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CBT for Teens: How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Works

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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based form of talk therapy that can be a particularly effective treatment modality for adolescents. Therapists or psychologists use CBT for teens to help them become aware of irrational or negative thinking so they can see situations clearly, process them, and respond to them in healthy ways.

CBT intervention for kids can be a powerful part of an integrated treatment plan for adolescent mental health disorders. Teen CBT helps with substance abuse, eating disorders, PTSD, anxiety, and depression, including seasonal affective disorder. Furthermore, teens can benefit from CBT even when they are not suffering from a specific mental health challenge. CBT activities for teens can help them form healthy habits that will support them as they enter young adulthood.

How Does CBT for Teens Work?

One of the central beliefs in CBT is that thoughts affect emotions, and emotions affect behavior. Following this logic, allowing distorted and negative thoughts to grow leads to difficult emotions and, subsequently, destructive actions. On the other hand, positive thinking leads to positive emotions, and thus to positive behaviors. Hence, the goal of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for children and teens is to help them shift thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Let’s look at an example: A teen texts a friend and they don’t reply right away. A teen’s immediate response is to assume the worst, think of all the ways they may have upset the other person, and begin to panic and catastrophize: “Everybody will hate me now!” CBT skills help teens learn how to slow down and think logically about the situation. Maybe their friend is simply away from their phone or busy with an activity. Even if there is a misunderstanding, it can be worked out. Over time, with CBT skills in their toolbox, teens learn not to assume the worst.

How Thoughts, Emotions, and Behaviors Are Linked

Thought …

A situation triggers a thought: an interpretation of the situation. For example, not hearing back from a text can trigger a teen to think “My friend is mad at me.”

Emotion …

The thought then triggers an emotion. In the texting example, thinking that a friend is angry with them can lead a teen to feel sad, worried, lonely, or bad about themselves.


Emotions influence behavior. Distressing teen emotions can manifest as anger and aggression toward parents or using self-harm or substances to numb the feelings.

How Do I Know if My Thinking Is Distorted?

Since thoughts are the first trigger for emotions and behaviors, according to CBT, interventions focus on identifying and shifting distorted thinking. Cognitive distortions, also known as “thinking errors,” are ways of thinking that don’t match up to the reality of what’s happening. Here are some common examples of cognitive distortions:

  • Black-and-White (All-or-Nothing) Thinking: This is a way of thinking that categorizes people or situations at one extreme or the other. For example, if a teen who is struggling with distorted thinking has a disagreement with a friend, they might see that person as “bad” and become upset when mutual friends don’t take their “good” side in the conflict.
  • Fortune-Telling (Jumping to Conclusions): This distortion refers to making assumptions without thinking about the whole picture. Remember a time you thought someone was mad at you, but later found out they had a bad day at work or school and their mind was elsewhere? That’s an example of jumping to conclusions.
  • Magnification (Making a Mountain out of a Molehill): Do friends and family tell you that you often blow things out of proportion, seem to overreact, or are a pessimist? People who magnify mistakes and ruminate on the bad things also tend to minimize their achievements and the positive things in their life.

Teen CBT aims to help adolescents shift these patterns of distorted thinking, so that the emotions and behaviors that follow the thought are positive rather than distressing.

A List of CBT Interventions

CBT interventions for teens include the following approaches:

Cognitive Reconstruction (Thought Reframing)

Cognitive reconstruction is an exercise in which the therapist supports the client to look for the negative thought patterns they tend to fall back on, such as overgeneralizing or always assuming the worst. Once the client identifies this trend in their thought process, the CBT therapist can then teach them how to reframe the thoughts more positively.

For example, “Everyone in my friend group is constantly judging me” can turn into “Not all of my friends understand why I do the things I do, but they don’t have to. I understand why I do the things I do, and that’s good enough.”

Guided Discovery

In guided discovery, the therapist gets to know the client’s point of view. They ask questions that make the client think about how and why they think the way they do, which in turn broadens the client’s viewpoint. When an individual make assumptions, the therapist will ask them to give evidence that both supports and does not support their claims. This process can help them learn to see things from other people’s points of view.

Cognitive Journaling

While free-form journaling is a great way to get out repetitive or intrusive thoughts, cognitive journaling is structured so that clients can set goals and record their progress. A therapist or counselor may suggest making columns in a journal for

  • Situation/trigger (who, what, when, where)
  • Emotion/mood (assessing the intensity of a feeling from zero to 100)
  • Physical sensation (feelings in the body, like becoming hot or tense)
  • Thoughts (how strongly do you believe them?)
  • Behavior (how action could help or hurt).

