Recently, I was working with a very clever young mother who shared with me how she copes when she is feeling overwhelmed with her newborn. She reminds herself that her newborn is “not giving me a hard time; she is having a hard time.”

Focus on the Behavior

Many times, when working with kids and their families, I find myself emphasizing that the child is not the problem, the behavior is the problem. While this may seem a like minor, or even a semantic difference, it is important because it illustrates the power of perspective. 

How we think about a topic often defines how we feel about that topic. How we feel about the topic then influences our responses and our behaviors.

If we want to change a behavior – ours or someone else’s— we can start by changing how we understand or think about the behavior.

Dialetical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

Different types of cognitive behavioral therapy, such as dialectical behavioral therapy or DBT, can be very helpful for kids because it allows them to experience control in situations where they might otherwise feel powerless.

There are five main areas of focus within DBT, and they can be used as needed. In no particular order, these are Emotional Regulation, Distress Tolerance, Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, and Balance or “Walking the Middle Path.”

DBT places emphasis on being able to accept life as it is now, while at the same time working to make positive changes. The D in DBT simply means that two things can be true at the same time, and we need to accept both in order to be effective at changing.

There are many examples of this, with one of particular note being, “I am doing my best, and I need to do better.” Or, “I had an unhappy childhood, and I can live a happy life.” Or even, “I hate what someone did to me, and I still love them.” Maybe most difficult for kids and the rest of us to say is, “I didn’t cause this problem, and I need to fix it.”

DBT allows parents and providers to support kids by validating the seriousness of the problem and acknowledging that it is real (i.e., they are not just being dramatic, attention-seeking, manipulative, etc.) while still holding them accountable for managing the emotions and focusing on a solution.

A child’s behavior may be problematic, but the child is not the problem. A child must understand that a parent wants to help because a parent loves; that message must be understood. Collaborating to find a solution which allows the child to feel effective and in control is the goal. If a child perceives herself as a problem, the resulting low self-esteem may translate into self-sabotage and many other behavioral concerns.

DBT helps kids understand that all behavior is a form of communication and that, sometimes, they need a more effective way of asking for what they need.

Asking for Help

There are many free resources available online for parents and educators, and the basics of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and DBT can be used by all of us in our interpersonal relationships.

Additionally, behavioral health providers at Peak Vista health centers would be happy to engage with providers and families to provide more information about the various types of therapy available to the patients we serve.

Christian Sharpe, MA, LPC

Christian is a behavioral health provider at Peak Vista’s Pediatric Health Center at International Circle. He completed his undergraduate degree in sociology and human services, followed by a master’s degree in counseling and human services. He specializes in talk therapy, DBT, eye movement, and family therapy designed to treat disorders related to depression, anxiety, trauma, developmental disruptions, relationship concerns, emotional dysregulation, and self-harming behaviors.

In his free time, Christian enjoys playing guitar, reading, gardening, woodworking, and spending time with his daughter.

To make an appointment or to learn more about other Peak Vista services, visit peakvista.org or call (719) 632-5700.