Positive cognitive behavioral therapy, or positive CBT, is a strengths-based approach with positive psychology roots. The focus is not on what’s wrong with the client, but on what is right with them.
A positive CBT practitioner focuses on building a client’s strengths and uses strategies that clients can use to help cope with their problems. Strategies include setting goals and building optimism, hope, and resilience.
As positive education continues to show promising results among children and adolescents, positive CBT can benefit as well. Positive education works to prevent dysfunctional behaviors, but many young people enter therapy on an involuntary basis.
Often, young children or teenagers only seek therapy because adults in their lives notice them displaying problem behaviors (Bannink, 2012). Although parents and teachers will seek therapy for developmental conflicts, it is often difficult to differentiate dysfunction and the bumpy road of maturation.
It can also often be difficult to trust the therapist and the aim of therapy. Here is a look at what a child or adolescent learns in a positive CBT setting.
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Inner Strengths to Nurture
In an ideal world, every child learns the tools to understand the beliefs they hold about themselves and the world they have inherited.
By the time children move towards teenagehood, the whole world can seem like a confusing and unfair place where they do not belong. That’s why CBT-intervention is so important, for anyone, but especially for young adults in the formative stages of their life.
Optimism, hope, and resilience are core parts of living a fulfilling life, and studies prove that these strengths are not fluffy or idealized concepts, but rather, strengths with powerful worth.
Optimistic children are more successful at school, homework, and sports than pessimistic children (Seligman, Reivich, Jaycox, & Gilham, 1995). More so, optimistic adolescents are not only less angry but are less likely to use drugs and alcohol.
Research has also shown that children are more depressed and pessimistic when their parents grant them less autonomy. This seems to be due to control issues, as a child who feels responsible and trusted experiences increased optimism (Seligman, Reivich, Jaycox, & Gilham, 1995).
Criticism from parents, teachers, coaches, and other adults also play a role in a child’s optimism levels.
As a child matures into a teenager, the influence of friends and peers will be of increased importance to them (Seligman, Reivich, Jaycox, & Gilham, 1995). But criticism they received at a younger age will continue to shape their self-talk and perspective.
Hopeful children have higher self-esteem and are less prone to depression (Bannink, 2012).
Research has shown that children and adolescents who have more hope have fewer behavioral problems. Hope, combined with a positive support system, contribute greatly to their feelings of self-worth.
Edith Grotberg, Ph.D., carried out research in several countries with the International Resilience Project and found that resilience has a huge impact on children. According to Grotberg, resilient children can overcome trauma (1995).
As children become older their capability to build their resilience is based on how well they were taught resilience a younger age. The type of support system they had determines whether they acquired skills and enhanced their inner strengths (Bannink, 2012).
Positive CBT with children and families explores which of these inner strengths a child or teenager already has, and how they can be further enhanced.
The Role of Well-Being Is Less Clear
Well-being affects every part of life: physical, mental, social, and spiritual. However, few researchers have studied the impact of well-being in children (Bannink, 2012).
It is unclear to whom questions should be asked when evaluating a child’s well-being: the child, the parents, or a teacher? For this reason, the impact of well-being in children needs more research.
Positive CBT Emphasizes the Client’s Strengths
Positive CBT uses the same principles with children and adolescents as it does with adults. The main emphasis is on what is right with them: their strengths and what they’re capable of (Bannink, 2012).
The VIA Strengths Survey for Children contains a list of 198 questions that children ages 8 to 17 can take. It explores the same 24 strengths found in the version of the test used for adults.
A positive CBT therapist limits “problem talk” as much as he or she can, even with the client’s parents. Many times parents come to see a therapist for their child as a last resort and feel very frustrated. It is important to acknowledge their frustration and then move on to a “strengths and solution talk” (Bannink, 2012).
Positive CBT in Group Therapy
The Penn Resilience Project, or PRP, is a group intervention for late-elementary and middle school students who are at risk of depression (Bannink, 2012). PRP teaches cognitive-behavioral skills, problem-solving skills, and positive psychology skills to help prevent depression.
One method used by PRP is Albert Ellis’s ABC Model, which is centered on the idea that our beliefs affect our emotions, which then affect our behavior. This model helps children find inaccurate thoughts, evaluate them, and eliminate them if they find alternative interpretations that are more realistic.
PRP also employs a variety of techniques solving problems, such as increasing assertiveness, becoming better at decision-making, and coping with difficult emotions and situations (Bannink, 2012).
Positive psychology comes in as a solution-building paradigm, focusing on creativity, brainstorming, and resilience (Seligman, 2015).
Continuing Therapy at Home
Like CBT, there is homework involved for the child or teenager and his or her parents.
Family therapists Insoo Kim Berg and Therese Steiner (2003) list a number of homework and suggestions that can be used in two categories: do-more-of-what-works tasks and do-something-different tasks. Do-something-different tasks are advised to be used only under extreme circumstances, as the child should mostly focus on doing more of what works.
Homework helps transfer the lessons taught in therapy to the child’s real life. Homework is usually provided with guidelines for completing it, ensuring that each assignment is doable and involves a step toward the client’s goal (Bannink, 2012).
An example homework assignment is the wonder bag. The child and parent each write down five wishes on a separate piece of paper. They put the wishes in separate bags and the bags are then exchanged. Each week an individual pulls a wish from the bag he or she received and is given one week to make the wish come true.
These wishes can be for the parents to come to a sports activity, for the child to clean his or her room, and so on.
A positive CBT therapist can also ask the child or adolescent to “pay attention to the expression on your mom’s face each time you start your homework without having to be told to” (Bannink, 2012). This helps positively reinforce the desired behavior and helps the client focus on what is going right for them.
Goals for Positive CBT
The goal for the clients is for them to enhance their strengths and prevent future problem behaviors.
Imagine what it looks like, for children or teenagers to conjure positive emotions by themselves, develop resilience in the face of adversity, and be optimistic about their life.
By understanding their own strengths and working on them, CBT provides the opportunity for children and teenagers to thrive, and for parents to feel closer to their children.
Bannink, F. (2012). Practicing positive CBT: From reducing distress to building success. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.
Berg, I. K., & Steiner, T. (2003). Children’s solution work. New York: Norton.
Grotberg, E. (1995). A guide to promoting resilience in children: Strengthening the human spirit. Early Childhood Development: Practice and Reflections, (8), 88.
Seligman, M. (2015). Resilience Training for Educators | Authentic Happiness. Retrieved from https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/learn/educatorresilience
Seligman, M. E., Reivich, K., Jaycox, L., & Gillham, J. (1995). The optimistic child. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.