What is DBT and How Can it Help My Teenager?

As parents, there is nothing more frightening than watching our children suffer and struggle, and feeling powerless to help them.   When teens are injuring themselves and struggling with suicidal thoughts and tendencies, that powerlessness can feel overwhelming.  Too often, parents disregard the signs and ignore what is right in front of them because they don’t know how to help.  This “ignore the problem in the hope that it will go away” approach can have serious consequences for their teenager.  Other parents see what is going on but don’t know what to do or how to help.  The first step in getting your teenager help is to acknowledge that there is a problem.  The second step is to find a professional mental health practitioner that can help.

When most people think of getting mental health, they likely envision traditional talk therapy or individual cognitive behavioral therapy, both of which are standard therapeutic approaches used to treat teenagers who are participating in self injuring activities and those who have expressed suicidal thoughts.  Both of these approaches can be very effective in dealing with these issues and any underlying issues like depression and anxiety.  There is also an emerging approach called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) that has is also proving to be very effective at helping teenagers overcome these challenges.

DBT was originally developed as a way to treat women with borderline personality disorder (BPD).  It combines individual cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, mindfulness, reality testing, distress tolerance, and the concepts used in assertiveness training.   One of the hallmarks of DBT is that the mental health practitioner strives to create a relationship with the teenager that is allied rather than adversarial.  In effect, the therapist or counselor acts as an ally, validating feelings and offering acceptance while helping redirect feelings and behaviors that are destructive or harmful.

DBT also uses a combined approach which incorporates both individual therapy sessions and group sessions.  The group sessions focus on building a skill set that helps teens in four key areas, regulating emotions, practicing mindfulness, increasing effectiveness, and tolerating distress.   One of the reasons DBT can be so effective in helping teens is this two-pronged approach.   While the group sessions give teens the skills they need to overcome these challenges and the opportunity to practice utilizing these skills with other teens, the individual sessions ensure emotional issues and suicidal thoughts and tendencies get the attention they need while the teenager is building the skills they need to self-manage.

DBT can help teenagers who are already engaging in self-harm and may also be helpful in preventing self-harm behavior from occurring.  By giving teenagers the skills they need to regulate their own emotions, become more resilient in dealing with distressing situations, and embrace a mindfulness approach to their lives, DBT can help troubled teens before they seek relief from maladaptive behaviors.   DBT can be effective method for helping those who are already cutting and struggling with suicidal tendencies overcome those challenges as well as a way to prevent these problems before they start.

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