The fantastic news about the brain is that it can heal itself by talking with someone! Ample evidence backs up effectiveness of therapy.
The therapist or psychologist who works with your child or teen will use a type of therapy or “modality” based on their symptoms or diagnosis, because some work better for mood disorders, some work better for defiant children, some work better for borderlines, and so forth. (In thought disorders like autism and schizophrenia, talk therapy has limits. Those on the autism spectrum need specialized interactions due to their processing issues. Those on the schizophreniform spectrum need medication to think logically before starting
Therapy models. Each type of therapy follows a model, and five are covered in this article. Your child’s therapist must be trained and practiced in any model they use. Why? It’s a matter of quality control. A therapist who has fidelity to a model (adheres to protocol) will help the most people most of the time, because that model has data to prove that the majority will benefit–the ones in the center section of the Bell Curve. (Therapists include psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychotherapists with MSW (Masters in Social Work), LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) and other licensure.)
CBT – cognitive behavioral therapy
CBT works when the child can examine their own feelings and make sense of them—the “cognitive” part. They learn to understand what affects them and why. The therapist will guide your child to create a list of options for themselves for when they face the next stressful situation that pops up in their lives. CBT helps a person think their way out of the confusion and have plans in place for appropriate actions. It works for mood disorders and anxiety, and some thought disorders if person has ‘insight’ (able to notice when they are behaving or thinking irrationally). CBT is one of the most widely used therapeutic models because it works for people who are relatively stable but enduring a difficult life situation (divorce, medical illness, job loss, and other big stressors).
DBT – dialectical behavioral therapy
DBT is unusual in that it can help anyone for any reason! The term “dialectical” describes how a patient learns to hold two opposing truths in their mind and respond effectively to the discomfort and emotions this causes. DBT is the one therapy model that can work for people with borderline personality disorder, who are considered the hardest to treat. It also helps those with mood dysregulation, those who’ve thought about or attempted suicide, or those with uncontrollable and negative responses to the world, such as oppositional defiant disorder. DBT relies less on personal self-examination and analysis, and instead concentrates on self calming, tolerating stress without overreacting, accurately perceiving the nature of a conflict, and communicating with others appropriately. Anyone can benefit from DBT. Notice how commonly people hear bad news and immediately expect the worst, then act to address the worst possible outcome? Does your child do this, only to extremes?
EMDR – eye movement desensitization and reprocessing
The goal of EMDR therapy is to help a person process extremely distressing memories of trauma and mitigate their torturous subconscious influence so children and adults can adapt and cope when memories are triggered in the future. EMDR is used for people with PTSD (physical, sexual, or emotional abuse) and other traumas such as from war, accidents, and major disasters. The therapy process uses rhythmic stimuli as a distraction during the precise moments when the person relives the traumatic memory—eye movement back and forth (by following a swinging object or a therapist’s hand), clapping, or listening to tones switching from ear to ear through headphones. The person does not have to talk about the horrible memory, so EMDR is less stressful—so important for a trauma survivor! EMDR works but there are no acceptable explanations. It is based on a belief that the memory and associated stimuli of the event must be processed to remove it from “an isolated memory network” where it creates havoc.
Parents as therapists
There are two proven models of therapy that are taught to parents to practice with their children in the home. Like the other models, they don’t work for every child, but they work for most children with a certain range of behaviors, rages, resistance, and physical violence, which can be caused by ODD, ADHD, and depression/bipolar disorders.
CPS – collaborative problem solving
CPS can be learned by anyone to manage an intensely frustrated child who goes into uncontrollable fits or tantrums, and the parent can do nothing to calm them down. The fits may last hours, and must run out of steam on their own. Afterwards, the child is often remorseful. Why? Their brain is “chronically inflexible” and has difficulty with the unexpected, switching from one situation to another or one plan to another. Using CPS, a parent doesn’t enforce rules per se, but negotiates with child so that they together come up with a win-win solution. This is very counterintuitive! The parent does not give away their authority, but offers the child an acceptable choice. For example, if a child can’t get a red jacket because there aren’t any in their size, and they must have red (!), the parent asks the child if they want to order one and wait 2 weeks, or if they will accept another color. This seems fair to the child because they have a say, and much easier on the parent because the child accepts the outcome they’ve chosen.
PMT – parent management training
PMT refers to a proven intensive educational program for parents to teach them skills for managing extremely difficult children, especially those with ODD. PMT helps parents assert consistency and predictability at home and in school, and promote positive social behavior in their child. The parents are also trained to change their own behavior towards their child, and taught how to analyze different home/school situations, “then apply moment-to-moment positive reinforcement or punishment” (called interventions) based on what is happening. The punishments are humane, such as taking time outs. It is hard on the parents, but works for children with serious behavior problems in addition to ODD: Conduct disorder, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders.
What makes a good therapist? Because multiple models are out there, a really skilled therapist will figure out which model your child needs once they get to know them, and they will apply parts of different models depending on your child’s individual challenges. That same skilled therapist will also be a cheerleader for your child, helping them feel good about themselves (and you), helping them discover their talents, and helping them to stay committed to their need for self-care. This is the very definition of a good therapist! Therapy is hard to take for anyone, but your child will trust a good therapist if they feel they have their best interests. Chemistry is important. If your child doesn’t like the therapist or make progress, it’s worth spending the time to find someone else who’s a better match. If the therapist has professional ethics; they will recognize they are not a fit and recommend someone else.
I know of a 10-year old child whose therapist dragged out appointments for a year with zero progress or results. From the start, the child didn’t like her and simply refused to talk with her. And this child, now 11, refuses any therapy because “it’s boring and a waste of time.” What an unfortunate consequence!
How you know you have a good therapist. A good therapist will be able to discover something valuable that brings light on your child’s situation after the very first session. They should ask you for background information about your child, and listen to you when you talk about recent problematic situations. They cannot talk to you about your child’s therapy, but they can encourage you to partner with them, and should recognize your need (your family’s need) for your child to function as normally as possible. You can ask to have therapy together with your child if its appropriate. If the therapist can’t connect meaningfully with your child after a few weeks, ask them about this. If you have any doubts about the therapist, share them, and expect to have a thoughtful, respectful explanation.
Seek a therapy provider with knowledge of all of them, and with experience treating children and teens. Ask about a specialty when you make the initial contact, and ask about a model you think fits your child’s behaviors (based on their descriptions). You can get a one-time assessment from a therapist for an opinion on which model to use. The best way to find a good therapist is through personal referrals: your child’s doctor or psychiatrist, support groups, school counselors, and other parents.