Cognitive behavioral therapy: What is CBT?

By Gail Belsky

Many people who learn and think differently also have mental health issues. For some, just coping with daily challenges can cause a lot of stress or make them feel bad about themselves. 

But some have more serious problems with anxiety and depression. These conditions are common in people with , , and other learning challenges. 

There are different treatments that can help kids, teens, and adults with mental health issues. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of them. Learn more about CBT.

What is CBT?

CBT is a form of talk therapy that can be used with kids, teens, and adults. Its goals are to:

  • Get people to look at their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
  • Show them how to replace negative thoughts with more realistic, positive ones.
  • Help them change behaviors that cause problems in everyday life.

Here’s an example. People with dyslexia often dread having to read out loud, whether it’s at school, at work, or in a social setting. They may fear being judged. Or they may feel “stupid” because they struggle when others don’t.

Kids might say, “I’m stupid and I can’t learn. I’m not reading any more books for school.” Adults might say, “I’m not smart enough for this job, and I’m never going to succeed.”

CBT can help people challenge that thought and replace it with, “I have a lot of strengths. My reading problems can make things harder, but I’m just as smart as other people. And there are tools I can use to make reading easier.”

People work with the therapist to set goals, identify problems, and check progress. Kids may get assignments to do between sessions to build the skills they’re learning.

CBT focuses on the present and the future. It helps people realize they have control over their behaviors.

How CBT works

With CBT, people meet with a therapist. That person may be a psychologist, a psychiatrist, or a social worker. They can meet individually, in a group, or with family members. 

With kids, the therapist first meets with the parents and their child to find out what they hope to achieve. That could be anything from stopping being bullied at school to feeling more confident.

There are a number of techniques therapists use in CBT. One is called modeling. In this approach, the therapist demonstrates the desired behavior, like standing up to a bully.

Another technique is called cognitive restructuring. This is an approach where people learn to recognize and replace negative thoughts. 

For instance, they might turn “I’m such a slob and everyone gets annoyed with me” into “I have a very hard time staying organized, but that doesn’t mean I don’t do other things well.”

CBT is shorter term than some other kinds of therapy. The number of sessions people go to is usually between 10 and 20. But each person is different, and the number of recommended sessions can vary.

There are certain steps involved in CBT. They include:

  • Identifying things in your life that are upsetting to you.
  • Becoming aware of your thoughts and feelings about them.
  • Recognizing thinking that’s negative or not accurate.
  • Reshaping that thinking into a more positive view.

There are different forms of CBT. One is called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. This approach teaches kids and adults how to manage their body and mind in response to stressors. Another is called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). It’s a structured program for teens and adults who struggle with negative feelings and behaviors.

Who CBT can help

CBT is used to treat people with a range of mental health conditions. These include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

People don’t need to have a disorder to benefit from CBT, however. This type of therapy can also help with chronic stress, fear, low self-esteem, and other emotional struggles. CBT teaches people how to manage their emotions and put things in perspective.

For CBT to work, people need to understand their thought patterns. Kids under age 7 may not have that ability until they’re older.

Where to find CBT

Doctors and other medical providers are a good place to start. They may be able to refer you to specialists who do therapy. 

Many therapists do CBT. Some even specialize in working with people who learn and think differently. For kids, it’s a good idea to find a therapist who often works with children.  

Friends and family who have been in therapy another good source. They may have someone they recommend. Another option is to search online at the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

Therapy can be expensive. But many therapists take insurance and some work on a sliding fee scale. You may also be able to find a mental health clinic in your area that offers free or low-cost services.

If you’re a parent or caregiver, you may wonder whether your child needs support with emotional challenges. Find out when it’s time for kids to get help for mental health issues.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Gail Belsky is executive editor at Understood. She has written and edited for major media outlets, specializing in parenting, health, and career content.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Andrew Kahn, PsyD is a licensed psychologist who has served as an evaluator and consultant in public schools for nearly 20 years. Dr. Kahn identifies as neurodivergent and serves as a subject matter expert at Understood.