CBT and teenagers

Growing resilient minds: CBT for Teens

Growing up is hard to do. The end of childhood happens with a kick of hormones, around the ages of 9-14 in most children. The rapid physical and emotional changes during this period can lead to a sense of confusion and self-discovery and an intense awareness about how they look compared to others, which for some leads to insecurity and self-doubt. 

And then there is a cascade of other teenage challenges to navigate: academic pressures, social dynamics, the quest for identity, the demands of school, peer relationships, and societal expectations. Changes in their circadian rhythm can also lead to a shift in their sleep patterns which typically isn’t a good fit for school hours, thus leading to sleep deprivation which can be hugely impactful on their ability to function well.  

It’s a heavy mix which can create a whirlwind of emotional turbulence and contribute to stress, anxiety, and feelings of inadequacy. Navigating these challenges requires coping with heightened emotions, establishing a sense of self-worth, and developing effective communication skills, making adolescence a critical period for personal growth and resilience.

So what can help our teenagers navigate such monumental bodily changes, brain transitions and societal pressures? Well, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a good place to start although beware, it’s not likely to be received well from a parent so better to seek out a therapist.

CBT Basics

At the heart of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) lies the acknowledgment that thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are intricately interconnected. CBT operates on the principle that by addressing negative thought patterns, teenagers can reshape their emotional responses and behaviours. For instance, when a teenager faces anxiety about an upcoming test, CBT helps identify and challenge irrational thoughts like “I will fail,” replacing them with more realistic ones, such as “I can prepare and do my best.”

CBT at different teenage ages

While the principles of CBT remain consistent, tailoring techniques to suit the developmental stages of teens is important. For example, younger teens could be encouraged to keep a journal to help them identify and challenge negative thoughts about themselves. Older teens could use thought records to explore and challenge self-perception and identity. The table below outlines a number of CBT coping skills and what they entail, together with examples of how they are used.


Coping Skills

Coping Skill

Example of Use


Mindfulness Exercises

Practicing mindful breathing

Cultivating awareness of the present moment


Using guided imagery

Managing stress and promoting relaxation

Cognitive Restructuring

Identifying and challenging negative thoughts

Changing unhelpful thought patterns


Creating positive affirmations

Fostering a positive self-image

Problem-Solving Skills

Breaking down a problem into smaller steps

Enhancing the ability to approach challenges methodically


Evaluating different solutions

Encouraging critical thinking and decision-making

Emotional Regulation

Utilizing the “5-4-3-2-1” grounding exercise

Managing overwhelming emotions through sensory awareness


Developing a “feelings thermometer”

Identifying and communicating emotions on a scale

Exposure Therapy

Gradual exposure to feared situations

Overcoming specific fears or phobias


Role-playing scenarios to address social anxiety

Building confidence in social situations


Recording thoughts and emotions

Promoting self-reflection and emotional expression


Keeping a mood diary

Tracking mood patterns over time

Interactive Techniques

Engaging in art therapy

Expressing emotions through creative outlets


Participating in role-playing scenarios

Developing problem-solving and interpersonal skills


CBT Fosters Resilience

The use of CBT techniques helps teenagers to develop resilience, which acts as a protective shield, enabling teenagers to bounce back from life’s inevitable adversities. It’s not just about overcoming challenges; it’s about emerging stronger. CBT techniques for building resilience include teaching teens problem-solving skills. For example, when faced with a difficult situation, CBT encourages them to break down the problem, identify possible solutions, and evaluate the best course of action.

During therapy, teenagers might be encouraged to develop a ‘coping card’ that contains personalised strategies for managing stress and challenging situations which provides a tangible reminder of their resilience toolkit.

Emotional Regulation

Managing emotions during the teenage years is a useful skill given all the ups and downs these transitional years present. CBT can help them to recognise and manage their emotions effectively. Through strategies like the “5-4-3-2-1” grounding exercise, teens learn to engage their senses to manage overwhelming emotions.

The “5-4-3-2-1” grounding exercise works by bringing attention to the present moment. Commencing with the identification of five visual elements, such as colors or objects, individuals then shift focus to four things they can touch, engaging with the tactile sensations around them. Following this, three audible elements are acknowledged, fostering awareness of ambient sounds, and two scents are identified to connect with the sense of smell. Finally, individuals pinpoint one thing they can taste, completing the sensory experience. By actively engaging the senses, this exercise provides a quick and accessible method for individuals to ground themselves in the immediate environment, aiding in the management of stress and promoting a sense of mindfulness and calm.

Another popular technique which can be used to calm anger, is the “STOP technique”. The acronym “STOP” stands for Stop, Take a breath, Observe, and Proceed. When a teenager begins to feel anger rising, the first step is to pause and physically stop whatever they are doing. Next, they are encouraged to take a deep breath, allowing a moment for composure. The “Observe” step involves taking a step back mentally, identifying the emotions and thoughts associated with the anger without immediate reaction. Lastly, the teenager proceeds with a more measured and thoughtful response rather than reacting impulsively. This technique provides a structured approach for teenagers to interrupt the escalation of anger, promoting self-awareness, emotional regulation, and fostering the development of healthier coping mechanisms.


Looking Ahead

The journey toward growing resilient minds is ongoing. CBT not only equips teens with immediate tools but instills a mindset that fosters continual growth, resilience, and a future of enduring mental well-being. Embracing the principles of CBT offers a compass for navigating the intricate landscapes of adolescent mental health, paving the way for a generation of empowered, resilient individuals ready to face the challenges and triumphs that lie ahead.

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