Behavioral and mental health symptoms in children are often treated with evidence-based therapies. Evidence-based therapies or treatments are those that have been studied and found to be effective to help improve the lives of children, adolescents and their families.
Different kinds of therapies are used depending on the concern and the child's history. You can work with your child's therapist to determine the best fit for your family. Keep in mind that throughout treatment, the type of therapy used may change based on your child’s response. Ask your therapist if you have questions about what types of therapy they’re using with your child.
Below are some of the most common evidence-based therapies for children. Know that while your child is the one receiving care, most therapies include the whole family. Talk to the therapist about how you can help.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
ACT was developed from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It aims to help individuals live meaningful lives, despite experiencing emotional or physical pain. ACT teaches youth to become more mindful of the present moment and engaged in meaningful activities. Similar to CBT, ACT helps build awareness of thoughts that can be painful or unhelpful. In ACT, kids learn to accept things they cannot change (like past experiences) and commit to behaviors that are meaningful and improve quality of life.
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
ABA focuses on identifying and changing the environmental consequences of certain behaviors to teach children new skills and reduce unsafe or unwanted behaviors. This treatment is individualized and works to identify why a behavior is happening and how to change or replace that behavior through rewarding wanted behavior and removing rewards from unwanted behavior. ABA is very structured and a professional is often in charge of tracking, interpreting and monitoring behavior.
Behavior therapy is similar to ABA in that it focuses on how environmental responses affect behavior. It can vary significantly depending on the current concern, but focuses on encouraging children to try new behaviors, reward positive behaviors and not reward unwanted behaviors. In behavior therapy, youth may set their own goals and rewards, therapists may model desired behaviors (like a calm body in response to a feared trigger), or parents may learn how to effectively set expectations for new behaviors and respond to both wanted and unwanted behaviors (this is often called Behavioral Parent Training).
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
During this form of therapy, therapists help children recognize that their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors influence one another. Everyone’s thoughts are just “best guesses” about the world and can cause negative feelings when that guess is incorrect. Youth may learn strategies to help them think, feel or act differently when they’re having negative, unrealistic or unhelpful thoughts, feelings or behaviors. The goal is to arm your child with new skills and coping strategies. CBT can occur in both group and individual settings. Parents may be included to help youth use their new skills and reward positive behavior. CBT is one of the therapies with the most evidence across many presenting concerns. There are also adaptations for specific problems.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
This form of therapy developed from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and is used to help people cope with very strong emotions that often lead to impulsive and potentially harmful behaviors. DBT has several parts and includes helping youth become more aware of the present moment, tolerate high levels of uncomfortable emotions, regulate their emotions long-term, and interact with others in more effective ways. DBT is often used with children who have trouble regulating their feelings or those with self-harming behaviors (like cutting or eating disorders). It often includes individual, group and family components.
While family therapy can often be a part of other therapies, it can also be its own standalone treatment (sometimes referred to by names such as Family Systems Therapy). Family therapy views youth as a significant piece of the entire family unit. Rather than focusing on one specific person, family therapy focuses on how to improve the entire family’s interactions with and responses to others.
Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)
IPT is a short-term treatment that focuses on improving a person’s relationships. It is based on the idea that mental health symptoms negatively affect relationships, which further affects mood. IPT focuses on four general areas of relationship difficulties (grief, conflict, changes in relationships/life and isolation). For youth, IPT is generally used with adolescents and helps youth overcome these social difficulties to improve mood and overall functioning.
Motivational Interviewing (MI)
MI is a strategy that helps improve motivation for behavior change in those who have mixed feelings about making those changes. It helps children identify reasons for changes they would like to make to improve their lives. MI can be integrated into other therapies to improve “buy-in” or can be used as a standalone treatment, often for those with substance use or eating disorders. MI can be particularly helpful for youth who are resistant to treatment.
Organizational Skills Training
Organizational skills training focuses on teaching youth with executive functioning difficulties (like ADHD) how to effectively organize school materials, break down long-term tasks and perform in school more efficiently.
Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT)
PCIT is a type of therapy used for young children with behavioral problems. Using “coaching” during real life situations, a certified PCIT therapist teaches parents exactly how to react and interact with their children to reduce behavior problems. PCIT focuses on building warmth between parent and child while teaching skills.
Other types of therapies may be integrated into your child’s usual therapy. While there is less evidence for the effectiveness of these treatments on their own, using techniques from these can help children feel more comfortable expressing themselves while building relationships between your child and their therapist.
During art therapy, a child may be asked to paint, draw or express themselves artistically to help them process their feelings or experiences. This can help them describe how they feel or what they have experienced.
A child may be asked to play or write music to express themselves artistically to help them process their feelings or experiences. This can help them describe how they feel or what they have experienced.
During this form of therapy, children are encouraged to play with toys and games while they talk to a licensed, trained therapist. Communicating while playing may make it easier for children to express themselves, and they may share certain thoughts or experiences that they might be less inclined to share if they were asked questions directly.
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.