Dialectical Behavior Therapy for Adolescents

Transitioning from childhood to adulthood is among the most challenging times in a person’s life. For adolescents struggling with negative feelings, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, or mental health disorders, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) can help. 

Massachusetts Center for Adolescent Wellness provides dialectical behavior therapy during programming to help adolescents with their mental health. DBT can potentially make a life-changing, positive impact on teens struggling with various issues. Many families have found that DBT is particularly helpful in treating different kinds of mental health disorders.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for Adolescents

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Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for Adolescents

What is Dialectical Behavior Therapy?

DBT programs are designed to stop patients from hurting themselves or acting on distressing feelings by teaching healthy coping skills. This method teaches them better, safe ways to manage their emotions. It’s a comprehensive therapy that includes the family in the treatment process. 

First developed in the 1970s, dialectical behavior therapy combines mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) treatments. Mental health professionals use this therapy to manage strong emotions that can lead to a lack of stability. DBT treatment is an evidence-based approach to managing a person’s mental health and emotional dysregulation. 

Here are some of the benefits of DBT:

Through mindfulness, patients learn to accept that they're doing the best their can, discovering and accepting their feelings as reality instead of pushing them away.

Through DBT, patients learn how to use their rational thought to change those feelings before they can begin to dominate the mind and turn into potentially destructive actions.

The goal of behavioral therapists and teenagers during DBT is to build a growth mindset in which patients can actively and rationally confront their fears. They learn to manage troubling impulses by combating them before they become harmful.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for Adolescents

What Can DBT Treat in Adolescents?

Dialectical behavior therapy for young people is designed for situations in which parents tend to be at their wit’s end. In many cases, a drastic intervention becomes necessary to manage a teen’s mental health. It’s frequently applied to what clinicians call “dysregulation.” Dysregulation is a lack of ability to manage emotions to the point where they turn into impulsive, destructive, and even self-harming behaviors.

DBT teaches skills for adolescents that are designed to acknowledge these emotions without feeling judged. Then they build the techniques needed to manage emotions so they can improve their daily life and emotional well-being. This is accomplished in an environment where adolescents and their families learn together.

Dialectical behavior therapy has become an effective way to address, treat, and improve these symptoms:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • ADHD
  • Eating disorders
  • Disruptive behavior disorders
  • Drug abuse

DBT can also help teenagers control impulsive and disruptive behaviors, frequent mood swings, outbursts of anger, poor coping skills, and suicidal ideation or behaviors. Each of these in isolation can potentially destroy the life of an adolescent and their family; with the proper treatment, everyone involved can turn the corner.

Crucially, the general concept of DBT can apply to all of these issues. This is thanks to a more holistic approach that treats the root cause instead of only the symptoms. Clinical studies have even shown the potential of DBT to treat borderline personality disorder, a mental illness previously thought impossible to diagnose for adolescents.

What Skills Does DBT Teach Adolescent Patients?

The nuances of dialectical behavior therapy can differ based on the individual situation and the cause of the treatment. However, most DBT skills for adolescents can best be grouped into five distinct categories:

Mindfulness skills involve understanding and knowing how to spot the signs of potentially harmful emotions.

Emotional regulation and distress tolerance skills focus on better protecting oneself from either end of the extreme emotional spectrum. This includes taking care of one's body by eating and sleeping well, avoiding drugs, and strategies to manage emotional crises without escalation. It also includes consciously controlling urges that could harm yourself and others.

Interpersonal skills can help adolescents better approach situations where interactions with others may trigger emotional extremes. This includes both in-the-moment tactics to approach these interactions and more overarching skills to build healthier relationships with others.

Self-awareness and empathy skills focus on building the ability to recognize and validate the viewpoints of others, compromise and negotiate, and work together to manage emotional situations. These skills focus on moving away from the 'right' and 'wrong' mindset. Which creates an environment where multiple viewpoints can be valid.

Problem-solving skills, focus on tactics and strategies to manage differences of opinion or other situations that could otherwise escalate.

These skills tend to build on each other, ultimately creating a better system for the teen patient and their support system to acknowledge potentially harmful emotions. While also actively addressing them and seeking out alternative means of action.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for Adolescents

How is Dialectical Behavior Therapy Typically Structured?

DBT requires complete buy-in from the patient and the entire family system. Therefore therapy sessions typically consist of a few essential components that a patient walks through:

  • Evaluation involves a medical professional determining that the patient and symptoms in question are a good fit for DBT.
  • In individual therapy, the patient learns basic skills in a safe and personal environment.
  • In family and group therapy, the patient and parents learn to work through negative emotions and approach potentially triggering interactions.

Typically, these components take between 4 and 6 months, depending on the severity of the issue. However, patients and families have the option to continue if ongoing services seem to be beneficial.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for Adolescents

DBT at Massachusetts Center for Adolescent Wellness - Near Boston

Seeking mental health treatment for your adolescent child can be challenging. Professional support and guidance can be beneficial, especially if their behavior threatens their well-being or those around them. The Massachusetts Center for Adolescent Wellness approaches mental and behavioral health concerns holistically. Our clinical professionals develop comprehensive treatment plans, including DBT. Learn more about our therapies and how we can help teens.

Our treatment plans are designed to give adolescents the tools they need to manage their well-being. We offer a range of treatment options for teens and their families, including family therapy and other treatments for depression and anxiety. Contact us today to learn more about how DBT can help your teen live a happier and healthier life.

Clinically Reviewed by:

Dr. Melanie Carbonneau PhD, LMHC, MT-BC

Dr. Melanie Carbonneau PhD, LMHC, MT-BC

Melanie Carbonneau is the Clinical Director at Massachusetts Center for Adolescent Wellness and is a licensed counselor and certified music therapist with a Ph.D. from Lesley University. She leads MCAW with a focus on holistic care, emphasizing the importance of family and community involvement in the healing process.