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Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Children and Teens



  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps your child look at his thoughts, beliefs, and actions, and understand which ones cause problems for him. Then your child learns to change the unhealthy way of thinking and acting.
  • Cognitive-behavior therapy is problem-focused and goal-oriented. It may be used in individual, family, and group therapy settings.


What is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)?

Your child's thoughts, and how he reacts to things, affect how he feels about himself and the things in his life. Negative thoughts can lead to depression, anxiety, or behaviors that cause problems with relationships, school, or work. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps change how your child thinks and reacts. CBT helps your child:

  • Look at his thoughts, beliefs, and actions, and understand which ones cause problems for him. Your child then learns to replace these thoughts and beliefs with healthy ones. This is the cognitive, or thinking, part of CBT.
  • Face challenges in life calmly, and then take actions that are likely to have good results. This is the behavioral, or action, part of CBT.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is different from other kinds of therapy in several ways. It is:

  • Goal-oriented. It helps your child set goals, plan ways to achieve those goals, and check progress.
  • Problem-focused. The therapist works with your child to identify problems and what exactly needs to change.
  • Short-term: Depending on your child’s problem and how hard your child works to change his thoughts and behaviors, goals can often be achieved in less than 20 sessions.
  • Active. CB therapists ask questions and actively listen to your child. The therapist may give your child assignments to be completed between sessions. Parents may also be asked to be involved in the therapy.

When is it used?

CBT can help with:

  • Aggressive behavior
  • Anxiety or phobias
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Depression or grief
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Pain or long-term illness
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Problems with relationships, family, work, and school

What happens during a typical therapy session?

The therapist will ask what problem you and your child would like to work on during therapy. For example, does your child want to stop being picked on by their peers? Get along better with family members? Feel better about himself?

Once the therapist knows your child’s goals, therapy will focus on how your child thinks and what he does.

In CBT, your child becomes aware of thoughts that are false or hurtful. These thoughts are called "distorted thinking" because they are not based on what is really true. Your child may have learned to think this way from things that happened when he was very young or from recent experiences. The thoughts pop into your child’s mind automatically.

In therapy, your child learns to be aware of these distorted thoughts. Your child learns to replace them with healthy and true thoughts. For example, your child may think "Everybody hates me." Your child feels sad when he thinks this, which make him feel bad about himself. During CBT, your child learns to change or argue with this thought. He might think to himself, "Well, I have at least 4 friends, so some people like me." After thinking this new thought, your child might feel hopeful and feel better about himself.

Your child may also learn to:

  • Stop bad habits
  • Express his thoughts and feelings openly and say "no" when someone asks him to do something that he does not want to do
  • Improve how he manages stress

How do I find a therapist?

Psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers provide CBT. CBT is used in individual, family, and group therapy settings.

Ask questions and get referrals from people you know and trust. You could check with:

  • Your healthcare provider
  • Your clergyman, school teachers, or school counselors
  • Friends or family members who have been in therapy
  • Your health insurance company
  • Your employee assistance program (EAP) at work
  • Local mental health or human service agencies
  • Professional associations of psychologists, psychiatrists, or counselors

For more information, contact:

Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2018.1 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2016-12-22
Last reviewed: 2016-08-05
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2018 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
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