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What is DBT for Teens? Treating Adolescent Depression in 4 Steps

Adolescent depression is a growing concern in our society, with many young people struggling to cope with the challenges of modern life. For parents, it can be heartbreaking to watch their child suffer and not know how to help. Navigating the complex world of mental health care and finding the right treatment to support your teen can seem like a daunting task. Enter Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)—an innovative and increasingly popular approach that has been proven effective in treating a wide range of mental health issues, including adolescent depression and substance use. Understanding how this evidence-based therapy works can help you empower your teen to overcome depression, substance abuse, and—ultimately—to thrive.

What is DBT?

DBT is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy that was originally developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan to treat adults with borderline personality disorder. Over time, it has been adapted to address a wide range of mental health issues and substance use disorder. Dialectical behavior therapy for teens focuses on teaching young people the skills they need to manage their emotions, improve their relationships, and cope with difficult situations. Teenagers are going through a period of significant emotional and social development, which can make it difficult for them to regulate their emotions and navigate relationships. DBT helps teens to develop coping strategies and build resilience, reducing the risk of depression and substance abuse.

4 Elements of DBT

Mindfulness: This approach helps individuals cultivate a greater awareness of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. By becoming more present in the moment, your teen can learn to identify triggers for their depression or substance abuse and develop healthier coping mechanisms. Mindfulness exercises may include guided meditation, deep breathing, and body scans. These practices not only help your teen to focus on the present moment; but also, they create an environment where they can become more accepting of their thoughts and emotions without judgment.

Distress Tolerance: This tactic aims to help teens better manage and cope with emotional crises. It focuses on developing skills that allow them to accept and tolerate distressing emotions without resorting to negative behaviors like self-harm or substance abuse. Distress tolerance techniques include distraction, self-soothing, and improving the moment. These skills can help your teen navigate through difficult emotions more effectively and reduce the likelihood of engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Emotional Regulation: Emotional regulation focuses on helping adolescents understand and manage their emotions—particularly those that may contribute to depression or substance abuse. By developing emotional regulation skills, your teen can learn to identify and express their feelings in healthier ways, thereby reducing the intensity and frequency of negative emotions. Emotional regulation techniques may include identifying and labeling emotions, tracking emotional patterns, and challenging negative thoughts. 

Interpersonal Effectiveness: Interpersonal effectiveness teaches adolescents how to maintain healthy relationships and communicate effectively. Strong communication skills and positive relationships can be a protective factor against depression and substance abuse, as they provide a support network and reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. Techniques include assertiveness training, negotiation skills, and setting boundaries. By improving their communication skills and building strong relationships, your teen can develop a support system that fosters emotional well-being and helps them resist the temptation to engage in unhealthy behaviors.

4 Steps of Treating Adolescent Depression with DBT

DBT Step 1: Individual Therapy

The first step in DBT treatment for adolescents is individual therapy, which typically takes place once a week. In these sessions, the therapist works with the teenager to identify and address the specific issues that are contributing to their depression or substance abuse. The therapist helps the teen to develop a clear understanding of their emotions and teaches them how to apply DBT skills in their daily life.

Individual therapy is also an opportunity for the therapist to assess the teenager's progress and make any necessary adjustments to their treatment plan. The therapist will work with the teen to set achievable goals and provide guidance on how to reach them.

DBT Step 2: Skills Training Groups

In addition to individual therapy, adolescents participating in DBT treatment also attend skills training groups. These groups usually meet once a week and are led by a trained DBT therapist. The primary focus of these groups is to teach teens the core DBT skills, which are divided into the four elements discussed above. The skills training groups provide a supportive environment for teenagers to practice and refine their newly acquired DBT skills. They also offer an opportunity for the teens to connect with their peers who are facing similar challenges, which can help to reduce feelings of isolation and stigma.

DBT Step 3: Parent Involvement

Parental involvement is a crucial component of DBT treatment for adolescents. Research has shown that when parents are actively engaged in their child's treatment, the outcomes are significantly better. As part of the DBT process, parents are encouraged to participate in their own skills training group. This group is designed to teach parents the same DBT skills that their child is learning, as well as strategies for supporting their teenager through the treatment process.

In addition to the training group, the DBT therapist may also recommend family therapy sessions. These sessions provide an opportunity for the entire family to work together to address any issues that may be contributing to the teen's depression or substance abuse. Family therapy can help to improve communication, resolve conflicts, and strengthen the family's support network.

DBT Step 4: Phone Coaching

The final phase of DBT treatment for adolescents is phone coaching. This involves the teenager having access to their DBT therapist outside of scheduled sessions for additional support and guidance. The purpose of phone coaching is to help the teen apply the DBT skills they have learned in real-life situations when they need it most.

Phone coaching can be particularly valuable for teenagers who are struggling with substance abuse, as it provides them with an immediate lifeline in moments of crisis or temptation. It also reinforces the idea that the therapist is a consistent and reliable source of support, which can help to build trust and strengthen the therapeutic relationship.

As a parent, understanding and supporting your child through the DBT process is essential for achieving the best possible outcomes. If you suspect that your teenager may be struggling with depression or substance abuse, it is crucial to seek professional help as early as possible. Our experienced outreach staff are available 24/7 to take your call and help guide you through the best course of action. You can learn more about our program and ways to contact us here.