Many children develop disorders like ADHD, anxiety disorder, and bipolar disorder at a young age. These disorders often result in children acting impulsively, aggressively, inattentively, or other displaying other problematic behavior. Many parents attempt to discipline these behaviors out of their children or may turn to medication as their primary method of treatment, rather than behavioral therapy for children.

Childhood disorders and the behavior associated with them can greatly affect the child’s future, as well as negatively impact their families, teachers, peers, and communities. In many of these cases, the child would benefit from behavioral therapy. Behavioral therapy for children gives parents and caregivers the tools they need for helping their children and strengthens the parental bond with otherwise problematic kids.

What is behavioral therapy for children?

Behavioral therapy focuses on eliminating unwanted or problematic behavior while rewarding and promoting desirable behavior. Small and subtle changes can, in the long term, greatly affect behavior and attitudes in children and teens. Behavioral therapy also engages parents and caregivers in becoming part of the solution.

There are many instances where negative behavior is unintentionally reinforced. For example, a child who does not want to get ready for bed might throw a tantrum or become difficult to deal with. Parents who are exhausted at the end of a long day might want to avoid the drama, and allow their child to stay up for an extra fifteen minutes just to restore peace. Without meaning to do so, these parents have just informed their children that tantrums are an effective way to get what they want.

Small behaviors will root themselves in our thinking and beliefs, and result in larger behaviors that are more difficult to change. The child who got their way by throwing tantrums might begin believing that, for them to get their way, all they have to do is raise their voice. As an adult they may continue to do this, resulting in them being aggressively controlling and intimidating.

Behavioral therapy works on the premise that we are geared from a young age to respond enthusiastically to rewards. The parents whose child threw a tantrum to avoid going to bed reinforced the effectiveness of the tantrum with a reward of an extra fifteen minutes of the child being allowed to stay awake.

Behavioral therapy might suggest that the parents develop a system where they offer a larger reward to their child only if the child goes to bed on time every night for a week. For example, they could make a chart on which a sticker is given for each night the child goes to bed when told. At the end of the week, if they have been obedient each night, the child may choose a reward.

There are a variety of ways to use behavioral therapy for children and adolescents depending on the instance and disorder of each patient. Some sessions might involve only the child, some might involve the parents with the child, and some sessions might only be with the parents. There is often homework given to the parents to carry out at home, and the therapist might want to monitor the progress weekly.

The age of the child or adolescent is important for the therapist to consider when developing a therapy plan. Every child develops differently, has specific needs, and is affected by unique factors.

The parents

Parents and caregivers are a vital part of behavioral therapy for children. By learning to use tools like time-outs and rule-setting, parents can begin to effectively discourage unwanted behavior. Parents can reinforce good behavior by using a reward system, praise, and positive attention. These actions have the additional benefit of strengthening their relationship with their children.

During parent training sessions, parents meet with the therapists alone and might review specific instances of struggle with their child. There might be some techniques to follow up on or new things to learn about the way they interact with their children.

The parent training aspect of behavioral therapy exists to equip and encourage parents to help their children. These sessions generally take place in time frames of 8-12 weeks and may involve other parents in group sessions.

The children

This behavior therapy approach allows therapists to observe and engage with children in their peer groups, and provide good behavior reinforcement. This is long-term therapy, taking place over a year or more in two to three-hour sessions after school or on the weekend. It can also take place in the context of holiday camps, where therapists can spend upwards of six hours with the children.

During group sports, games, and tasks, therapists will pay careful attention to how the children interact with each other, and use rewards and praise to reinforce good behavior. The therapist may also suggest clues or strategies to help the child complete tasks in which they must interact and depend on their peers for ultimate solutions. Not only do the children learn competence with problem-solving, but they develop friendships with their peers, and find the confidence to tackle new challenges.

This behavior training is especially effective for children who have ADHD. This is a disorder that can have an isolating effect on kids and diminish their confidence and self-esteem. When they have the opportunity to make friends with peers who have similar struggles, and grow and learn together, it can have a profound impact on their lives.

The teachers

In this aspect of behavior therapy, it is the teacher who implements behavior therapy strategies in the classroom. The focus is the same: to focus on rewarding and reinforcing good behavior, while preventing negative behavior. With behavioral classroom management, teachers encourage academic engagement, compliment attempts, reward achievements, and provide positive feedback. They also curb unwanted behavior with strict rules, guidelines, and discipline.

This might sound as if it describes any educational institution, but not every teacher is trained with behavioral therapy strategies in mind. Behavioral therapy is an ongoing process, with the best results seen in the long term. Because children spend most of their lives in a classroom, being connected with a teacher who uses behavior therapy in their class is a way of ensuring that the therapy is ongoing.

Medication or behavioral therapy for children?

Many parents choose medication as a method of helping their children cope with disorders like ADHD and depression. Once the right medication is prescribed, and the dosages determined, the children affected by these disorders have a chance at succeeding in life. However, there are drawbacks to only using a medication, and starting that medication at a young age.

Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shown that only one in every two children that are diagnosed with ADHD receive some form of psychotherapy, coaching, counseling, or behavior therapy.

Medication can be a fast and effective strategy for coping with disorders, but it can also develop a reliance on medicine while not equipping the child (or their parents) with coping skills, emotional regulation, or improvements in self-control.

Implementing behavioral therapy strategies at home and in the classroom can be difficult, and there might not be apparent changes for many weeks. However, research has shown that a child may benefit from medication for a decade or more, but as soon as the medication is stopped for any reason, the benefits immediately cease. Medication might improve the symptoms of a disorder, but it cannot establish any long-term behavioral changes.

Parents may choose a combination of medication and therapy to help their child. While this is reasonable, psychiatrists recommend that parents first try behavioral therapy, and then use the medication in smaller doses as a supplement. In this way, the medication might enable the child to better engage with the therapy, and will not become the crutch of either the child or their parents.

In almost every case, the family that opts for medication first will rarely try behavioral therapy, or they will try it when the medication is no longer effective. Health professionals recommend beginning behavior therapy as early as possible to ensure the longest-lasting results.

Further help

Behavioral therapy will equip you as a parent with tools to help your child and family, but sometimes you need help just for yourself. Caring for yourself is vitally important, and prioritizing your mental health needs is not selfish. You might feel as if you don’t have time for yourself, to care for your needs, but in this case, it is wise to make time.

We are here to help you. If your contact us, we will connect you to a counselor who can focus on your health needs alone, or provide advice or information about behavioral therapy. It pays to get the opinion of professionals, and a counselor may provide exactly the type of support you need.

Contact our offices at your convenience and begin your journey of mental health care. Whether it be for you alone, for or with your family members, or simply to obtain some professional insight, we have got you covered. The road to mental and emotional wellness might be a long one, but you don’t have to walk it alone.

Photos:
“Car Wash”, Courtesy of Sir Manuel, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License; “Playing with Mom”, Courtesy of Getty Images, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License; “Breakfast”, courtesy of Colin + Meg, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License; “Girl and Dog”, Courtesy of Annie Spratt, Unsplash.com, CC0 License