care can support you, you can get matched with a therapist or email us at hello@joon.com.

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October 5, 2023
Lauren Hammond, PhD | Clinical Content Manager

Lauren Hammond, PhD | Clinical Content Manager

Lauren Hammond, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Hammond provides services to adolescents and adults using evidence-based treatments from a cognitive-behavioral framework, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Prolonged Exposure. Dr. Hammond has specialized training in treating mood and anxiety disorder, trauma and PTSD, personality disorders, and self-harm and suicidality.

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