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What are the Different Types of Cognitive Therapy for Children?

By Marlene de Wilde
Updated May 17, 2024
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Cognitive therapy is based on the theory that faulty thought patterns are the cause of behavior and emotional problems. Cognitive therapy for children is usually combined with behavior therapy, which focuses on changing maladaptive learned responses and replacing them with healthier responses. Together, the therapy becomes cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and the focus becomes one of restructuring cognition, or the way thought patterns are established, and changing the behavior that results from them.

In the past, psychological treatment of children and teenagers was based on adult therapies. This was not always effective. There is a developmental aspect that is not addressed in adult therapy, nor are the thought acquisition processes and emotional vulnerabilities the same for both groups. This approach has since changed, and cognitive psychology for youth has come of age.

The incidence of youth mental and behavioral disorders is increasing, and many adult disorders have their basis in childhood. Cognitive therapy for children is based on the theory that distorted perspectives lead to negative, maladaptive thinking that then becomes automatic and repetitive. Very few therapists use just cognitive therapy. Rational-emotive therapy (RET) is based on the theory that problems are due to irrational thought and that if the patient can understand a more rational way of thinking, then life balance will be restored. More often the term "cognitive therapy" is automatically taken to mean "cognitive-behavioral therapy."

According to research, the majority of childhood disorders are connected to or caused by problems within the family. CBT can be used within a family therapy, group therapy or individual context. Cognitive therapy for children is more likely to be successful if the family is involved, as the initial problem usually originates from the family itself. Common childhood disorders treated by CBT include depression, eating disorders, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and phobias such as school phobia.

Cognitive therapy for children and adolescents is considered more effective than many other therapies because it is usually of a shorter duration, and the patient is an active rather than passive part of the process. The goal is to change the thinking response to a stimulus rather than change the stimulus itself. A child who absorbs a certain maladaptive thought response like "Nobody wants to play with me so I must be ugly" while still developing will find it very difficult to have any real sense of self-esteem. By understanding that perhaps nobody is playing with her because they do not know that she wants to play will enable a different outlook on life.

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