Types of Behavioral Therapy

Medically reviewed by: Wendy Rasmussen, PhD
Wednesday, September 6 2023

There are many types of therapeutic approaches designed to help people meet their mental health goals. But while some types of therapy focus on restructuring your thought patterns, one focuses on changing behaviors: behavioral therapy.

In this article, we’ll discuss a few different types of behavioral therapy, its benefits, and some common modern use cases.

What is behavioral therapy?

Behavioral therapy is a highly practical and goal-oriented form of therapy based on changing observable behaviors. It has a wide range of modern applications, including treating autism, anxiety, substance use, and various mental health conditions like ADHD.

Therapists who specialize in behavior therapy often employ a variety of therapeutic approaches to help make positive behavior changes, like systematic desensitization, positive reinforcement, and cognitive-behavioral strategies. 

Potential benefits of behavioral therapy

Working with an experienced behavioral therapist can offer both short-term and lifelong benefits. While the exact benefits that behavioral therapy will provide can differ from person to person, some of the more common benefits reported by people that undergo behavioral therapy include:

More positive behavioral reactions

Behavioral therapy helps people identify patterns of behavior that cause distress. By helping people understand their behavior and its consequences, behavioral therapy helps them build skills to replace unwanted behaviors with more positive ones.

Common candidates for behavioral therapy include children and adults dealing with anxiety, phobias, substance use disorders, OCD, ADHD, oppositional and defiant behaviors, and autism.

Effective problem-solving skills

Behavioral therapy can teach you a lot of helpful problem-solving and coping skills. These skills can help you address current problems with your mental health, but you can also continue to benefit from them in your life beyond therapy.

Problem-solving skills like using emotional regulation to deal with distressing emotions, generating alternative solutions, and evaluating consequences are commonly taught in behavioral therapy. 

Long-lasting results

The benefits of behavioral therapy don't end when your final session with a therapist is complete. In fact, the most important goal of behavioral therapy is to provide clients with results that are long-lasting and skills that they can use for the rest of their lives.

Types of behavioral therapy

Under the umbrella of behavioral therapy, there are a few approaches that a mental health professional might use, including:

Cognitive behavioral (CB) play therapy

CB play therapy is a type of behavioral therapy that uses play-based techniques. This method is typically used for treating behavioral issues and mental health conditions in younger children.

CB play therapy is based on the idea that playing is one of the most natural and important ways children express themselves. By making play a part of the therapy process, CB play therapy can make therapy sessions more comfortable and impactful for young children.

How it works

CB play therapy involves engaging children in numerous forms of play, including storytelling, games, role-playing, and creating art — all conducted with specific therapeutic goals in mind. 

These activities aim to allow children to express themselves. A therapist will then work to identify and challenge negative thoughts, teach behavioral skills, and employ other CBT techniques throughout the play-based activities.

Systematic desensitization

Systematic desensitization is a behavioral therapy technique typically used to help overcome phobias, anxiety disorders, and other fear-related conditions. This type of exposure therapy involves exposing you to the source of fears or anxiety in a controlled and comfortable setting.

Systematic desensitization aims to change your reaction to specific triggers and stimuli to decrease negative emotional responses.

How it works

A therapist who incorporates systematic desensitization into treatment will first work with you to identify the triggers and stimuli that cause fear and anxiety. Typically, you’ll be gradually exposed to these triggers and stimuli using visualization techniques and eventually working up to exposure in real-life settings. During these exercises, the therapist will use relaxation techniques to help replace fear and anxiety with relaxation responses.

Common modern use cases for behavioral therapy 

Therapy is a vital part of health care, and behavioral therapy is commonly used to treat a variety of conditions. Today, the most common use cases for behavioral therapy include: 

Pediatric mental health issues 

Behavioral therapy can be an invaluable resource for children and adolescents dealing with a range of behavioral and emotional issues. Given that young minds tend to be more malleable, childhood and adolescence are ideal times to reinforce positive behaviors with behavioral therapy. Today, behavioral therapy is most commonly used to treat children with ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), and anxiety. 

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

Behavioral therapy has become a cornerstone treatment for people with autism. When treating clients with ASD, behavioral therapists will commonly focus on helping the client develop life/social skills, improve their communication, and reduce unwanted behaviors. 


 Studies show that depression now affects one in 10 Americans, with rates of depression growing fastest among teens and young adults. Today, behavioral therapy is often used alongside other therapeutic approaches to help people with depression identify and replace negative thoughts and behaviors that result from their condition. 


Over 40 million adults in the United States live with anxiety disorders. Generalized anxiety disorder is the most common of these conditions, but social anxiety, panic disorder, and specific phobias are all common anxiety disorders as well.

If you deal with overwhelming anxiety that results in unwanted behaviors, behavioral therapy may help empower you with skills to reduce those behaviors, such as using breathing techniques to alleviate hyperventilation during anxiety attacks.

Find a behavioral therapist today with SonderMind

Behavioral therapy can provide both short-term and lifelong benefits. If you would like to match with a therapist ideally suited to your needs and preferences, SonderMind can help.

At SonderMind, we use simple questionnaires to help our clients connect with online and in-person therapists and psychiatrists, then make it easy to schedule appointments directly within the SonderMind platform. To find the right therapist for you, get connected with a SonderMind provider today.

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