Parents, you’ve got questions, we’ve got answers.

Or just as likely, we’ve got questions and you’ve got answers.

Challenge: Open Discussion

How DBT Therapy Could Help Your Child’s Behavioral Problems

Vote up!
Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Email this article


If you’ve sought help for your child with behavioral or psychiatric problems, you may have already heard about mindfulness and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). These two different approaches are effective treatments for adolescents with a number of issues, from depression to anxiety.

While studies prove mindfulness and CBT achieve great results, research suggests that there may be an even more promising therapy which combines aspects of both to improve the behaviors and quality of life of teenagers.

DBT Therapy is a highly structured and intensive program which helps adolescents with emotional instability manage dangerous behaviors, such as self-harm and substance abuse. It also helps them understand where their negative feelings come from and discover healthier ways to control their actions.

What is DBT Therapy?

DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy which helps adolescents get to the root of negative thinking patterns. Once identified, DBT works by substituting the harmful behaviors with positive ways of managing those thoughts.

Who benefits the most?

DBT therapy was originally used to treat BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder). But in recent years, this powerful type of counseling has also shown to be beneficial at treating many other mental health conditions in adolescents.

DBT is particularly effective for people who have trouble regulating their emotions, those who exhibit self-destructive behaviors or people who find it a challenge to maintain healthy relationships with others around them.

If your child suffers from one of the following behavioral problems, DBT therapy could help them live happier, healthier and more fulfilling lives:

  • Substance abuse

  • Eating disorders

  • Bipolar disorder

  • Depression

  • ADHD

  • Anxiety

  • Disruptive behavior disorders

How does it work?

The “Dialectical” in DBT refers to the notion of merging together two opposites: acceptance and change.

First your child first needs to accept that their behavior is harmful and not improving their situation. When this has been accepted, the second stage is to develop healthy habits which can help them deal with their negative feelings in a more constructive way.

By combining acceptance and change, DBT therapy delivers better results than focusing on acceptance or change alone.

DBT therapy programs are divided into three parts:

  • Individual therapy One-to-one sessions with a trained DBT therapist to develop the behavior skills needed to improve personal circumstances.

  • Group therapy Face-to-face sessions with others receiving DBT therapy for the chance to practice the skills developed in individual counseling.

  • Phone counseling The opportunity to call the therapist for guidance on immediate challenging situations.

What does it teach?

The skills learned in DBT therapy are very clear and structured. Here’s what you can expect your child to develop as part of the program:

  • Mindfulness Remain present in the moment and understand the clues of unregulated emotions.

  • Emotion regulation Handle challenging situations by constructing pleasant, self-soothing experiences which protect from extreme emotions. As adolescents are often lacking the basics required to manage emotions, DBT therapy sessions often focus on getting enough sleep, eating a proper diet and taking prescribed medication.

  • Interpersonal effectiveness Understand how to communicate effectively with others and be able to feel supported by them. Interactions with others often trigger impulse behaviors. DBT provides adolescents with the tools to build healthy relationships to minimize the prompts which spark negative behavior.

  • Distress tolerance Be able to recognize the urge to do things which wouldn’t improve personal problems, such as self-harm or suicide, and controlling those urges.

  • Walking the middle path Learn how to validate others and accept validation, how to negotiate and compromise, and how to see things from others’ perspectives.

How to find a DBT therapist

If traditional counseling has failed to help your child manage their behavior DBT therapy could be the solution you’re looking for. Here are the best ways to find the right DBT therapist for your child:

  • Choose an online therapist There are many organizations which offer online DBT therapy. Beginning therapy sessions like this is a great way for your child to get comfortable with therapy while feeling secure in their own home.

  • Ask at your child’s school It’s unlikely your child is the first in their school to experience the behavioral problems which require DBT therapy. As your child’s school if they have a recommended DBT therapist or can provide you with any further resources to find one.

  • Talk to your child’s primary care physician Discuss your child’s behavioral problems with their primary care physician and ask for a medical diagnosis. When the physician refers your child to a therapist, request one who specializes in DBT therapy.

  • Ask your therapist If you’re currently receiving therapy, ask your therapist for a DBT therapist referral for your child. If they don’t focus on DBT, it’s likely they’ll know someone experienced and qualified who does.

  • Call local universities, colleges or medical centers Get in touch with the psychiatric or psychology departments of medical centers, colleges and universities in your area. There may be DBT therapists working within these establishments who can treat your child.

Something to remember

If you think your child could benefit from DBT therapy, it’s important you commit to the program just as much as they do. While they develop and practice the skills they need to change their harmful behaviors, it’s helpful to be a positive example and model this behavior to support your child.

When you as a family have moments which could have been handled better, wait until everyone’s calm then discuss how you all could have managed the situation better. Make a commitment to try and improve next time. By identifying what went wrong and the behavior which should have been used to deal with the situation, identifying problem areas and the best solutions will become easier for your child in the future.

This post comes from the TODAY Parenting Team community, where all members are welcome to post and discuss parenting solutions. Learn more and join us! Because we're all in this together.