Young children may have different stressors and emotional challenges than adults, but their mental health is no less serious or valid. In fact, studies show that as many as one in six U.S. children between the ages of 6 and 17 years old are living with a treatable mental health condition.
If you want to improve your child's behavior while giving them the help they need for a healthier childhood, pediatric behavioral therapy is one excellent option. Below, we'll explore the types of therapy and behavioral treatments best suited for treating mental health conditions in children.
The benefits of behavioral therapy for kids
From correcting behavioral problems to teaching valuable new skills, there is no shortage of benefits children (and their parents or guardians) can gain from therapy sessions. Here are some of the top, evidence-based benefits of behavioral therapy for kids:
A negative self-image can manifest in numerous ways, including a child’s behavior. However, therapy can foster a healthy sense of self-worth, helping children learn to love and value themselves.
Better emotional processing and communication
When children feel strong emotions that they don't understand or know how to process, it can sometimes manifest as negative behavior — like tantrums.
Behavioral therapy can teach children valuable social skills that can benefit them for the rest of their lives, like communicating well with others and expressing difficult feelings appropriately. A child therapist will work with your child to help them understand their emotions and communicate them in a healthy way with productive, positive coping mechanisms.
Greater sense of control and independence
Learning independence is a vital part of any child's growth and development. So is learning self-control. However, finding this balance between independence and healthy self-control can be especially challenging, for children with emotional and behavioral conditions.
Therapy works to help children become more independent while teaching them how to be responsible with their newfound freedom. By assisting with this vital element of childhood development, behavioral therapy can help prepare school-aged children for their transition to adolescence and adulthood.
Reduced negative behavior and thought patterns
Addressing negative or disruptive behaviors such as tantrums, impulsivity, and self-harm is one of the primary goals of child behavioral therapy. These negative behaviors can sometimes be rooted in negative thought patterns, which behavioral therapy aims to correct.
It's nice to imagine that every child's inner thoughts are peaceful and happy, but this sadly isn't always the case. By pinpointing and correcting the negative thought patterns that lead to negative behavior, therapy can improve a child's emotional wellness, self-image, and outward behavior.
Mental health conditions in children can potentially strain their relationships with their families, teachers, and peers — which often exacerbate a child's troubles. Improving the relationships between children and the people around them is one major benefit of behavioral therapy for kids.
This is why behavioral therapy for kids often involves their parents and caregivers as much as the child themselves. A therapist doesn’t replace the vital role that a child's parents, teachers, and peers play in their lives. Rather, a therapist can help ensure that these relationships are healthy and beneficial to the child.
Signs that a child could benefit from behavioral therapy
Young children typically can’t recognize that they need help with their mental health, let alone ask for support directly. This makes it important for parents and caregivers to look for signs that a child could benefit from behavioral therapy:
- Repeated incidents where a child does not show the ability to regulate difficult emotions (i.e., temper tantrums and emotional outbursts)
- Aggressive or violent behaviors in response to certain emotions and incidents
- Stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions that interfere with everyday tasks
- Self-injury or self-harm
- Disrespect or lack of empathy for others
- Regular disruptions in school
Conditions that would benefit from behavioral therapy
There are numerous mental health conditions in children that behavioral therapy may help. One of the most commonly diagnosed behavioral conditions in children is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
According to the CDC, the estimated number of children diagnosed with ADHD in the United States is 6 million, or 9.8% of all children aged 3-17. Anxiety is another common mental health disorder in children that behavioral therapy may treat, and is estimated that approximately 5.8 million (9.4%) of children aged 3-17 experience anxiety.
Along with ADHD and anxiety disorders, other common conditions in children that behavioral therapy aims to treat include:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
What type of therapy is best for a child with behavioral issues?
There are several types of therapy that can be highly beneficial to children with mental health and behavioral conditions, including:
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
CBT is one of the most commonly employed therapy methods for treating conditions such as anxiety and depression in both adults and adolescents. CBT is a type of talk therapy designed to identify and reframe negative thought patterns and behaviors.
Parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT)
Parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT) is a type of therapy that deeply involves the parents or caregivers of the child being treated. In this type of therapy, a therapist will observe interactions between parents and their child in order to offer feedback and provide coaching on how to improve the relationship.
PCIT is commonly used to treat children with behavioral conditions and entails providing therapy to the child as well as teaching the parents skills that they can use to improve their child's behavior and mental well-being outside of therapy.
Applied behavioral analysis
Applied behavioral analysis is a type of therapy commonly used to treat young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), ADHD, and anxiety. This type of therapy is designed to help modify a child's behaviors via methods such as positive reinforcement, prompting, and fading.
Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
DBT is similar to CBT, addressing the negative thoughts and behaviors contributing to behavioral conditions. But while CBT focuses more on eliminating negative thought patterns, DBT focuses more on teaching clients how to cope with negative feelings.
Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT)
ITP is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on helping clients improve their interpersonal relationships.
For children, this typically means improving relationships with their parents and family members, teachers and caregivers, and peers. This type of therapy is rooted in the belief that relationship difficulties can deeply impact a child's behavior and emotional well-being.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy combines elements of CBT with mindfulness practices. Along with helping children identify and reframe negative behaviors and thought patterns, MBCT incorporates techniques like mindfulness meditation and present-moment focus.
What does behavioral therapy for kids look like?
Child therapists providing behavioral therapy for kids will typically employ many of the same methods used to treat adults. But exactly how these therapy methods are applied tends to be a little different.
A child therapist will usually work to make therapy sessions for children lighthearted, fun, and non-threatening. This includes involving toys and making games out of therapy sessions as well as therapy spaces that are brightly colored and decorated in a way that appeals to small children.
Caregiver involvement is another key distinction between therapy for children and therapy for adults. Caregivers typically play a central role in shaping their child's behavior even after a therapist is brought in to help. Behavioral therapy for kids often focuses just as much on teaching parents new skills and approaches as it does on providing therapy directly to the child.
Understanding parents' role in therapy
Addressing behavioral concerns in children requires gentle, constant reinforcement. This is why child therapists often spend just as much time working with a child's caregivers as they do working directly with the child, teaching both parties helpful skills and strategies.
Between therapy sessions, parents should check in with their child and provide plenty of support to help them reach their therapeutic goals. Likewise, all the traditional parenting roles become even more important for a child in therapy, including helping them with school work and making sure they have a healthy diet.
Tips for supporting your child in therapy
Supporting a child in therapy isn't always easy, but it is always important. Here are five tips on how parents can best support a child throughout their therapy:
- Be generous with encouragement and positive reinforcement.
- Let your child know that they have the freedom to be open and honest with their therapist.
- Make sure that your child is maintaining a healthy lifestyle (getting plenty of sleep, exercise, and proper nutrients).
- Be prepared to listen when your child initiates a conversation.
- Avoid pressuring your child to talk about what they discussed in therapy.
Finding the right behavioral therapist for your child
One way to support a child through behavioral concerns is to seek the right therapist. Choosing a therapist with experience treating behavioral conditions in children is important, but it’s just as important to make sure the provider’s personality and therapeutic approach are a good match for your child.
Today, finding the ideal therapist using a telehealth platform like SonderMind is easy. At SonderMind, we use simple yet effective questionnaires to carefully match clients with the perfect therapist — whether they prefer in-person or online sessions. By answering a few questions about yourself and your child, you can easily find, vet, and schedule an appointment with a licensed child therapist directly within the platform.
Connect with the right therapist for your child's needs with SonderMind
Therapy can provide a lifetime of good for children who are living with mental health and behavioral conditions. To find the ideal therapist for your child and get them started on a path to better behavioral health, get matched with a SonderMind therapist today!