Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has the largest evidence base of any psychological therapy and research confirms it is as effective for children and adolescents as it is for adults. Scientific studies show CBT to be a proven treatment for problems such as anxiety, depression, phobias, traumatic stress and low self-esteem.
The information provided in the ‘What makes CBT different?’ section also largely applies to CBT for children and teenagers.
Many factors – genes, one’s upbringing, peer relationships, temperament, trauma, stress – can contribute to early mental health problems. It is very common for children to feel anxious about school and friendships. This is even truer of the teenage years, which can be a time of enormous change, uncertainty and emotional turmoil.
There are many warning signs regarding mental health problems in children and young people. Some of these include:
Mental health problems tend to start quite early in life. A 2013 report by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) found that by the age of 13 years, 1 in 3 young people in Ireland is likely to have experienced some type of mental disorder. By the age of 24, that rate will have increased to over 1 in 2.
A major US study of adult mental health disorders found that half of all lifetime cases start before the age of 14. The typical age of onset is especially early for anxiety disorders (11 years of age) and for impulse-control disorders (11 years). Of the anxiety disorders, children are most likely to suffer from specific phobias and separation anxiety disorder, where the median age of onset is just 7. Social anxiety disorder, too, tends to begin early in life, typically beginning around the age of 13.
Pre-adolescent depression is rare but it increases sharply from early adolescence, especially among girls.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) relies on proven methods to address mental health problems, but any professional who works with young people knows that the most important element is the therapeutic relationship itself. As a former teacher, I have worked with children aged 5 to 12, secondary school students, and with adolescents who left mainstream education due to behavioural difficulties or mental health issues. In all cases, it always struck me how a warm, empathetic relationship that validated and motivated young people was a more important determinant of their academic success and wellbeing than any particular teaching technique.
Youth can be scary, a time of enormous change and uncertainty. However, it can also be a time of vitality and idealism and hope. Collaborative therapy can tap into these qualities by helping young people to feel better about themselves, to help them see their signature strengths as well as their psychological vulnerabilities, fostering resilience and helping them to thrive.