Improving care. Changing lives.

Does Therapy Work?

Girl and father

Nancy K. Gajee, Ph.D. & Matthew J. Pecoraro, MSW

From May 5th to May 11th we celebrate Children’s Mental Health Awareness week. This annual event invites us to reflect on the ways we can help children grow, learn, and thrive - especially the one-in-five children that the CDC reports struggle with diagnosable mental health concerns.** Here we address some common questions we’ve heard parents, teachers, and even youth ask about ways therapy can help when children struggle with emotional and behavioral issues.

Does therapy work?
Yes! Therapy works for many of the mental health problems experienced by children. There are evidence-based treatments (EBTs) that are effective at reducing behavior problems such as tantrums, impulsivity, back-talking, and swearing. They can also help with depression, suicidal thoughts, mood swings, anxiety and fears, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). There are EBTs to help children who have experienced trauma, grief, and bullying. EBTs have also been found to work for sleep problems, autism, adjusting to an acute or chronic medical condition, adjusting to divorce or a new blended family, and many other problems.

You mentioned “evidence-based treatment.” What does that mean?
An evidence-based treatment (EBT) is a treatment that science has found to be effective at reducing symptoms. Sometimes a therapy is studied alone and sometimes in comparison to other therapies, medication, or both. The more times scientists find that a treatment works, and the more times it works as well as or better than other treatments, the more we can count on it to address a problem. In other words, if there’s good scientific proof that a particular treatment works in reducing symptoms for a lot of kids, then we say it is “evidence-based.”

Aren’t all therapies evidence-based?
No. If scientists do not label a treatment as evidence-based, that could mean a few things. Sometimes it means that a treatment has been developed but has not been studied yet, so we don’t know if it is effective or not. Sometimes it means that a treatment isn’t any better than what you’re already doing. And occasionally, in particularly concerning circumstances, a “treatment” is offered when there is evidence that it can actually make symptoms worse.

Why choose an evidence-based treatment?
The American Psychological Association recommends that children (and adults) receive evidence-based treatments to make it more likely that symptoms will decrease, and to protect against symptoms getting worse. Treatments like those listed below are designed to help children function better within 4 months. They are also designed to help parents and children learn coping strategies for life, so that they can prevent the same problems from recurring again in the future.

Ok, I get it. But how do I know what therapies are evidence-based?
Here are some examples of evidence-based treatments for children, and what they can treat:

Table of EBTs

I’m convinced, but how do I find someone who uses EBTs?
Ask your child’s pediatrician or your own PCP or Ob/Gyn. Ask other parents or school staff and teachers. Look on the roster for your insurance company. Sometimes therapists will list the types of therapy they use. Do an internet search for one of the therapies listed above in your location (for example, search “CBT child Boston”). You may need to call several providers to find one that uses EBTs, seems like a good fit, takes your insurance, and has openings.

Where can I find more information?
If your child is struggling, there is hope. Most mental health issues in children can be helped by therapists using evidence-based treatments.

If you have follow-up questions, or would like to learn more about the therapies marked above with an asterisk, please contact The Center for Effective Therapy at JBCC at (617) 278-4288, or email cect@jbcc.harvard.edu.

To learn more about EBTs in general, visit the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, hyperlinked here.
To learn more about EBTs for children, visit the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, hyperlinked here.

 

**Perou, R., Bitsko, R., Blumberg, S,…Huang, L. (2013). Mental Health Surveillance Among Children - United States, 2005–2011. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/su6202a1.htm?s_cid=su6202a1_w