CBT For Teens: When To Seek Therapy For Your Teen & What To Know

Deciding whether – and when – your teen should enter therapy is typically a nuanced, complicated situation. Are my daughter's mood swings normal, or are they overblown? Are my son's low grades a one-time thing, or is there a behavioral complexity at play? Should I take a step back and let my kid figure it out on their own, or is it time to step in and offer some guidance?

While the exact answers to these questions depend on your teen's unique history and present situation, therapy can help you (and your teen!) rest easier. CBT is a therapy type that can help adolescents cut through the overwhelm of social anxiety, peer pressure, among other stressors, ultimately learning to navigate in a manner that's healthy and true to themselves.

What is CBT?

CBT stands for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is a skill-based approach to talk therapy.

At its core, CBT is a way of understanding three important concepts:

When your teen starts CBT, they’ll work together with their therapist to identify which individual problems and concerns they're facing. Your child will also learn to integrate strategic techniques in response to these issues.

How does CBT for teens differ from CBT for adults?

The concepts of CBT are the same, regardless of age. That said, use of analogy and metaphor to express the concepts of CBT is especially important for teen clients. Examples from sports or pop culture, for instance, can make it easier for teens to understand what CBT is and how it works.

Teens experience different life events than adults do, but the meaning of those events is equally impactful – if not more so! As a result, swings in both positive and negative directions tend to be more drastic with teens than with adults.

What mental health conditions can CBT help teens with?

CBT can be helpful for teens to both address and prevent mental health issues, including but not limited to:

Teens strengthen skills in the following areas:

In addition to helping teens address mental health issues and symptoms, CBT is also extremely helpful in prevention of mental health issues.  

An individual’s unique cycle of thoughts, behaviors, and emotions tends to be repeating and cumulative, and with each cycle the impact becomes stronger. This cycle can have negative or positive effects, depending on a person’s awareness of it.  

Learning an in-depth awareness can position teens to handle life stressors more easily and even to create a very positive versions of this cycle, which can support teens in accomplishing goals and building confidence.

In addition to diagnosable mental health concerns, CBT can be a powerful support to teens in a number of ways, including:

Personal preference plays a large role in determining whether CBT or another therapy type is the best choice.

That said, research has shown that CBT has positive results in treating a number of mental health issues that affect teens. For example, studies show that on average, 60-80% of children and adolescents who undergo CBT treatment for primary anxiety disorder no longer meet the criteria for primary anxiety disorder, post-treatment [1].

How can parents support their teens while they’re in CBT?

There are two main ways parents can support their teens while they're in CBT treatment:

1. Help teens follow through on CBT “homework”

One of the biggest things parents can do is help their teens stay focused on following through with goals between sessions.

Teens may need reminders to complete homework between sessions, or guidance in practicing the techniques they learn in sessions.

2. Address communication issues at home

It’s helpful for parents to recognize that problematic thought patterns can originate from the way parents communicate with and discipline their children.

Accordingly, building healthier communication patterns throughout the whole family can be a big help as teens are working through the process of changing their own patterns of thinking.

What should parents look for in a CBT therapist for their teens?

Though it’s important that your teen’s therapist have a background in using CBT with teens, it’s equally important that the teen feels that the therapist is a good fit. I can’t emphasize enough that the "buy-in" has to come from the teen. If the teen doesn’t connect with and trust their therapist, then the therapy won’t be successful.

Additionally, look for these qualities in a CBT therapist for your teen:

A final message for parents

It bears repeating: Make sure your teen is on board with the therapy process. If they resist, it is really important to validate and roll with that resistance.

I have found that initial consultations with therapists help a lot with this process, since they’re an opportunity for the parent to give control back to the teen.

Control and self-determination really starts to matter in this age range, so allowing your teen to meet the clinician and decide for themselves to move forward with therapy is crucial for making the process productive.

A final message for teens

Try to keep an open mind in the beginning, as hard as that might be. Therapy can be really difficult to start – and may feel like extra work at times – but once you build a relationship with your therapist, going to sessions can be a relief from life’s stress. They may even become something you look forward to!

Also, remember that even the most successful and high-powered individuals often work with a therapist or coach. It takes true strength to admit that we all function better when we are surrounded by helpful voices, and going to therapy is one of the best ways to get that kind of support.