The teenage years can be a challenging time for parents and their children, as teens begin to pull away from their parents and explore their own interests and identities. Unfortunately, mental health problems can also arise during the teenage years. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of teenagers with poor mental health is increasing. In addition, between 2009 and 2019, there was a 44% increase in the number of teens who reported they had formed a suicide plan within the previous year.
Teenagers who display significant mental health concerns, such as suicide ideation, are in need of quality mental health treatment. One option available for treating mental and emotional health problems in teens is dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). If you’re looking for therapy for your teen, DBT may be a suitable option. Learn more about this treatment modality, and how it can help you and your teen to manage emotions, behaviors, and relationship problems, below.
What is DBT?
Dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT, is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy developed specifically for treating women with suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Marsha Linehan is credited with developing this form of therapy, as she evaluated the research on available treatment options for anxiety, depression, and emotional problems and devised a treatment program that was based upon available evidence.
After putting her initial form of treatment into practice, Linehan found that many patients dropped out of treatment because they felt judged and criticized in therapy. Linehan made some alterations to help patients feel more accepted, and DBT was born. At its heart, DBT requires a therapist to create a balance, in which they simultaneously accept clients for who they are, while also facilitating change. This balancing act forms the “dialectical” component of DBT.
Classic DBT includes a combination of individual and group therapy sessions, which are focused on building the following core skills:
- The ability to regulate emotions
- Being mindful of the present moment
- Tolerating stressors
- Handling interactions with other people
DBT also helps people to develop the motivation to change unhealthy behaviors, such as self-harming and other dysfunctional behaviors. Therapy sessions typically conclude with homework assignments that assist with transferring skills learned during therapy to everyday life.
How DBT Therapy is Beneficial for Teens
The teenage years involve significant brain development, and during this time, the teenage brain is very reactive to emotional information. This means that painful emotions can be particularly difficult for teenagers to process. Fortunately, DBT focuses on emotional regulation and can provide teenagers with the skills necessary to manage their emotions more effectively.
Teens who have mental and behavioral health problems may struggle with emotional dysregulation, which can cause them to act out by yelling, or in some cases, behaving in an aggressive or otherwise oppositional manner. DBT can be especially helpful for teens who struggle with managing intense emotions, as DBT therapists can teach teens to identify their emotions and develop better ways of regulating them.
As teenagers learn how to manage their emotions without acting out, their behaviors will change as well. For instance, a teen may treat a bad day at school or a disagreement with a sibling as if it is a crisis situation that may lead to a screaming match or other escalation. This behavior is upsetting and unhelpful. In DBT, teens can learn that a difference of opinions or an off day at school is not a crisis situation, and there are ways to react to such situations without losing one’s temper.
In addition to helping teens to regulate their emotions and behave in a more appropriate manner, DBT can improve parent-child relationships. While the focus of DBT is on regulating emotions, it also includes skill-building in the area of interpersonal relationships. This can help teens to communicate more respectfully with their parents. Furthermore, by teaching teens to manage their emotions, DBT helps them to manage conflict with other people without resorting to unhelpful behaviors like lashing out or name-calling.
Is DBT Actually Effective?
Not only does DBT help teens to build important skills like emotional regulation; it has also been thoroughly studied, with promising results. A 2021 study in the journal School Mental Health found that a DBT program was effective for improving social skills and emotional regulation difficulties among a group of high school freshmen.
Based upon the aims of DBT and the research with this treatment modality, it is a suitable intervention for teens who are struggling with emotional and behavioral problems. In DBT, your teen can learn to identify and respond appropriately to their emotions, which can help them to change negative behaviors, such as acting out, taking risks, starting fights, or engaging in self-harm.
As teens become better at managing their own emotions through DBT, their relationships will also improve, as they learn to communicate in a respectful manner. DBT not only helps your teen to overcome emotional and behavioral problems, but it also improves family relationships as the teen’s behavior becomes less disruptive.
DBT can also be beneficial for parents who are raising teenage children. Having teens at home can come with challenges, and parents may find themselves struggling to manage their own emotions, especially when teens are acting out and demonstrating disrespectful behavior. Emotional regulation training can help parents to maintain their patience to more effectively parent teenage children, and they’ll be better equipped to model appropriate behaviors for their children after also participating in DBT Parent groups and therapy.