Using this process in stressful moments and social situations allows individuals to slow down, check the facts, and rethink their perspective.

Tools for Tapping into the Mind-Body Connection

Sometimes stressful thoughts also ignite physical reactions, as the nervous system reacts to the upheaval in the mind. Hence, it’s useful to combine CBT skills to improve thought patterns with self-soothing exercises for the body. This combination can be grounding and calming for children and adolescents who are struggling.

  1. Paired Muscle Relaxation: Start by flexing and relaxing the fingers and toes. Slowly move up through the next muscle groups, working toward the center of your body.
  2. Relaxed Breathing: Taking slow, deep breaths can slow the heart rate during a panic reaction, and reduce the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Try inhaling four counts through the nose, then exhaling four counts out the mouth. Repeat until the wave of anxiety peaks and recedes. Notice when it passes, and express gratitude for your resilience.
  3. Temperature Change: Taking a warm shower or wrapping up in a cozy blanket can boost circulation and soothe the nervous system. Teens who are experiencing high levels of stress can try sipping on ice water to shift the nervous system.

What Are the Benefits of Teen CBT in the Short Term?

  • CBT is known to have quick results. Both therapists and psychologists use CBT to help with several mental health challenges. On average, about 15 sessions are needed to acquire proficiency in practicing CBT skills.
  • CBT activities for teens are highly engaging and interactive. The process of learning CBT skills keeps clients involved and interested throughout their sessions.
  • CBT for teens holds them accountable by empowering them to take ownership of their life. By doing “homework” outside sessions, clients constantly reinforce the new principles they are learning.

What Are the Long-Term Benefits of CBT for Teens?

CBT for teens works best when they actively apply the skills until they become a natural “default setting.” While results vary, CBT for children and teens is very effective in increasing emotional intelligence and self-awareness over the long term. Moreover, practical CBT interventions for kids can stay with them for the rest of their lives, so they can turn to these reframing tools whenever they need them.

Over time, CBT interventions for kids can help them to:

  • Shift negative thought patterns toward positive thinking
  • Respond to stress in healthier ways
  • Manage social situations and interactions more skillfully
  • Be more self-compassionate
  • Reduce unhealthy behaviors
  • Talk themselves down from irrational anxiety, fears, and phobias.

CBT for Teens at Newport Academy

Searching for “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for a teenager near me”? Newport Academy utilizes CBT for teenage anxiety disorders and CBT for teen depression as part of our individualized treatment plans. By addressing the underlying causes of adolescent mental health disorders, we help teens and their families move from struggling to thriving.

To learn more about how we use CBT and other modalities, such as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Attachment-Based Family Therapy, contact us today.

Key Takeaways

  • CBT intervention for kids can be a powerful part of an evidence-based treatment plan for adolescent mental health disorders, including substance abuse, eating disorders, PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
  • The foundation of CBT is that thoughts affect emotions, and emotions affect behavior. Hence, the goal of CBT for teens is to shift negative thought patterns to more positive thinking, leading to positive emotions, and thus to positive behaviors.
  • Therapists use CBT tools such as cognitive reconstruction, cognitive journaling, and relaxation techniques as part of the process of helping teens recognize and transform distorted thinking patterns.
  • Teen CBT has both short-term and long-term benefits. Over time, CBT skills can help teens better manage emotions and social situations, and reduce anxiety, phobias, and irrational fears.
  • At Newport Academy, teen CBT is an essential part of our individualized treatment plans for adolescents, alongside a variety of other clinical and experiential modalities.

Frequently Asked Questions About CBT for Teens

Is CBT effective for teenagers?

Yes, research shows that CBT for teens is highly effective in treating mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and behavioral issues.

What are CBT techniques that can be used with youth?

Cognitive reframing, journaling, and guided discovery are all tools used by a CBT therapist to help teens recognize and shift the negative thought patterns that lead to distressing emotions and unhealthy behaviors.

What therapy is best for teenagers?

CBT is one of the most effective therapeutic modalities for teens because it is simple to use and provides practical solutions. In general, teens respond best to therapy that provides usable skills and tools. In addition, experiential therapy like art therapy, music therapy, and Adventure Therapy are useful for adolescents because they involve active engagement as opposed to a verbal conversation.

Is CBT effective for children with depression?

Yes. Research shows that CBT helps reduce depressive symptoms in teens. A 2019 review study found that teen CBT interventions resulted in a 63 percent less risk of being depressed at follow-up.


European Psychiatry. 2019 Apr; 57: 33–45.