Behavioral Consult

Demystifying psychotherapy


Managing psychiatric illnesses is rapidly becoming routine practice for primary care pediatricians, whether screening for symptoms of anxiety and depression, starting medication, or providing psychoeducation to youth and parents. Pediatricians can provide strategies to address the impairments of sleep, energy, motivation and appetite that can accompany these illnesses. Psychotherapy, a relationship based on understanding and providing support, should be a core element of treatment for emotional disorders, but there is a great deal of uncertainty around what therapies are supported by evidence. This month, we offer a primer on the evidence-based psychotherapies for youth and we also recognize that research defining the effectiveness of psychotherapy is limited and complex.

Cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy (CBT)

Mention psychotherapy and most people think of a patient reclining on a couch free-associating about their childhood while a therapist sits behind them taking notes. This potent image stems from psychoanalytic psychotherapy, developed in the 19th century by Sigmund Freud, and was based on his theory that unconscious conflicts drove most of the puzzling behaviors and emotional distress associated with “neurosis.” Psychoanalysis became popular in 20th century America, even for use with children. Evidence is hard to develop since psychoanalytic therapy often lasts years, there are a limited number of patients, and the method is hard to standardize.

Dr. Susan D. Swick, physician in chief at Ohana, Center for Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health, Community Hospital of the Monterey (Calif.) Peninsula.

Dr. Susan D. Swick

A focus on how to shape behaviors directly also emerged in the early 20th century (in the work of John Watson and Ivan Pavlov). Aaron Beck, MD, the father of CBT, observed in his psychoanalytic treatments that many patients appeared to be experiencing emotional distress around thoughts that were not unconscious. Instead, his patients were experiencing “automatic thoughts,” or rapid, often-distorted thoughts that have the force of truth in the thinker. These thoughts create emotional distress and behaviors that may reinforce the thoughts and emotional distress. For example, a depressed patient who is uncomfortable in social situations may think “nobody ever likes me.” This may cause them to appear uncomfortable or unfriendly in a new social situation and prevent them from making connections, perpetuating a cycle of isolation, insecurity, and loneliness. Identifying these automatic thoughts, and their connection to painful feelings and perpetuating behaviors is at the core of CBT.

In CBT the therapist is much more active than in psychoanalysis. They engage patients in identifying thought distortions together, challenging them on the truth of these thoughts and recognizing the connection to emotional distress. They also identify maladaptive behaviors and focus on strategies to build new more effective behavioral responses to thoughts, feelings, and situations. This is often done with gradual “exposures” to new behaviors, which are naturally reinforced by better outcomes or lowered distress. When performed with high fidelity, CBT is a very structured treatment that is closer to an emotionally supportive form of coaching and skill building. CBT is at the core of most evidence-based psychotherapies that have emerged in the past 60 years.

CBT is the first-line treatment for anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults. A variant called “exposure and response prevention” is the first-line treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder, and is predominantly behavioral. It is focused on preventing patients with anxiety disorders from engaging in the maladaptive behaviors that lower their anxiety in the short term but cause worsened anxiety and impairment over time (such as avoiding social situations when they are worried that others won’t like them).

CBT is also a first-line treatment for major depressive episodes in teenagers and adults, although those for whom the symptoms are severe often need medication to be able to fully participate in therapy. There are variants of CBT that have demonstrated efficacy in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder, bulimia, and even psychosis. It makes developmental sense that therapies with a problem-focused coaching approach might be more effective in children and adolescents than open-ended exploratory psychotherapies.

Dr. Michael S. Jellinek, professor emeritus of psychiatry and pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston

Dr. Michael S. Jellinek

Traditional CBT was not very effective for patients with a variant of depression that is marked by stormy relationships, irritability, chronic suicidality, and impulsive attempts to regulate discomfort (including bingeing, purging, sexual acting-out, drug use, and self-injury or cutting), a symptom pattern called “borderline personality disorder.” These patients often ended up on multiple medications with only modest improvements in their function and well-being.

But in the 1990s, a research psychologist named Marsha Linnehan developed a modified version of CBT to use with these patients called dialectical-behavioral therapy (DBT). The “dialectic” emphasizes the role of two things being true at once, in this case the need for acceptance and change. DBT helps patients develop distress tolerance and emotional regulation skills alongside adaptive social and communication skills. DBT has demonstrated efficacy in the treatment of these patients as well as in the treatment of other disorders marked by poor distress tolerance and self-regulation (such as substance use disorders, binge-eating disorder, and PTSD).

DBT was adapted for use in adolescents given the prevalence of these problems in this age group, and it is the first-line treatment for adolescents with these specific mood and behavioral symptoms. High-fidelity DBT has an individual, group, and family component that are all essential for the treatment to be effective.

Instruction about the principles of CBT and DBT is a part of graduate school in psychology, but not every postgraduate training program includes thorough training in their practice. Completion of this specialized training leads to certification. It is very important that families understand that anyone may call themselves a psychotherapist. Those therapists who have master’s degrees (MSW, MFT, PCC, and others) may not have had exposure to these evidence-based treatments in their shorter graduate programs. Even doctoral-level training programs often do not include complete training in the high-fidelity delivery of these therapies.

It is critical that you help families be educated consumers and ask therapists if they have training and certification in the recommended therapy. The Psychology Today website has a therapist referral resource that includes this information. Training programs can provide access to therapists who are learning these therapies; with skilled supervision, they can provide excellent treatment.

We should note that there are several other evidence-based therapies, including family-based treatment for anorexia nervosa, motivational interviewing for substance use disorders, and interpersonal psychotherapy for depression associated with high family conflict in adolescents.

There is good evidence that the quality of the alliance between therapist and patient is a critical predictor of whether a therapy will be effective. It is appropriate for your patient to look for a therapist that they can trust and talk to and that their therapist be trained in the recommended psychotherapy. Otherwise, your patient is spending valuable time and money on an enterprise that may not be effective. This can leave them and their parents feeling discouraged or even hopeless about the prospects for recovery and promote an overreliance on medications. In addition to providing your patients with effective screening, initiating medication treatment, and psychoeducation, you can enhance their ability to find an optimal therapist to relieve their suffering.

Dr. Swick is physician in chief at Ohana, Center for Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health, Community Hospital of the Monterey (Calif.) Peninsula. Dr. Jellinek is professor emeritus of psychiatry and pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston. Email them at

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