Dear Doctor, 

The school has suggested we find a therapist who does cognitive behavior therapy. Are you familiar with this term and if so, could you help us understand what it is?

Parents

Dear Parents,

It is a term currently in popular use. In the simplest of explanations, it is a process in which how one thinks can change how one behaves and feels.

The brain basically does three things. It thinks, feels and behaves. As one identifies an area of difficulty, changing thinking and behavior helps with affect or feelings. It seems simple, and basically it is; but it is also not as easy as it may appear.

The field of cognitive behavior therapy, or CBT as it is known, has developed out of other schools of thinking about learning and behavior.

Pavlov, the Russian psychologist who measured dogs salivating when they heard a bell, is probably the first major school of thought contributing to the topic. You recall from your Psychology 101 class how Pavlov paired a bell ringing with presentation of food for the poor dog. Soon the dog would salivate when the bell rang with no food. He labeled this phenomenon “conditioning.”

Later in the history of psychology came B.F. Skinner, the Harvard researcher who took conditioning to other levels. You recall the famous pigeon who would repeat behaviors associated with reward such as food. Random behaviors could be increased simply by rewarding those which one wished to have repeated.

There are many other names one could mention, including Hans Eysenck, a British psychologist who wrote a famous book in 1960. His “Behavior Therapy and the Neuroses” was a hallmark, bringing theory into life as a treatment technique.

Most therapists are eclectic. That is, they use what works and helps. This includes CBT, mindfulness and any useful proven technique. The sterile presentation of a strategy with “homework” exercises and the like will not be as helpful as coaching within the context of a relationship with a therapist.

Interview any therapist to whom you trust your child. Find one with heart and smarts!

Dr. Larry Larsen is an Andover psychologist. If you would like to ask a question or respond to one, email him at lrryllrsn@CS.com.

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