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 therapist focuses on building a client’s strengths and uses strategies that clients can use to help cope with their problems. Strategies include building optimism, hope, and resilience and setting goals.
As Positive Education continues to show promising results on children and adolescents, what can Positive CBT do for them, too? Positive Education works on preventing dysfunctional behaviors, but a lot of younger people enter therapy on an involuntary basis. In other words, many times it is an older person who convinces the young child or teenager to see a therapist because of problem behaviors they are noticing (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. The other difficult thing to do is trust the therapist and aim of the 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
Optimistic children are more successful at school, school work, and sports than pessimistic children (Seligman, Reivich, Jaycox, and Gilham, 1995). Optimistic adolescents are not only less angry but also less likely to take part in drugs and alcohol. The study also showed that children are more depressed and pessimistic when their mothers granted them less autonomy. This seems to be due to control issues, as a child who feels more responsible and trusted has an increase in optimism.
Criticism by parents, teachers, coaches, and other adults also play a role in optimism. As a child matures into a teenager, the influence of friends and peers will be more important to them (Seligman, Reivich, Jaycox, and Gilham, 1995). But criticisms they received at a younger age do build a structure for them and shape their self-talk and perspective.
Hopeful children have a higher self-esteem and are less prone to depression (Bannink, 2012). Research also showed that children and adolescents who have more hope have fewer behavioral problems. Hope combined with a positive support system contributed 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 her, resilient children can overcome trauma (Grotberg, 1995).
As children become older they start to place a larger role on themselves for increasing their resilience, but it is still based on how well they were taught to be resilient at a younger age. The type of support system they had helps acquire skills and enhance their inner strengths (Bannink, 2012).
Positive CBT with children and families involves talking about which of these inner strengths they already have and how it can be further enhanced.
The Role of Well-Being Is Less Clear
Well-being affects every part of your life, physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually. However, there isn’t much research on the impact of well-being with children (Bannink, 2012). It is still unclear when giving a test on well-being who should be answering the questions: the child, parents, or teacher?
In line with positive psychology practitioners, a positive CBT therapist phrases items on questions in positive terms than negative.
Positive CBT Emphasizes the Client’s Strengths
Using Positive CBT on children and adolescents applies the same principles in conversations as with adults. The main emphasis is on what is right with them, their strengths, and what they’re capable of (Bannink, 2012).
A Positive CBT therapist limits “problem talk” as much as he or she can, even with the 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).
The VIA Strengths Survey for Children contains a list of 198 questions that children between the ages of 8 to 17 can take. It explores the same 24 strengths found in the test for adults.
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 prevent depression.
One example of a CBT model 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 to use for solving problems, such as increasing assertiveness, becoming better at decision-making, and coping with emotions and difficult 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 cognitive-behavioral therapy, there is homework involved for the child and/or teenager and parent. Berg and 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 move the lessons taught in therapy to the child’s real life. Homework is usually provided with guidelines for completing it, making sure that every homework given is doable and involves a step towards the client’s goal (Bannink, 2012).
An example of homework that is given is a 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 exchanged. Each week an individual pulls a wish from the bag he or she received from the exchange 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 the 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 client is to be able to enhance their own strengths and prevent future problem behaviors. The child or teenager will learn how to conjure up positive emotions by themselves, be hopeful and optimistic about the future, have a better understanding of their strengths, and continue to work on them.
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.