3 Ways to Use Positive Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) With Teens

Using Positive CBT with children and adolescents

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.

Before you start reading this article, I recommend you download these three Positive CBT exercises for free. With these exercises, you will be able to understand positive CBT on a theoretical level, and you’ll also have the tools to apply it in your work with clients or students.

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 teenage hood, 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 Wellbeing 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 wellbeing in children needs more research.


Positive CBT Emphasizes the Client’s Strengths

focusing on character strengths with children

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 (Quenza Example)

Quenza Cognitive DefusionIt is common in CBT for therapists to assign homework to their clients. This remains true whether the client is an adult or a teenager.

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).

Additionally, some activities may be designed for the teen to complete independently, while others may be most suitable to complete with the guidance of a parent or caregiver.

When it comes to assigning homework for clients to complete independently, many therapists do so using blended care platforms such as Quenza. Among its various functions, this online tool allows therapists to either share pre-written CBT homework activities from the platform’s library or design their own.

For instance, pictured here is the beginning of a step-by-step cognitive defusion exercise, which can teach teenage clients to disentangle themselves from their negative thoughts through self-paced instruction and reflection.

An example of a homework assignment teenage clients can do together with their parent(s) is the Wonder Bag Activity. The child and parent each write down five wishes on five separate pieces 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.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. For more information, don’t forget to download our three Positive CBT Exercises for free.

  • Bannink, F. (2012). Practicing positive CBT: From reducing distress to building success. Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Grotberg, E. (1995). A guide to promoting resilience in children: Strengthening the human spirit. Early Childhood Development: Practice and Reflections (Vol. 8). Bernard van Leer Foundation.
  • Seligman, M. (2015). Resilience training for educators. Retrieved from https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/learn/educatorresilience
  • Seligman, M. E., Reivich, K., Jaycox, L., & Gillham, J. (1995). The optimistic child. Houghton Mifflin.

About the Author

Reham Al Taher, MSc, Clinical Psychologist, is a child psychotherapist and the author of multiple books. She is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at University of Birmingham.


  1. Mpho

    I ensue reading your article on CBT. I wish we can go back to normal after Covid 19 so i may isenitnwith teenagers in work with. However i could relate the material to adults who need the therapy who were not diagnosed early because of ignorance or other reasons and the behaviours now impact so negatively on th3ir life leading to self destruction.

  2. Sreerekha Mohan

    Thank you mam for this article. It really helped me to collect more information of positive CBT. I am a PhD scholar who is planning to do study on positive CBT on mothers of disabled children. But I could find very few materials on Positive CBT online. It will be very helpful if you could provide me with any links or articles. Thank you mam.

    • Nicole Celestine

      Hi Sreerekha,
      You can find a list of all the references cited throughout this article by clicking the button that says ‘References’ just above this comment section and the author bio. If you take any of those references and put them into Google Scholar, you will be able to find download links for the papers.
      Hope this helps.
      – Nicole | Community Manager

  3. neelam

    A fantastic explanation.It definitely will bring transformation in clients.will work great at school.

  4. Anita Yawson

    Thanks Ms. AlTaher. I believe that your article on Positive CBT will also be very helpful for military veterans and non-veterans who experience homelessness. I’m in 1st year field as I’m a master degree social work candidate attending Morgan State University. Respectfully,
    Ms. Anita Yawson

  5. Vincent

    Hi Reham,
    Depend on the ages.
    The technqiues work well for the teenagers.
    I focus on identifying their character strengths and use ABC method to help them understand how their thinking affect their emotions and behaviours.
    I will get in touch with you soon.

    • Reham Al Taher

      Thanks for clarifying, Vincent. I look forward to hearing from you again.

      • Hesam

        Hello dear
        Thanks for the content
        Excuse me, my treatis on PCBT is about chronic pain patients
        Thanks for posting articles on this
        Thank you

  6. Vincent Soo

    Hi Reham,
    I have been following your articles on Positive CBT.
    As a certified Positive Psychology Coach and a Cognitive-Behavioural Therapist in Singapore, I have been working with children and teenagers with behavioural issues, ADHD and learning difficulties.
    I have been using VIA Strengths Survey and ABC Model for my clients (children, teenagers and adults) either in individual coaching or workshops.
    Currently, I am in the process of developing a strengths-based coaching program using Positive Psychology, CBT and Choice Theory/Reality Therapy to work with for children and teenagers.
    Do let me know if you are keen to explore on co-developing the program and to be conducted in Singapore.
    Vincent Soo
    Positive Psychology Coach
    EQ & Relationship Coach
    Cognitive-Behavioural Therapist
    MSocSc (Counselling), BA (Psychology)

    • Reham Al Taher

      Hi Vincent,
      I’m glad to know that you have been enjoying the Positive CBT articles. How have you been finding these techniques on children and adolescents? Do you find them to be just as effective as with adults? I would LOVE to hear more about your strengths-based coaching program. Please contact me at reham@positivepsychologyprogram.com with more information 🙂 Have a great day, Vincent.


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