Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) For Children: How It Works

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Cognitive behavioral therapy for children is beneficial for those with mental health conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, depression, and anger issues. It is a common talk therapy or psychotherapy. Typically, CBT for children and teenagers comprises around 10 to 20 therapy sessions. The therapist helps the child focus on their reactions, feelings, or negative thoughts, which might spring from past trauma or any subdued, emotional stress. Besides the therapist, these sessions may also require the parents or caretakers to participate along with children (1) (2).

The following post discusses the types, techniques, and various CBT approaches for children.

Main Goals Of Cognitive Behavior Therapy For Children

Cognitive behavior therapy is a kind of talk therapy wherein children can talk about their feelings and fears. The main goals of cognitive behavioral therapy techniques are to help children (2)

  • Rationalize their thoughts and be able to differentiate between helpful and unhelpful thoughts.
  • Improve their behavior and outlook towards others.
  • Replace unhelpful thoughts with helpful or balanced ones.
  • Learn to be aware of their thoughts and evaluate whether or not they are logical.

Types Of Cognitive Behavior Therapy

Behavioral issues and mental health disorder symptoms may differ among children and so would be the treatment procedures. The various types of cognitive-behavioral therapy available for children include (3)

  • Individual therapy

This type of therapy involves a one-on-one interaction between the child and the doctor or therapist concerned and focuses on the child’s issues and challenges. For example, individual therapy is proven to help children deal with mental health disorders, substance abuse, depression, and anxiety disorders.

  • Group cognitive behavior therapy

Group CBT involves children of similar age groups going through the same issues. It allows children to bond with others who have similar issues and have meaningful relations, which can further improve their coping skills. This therapy is often recommended for treating obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, or substance abuse.

  • Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy

Trauma-focused CBT is usually done in up to 20 sessions and is primarily aimed at helping the child recover from trauma and associated issues such as emotional distress or generalized anxiety. However, it is also important for the parents to attend these sessions as it can improve your interactions with the child and support them better.

  • Cognitive behavior therapy paired with family-based behavioral treatment

This type of treatment mainly involves parents acting as role models for their children. As a result, the children pick up on the habits and behavior that the parents show in their day-to-day lives.

Techniques Used In Cognitive Behavior Therapy

Cognitive behavior therapy includes a variety of therapeutic techniques to help the child process their feelings and emotions. Some of the techniques that are adopted for cognitive behavior therapy are as follows (4).

  • Cognitive modification: Cognitive modification involves identifying negative thoughts about oneself and correcting them with the help of specific positive self-affirming thoughts and statements.
  • Problem-solving: Children are taught techniques for identifying, analyzing, and assessing the underlying reasons for a behavioral problem and finding possible solutions for them.
  • Relaxation: Techniques for mental and physical relaxation, such as progressive muscle relaxation and meditation are taught to reduce psychological stress.
  • Stress management techniques: Several strategies are taught to reduce the levels of stress and anxiety in children

Conditions For Which Cognitive Behavior Therapy Can Help

Behavioral or emotional disorders can cause long-term problems in children, adversely affecting their health and well-being and those of the parents and other family members.

Research suggests that cognitive behavior therapy works well for the following mental disorders (5).

  • Depression
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Anxiety
  • ADHD
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Disruptive behavior disorder
  • Different types of fears/phobias

Effectiveness Of Cognitive Behavior Therapy On Children

Research suggests that cognitive-behavioral therapy helps in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression in children. Children who undergo cognitive behavioral therapy sessions at an early stage to overcome emotional stress-related disorders benefit from it towards the later stages of life (6).

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Does cognitive-behavioral therapy work for children?

Yes, cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective first line of treatment for mental health conditions in children (7).

2. At what age can I start CBT?

You can start CBT for preschool and early elementary school children experiencing anxiety or mood disorders (8).

3. What does a cognitive-behavioral therapist do?

A cognitive-behavioral therapist (9) (10)

  • Helps children understand their inner emotions
  • Improves the mood of children by examining their thought pattern
  • Teaches children new ways to think and feel
  • Involves children in meaningful games and activities
  • Teaches mindfulness and relaxation
  • Creates a treatment plan based on their observation

Cognitive behavior therapy helps improve children’s skills, which is highly beneficial for them in the long run. Children learn to deal with their issues and problems and face them without acting out and feeling overwhelmed. Thus, it is important for children dealing with certain mental health conditions or social anxiety to attend cognitive behavior therapy sessions as it can help them change their way of thinking and also improve their quality of life.

Key Pointers

  • For children with mental health illnesses, depression or anxiety disorders, or substance abuse, individual cognitive treatment is preferred.
  • Group cognitive behavior therapy is suggested for treating a group of same-aged children facing similar difficulties such as compulsive disorder, depression, or substance abuse.
  • Trauma-focused CBT is recommended to help children who have suffered from trauma and associated issues.


MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
  1. Therapy to improve children’s mental health.
  2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: What You Need To Know.
  3. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
  4. Falk Leichsenring et al.; (2006); Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Psychodynamic Psychotherapy: Techniques Efficacy and Indications.
  5. Therapy To Improve Children’s Mental Health.
  6. Matthijs Oud et al.; (2019); Effectiveness of CBT for children and adolescents with depression: A systematic review and meta-regression analysis.
  7. Susmita Halder and Akash Kumar Mahato; (2019); Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Children and Adolescents: Challenges and Gaps in Practice.
  8. Child Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Program.
  10. The Role of Play in CBT with Children.
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Dr. Jin Lee

Dr. Jin Lee is a licensed clinical psychologist owning a private practice in Colorado. She works with children, adolescents, and young adults having medical conditions, such as chronic pain, functional neurological disorder, and post-concussive syndrome. Dr. Lee completed her internship in rehabilitation psychology and fellowship in hematology, oncology, and transplant unit at Children’s Hospital Colorado. Her passion for serving vulnerable... more

Sanjana Bhattacharjee

Sanjana did her post graduation in Applied Microbiology from Vellore Institute of Technology, India. Her interest in science and health, combined with her passion to write made her convert from a scientist to a writer. She believes her role at MomJunction combines the best of both worlds as she writes health-based content based on scientific evidence. Sanjana is trained in classical... more