Kids’ DBT skills to help them manage stress

Many studies have proven that DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) is an effective way of treating several mental health conditions. But most of these studies have been carried out on adults — what about children? The results from the few studies that have included children suggest that DBT may be a useful way of helping minors acknowledge their unhelpful habits and swap them for healthier, more effective alternatives.  

DBT for children

DBT is particularly helpful for children struggling with behavioral issues caused by trauma. The successful form of therapy includes four main goals that have been proven to support young people while they manage their stress levels and modify their behavior.

When children are exposed to trauma at a young age (such as experiencing parental separation or divorce, living with someone with a mental illness, witnessing domestic violence, or suffering emotional or physical neglect) it has a negative impact on how their bodies and brains react to conflict and stress.

Young people with backgrounds like this are much more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and anger problems. They also tend to find it difficult to maintain healthy relationships with the people around them.

DBT has been proven to improve mindfulness and help children live in the moment. This helps them understand that they cannot change the past and focus on the present so they can improve their future. 

DBT skills

DBT helps children learn and develop important skills so they can achieve four primary goals: distress tolerance, emotional regulation, improved relationships, and mindfulness. 

Radical acceptance

Radical acceptance teaches children to accept a situation, whether they like it or not. It allows them to acknowledge that a situation is beyond their control and they need to decide how to act upon it. Radical acceptance allows a child to give their mind permission to let go, even if they don’t like the situation.

This part of DBT helps improve distress tolerance and is useful when dealing with conflict and stress at school. 

Failing forward

Failing forward means learning from your mistakes and using them to grow as a person. This is an important part of DBT that parents need to embrace. Society puts so much focus on success that it’s difficult to consider failures as positive things, but they can and should be.

As a parent, failing forward means allowing your child to accept the consequences of their decisions and actions, such as leaving their homework to the last minute. Instead of punishing your child, talk to them about their experience of having to rush their homework and getting a bad grade or not turning it in at all.

The internal sense of conflict they experience will encourage them to do better next time. 

Box breathing

Box breathing is a simple way to help your child manage anxiety and stress. It goes like this:

  • Inhale and count to 4
  • Hold your breath and count to 4
  • Exhale and count to 4
  • Hold your breath and count to 4

This is an easy and effective way for your child to calm down when they feel overwhelmed or angry. In turn, this can help them manage their stress levels in a healthy way and maintain positive relationships. 

Moment to pause

When a confrontation or situation is getting too intense and emotions are running high, taking a moment to pause can deescalate whatever’s going on. Making the choice to step away until everyone involved has calmed down sounds simple, but it can be difficult to do in real life. 

It helps to have a code word that means everyone needs to take a moment to pause. When your children are having a heated argument that is quickly escalating, use the code word so everyone knows to back down and cool off until things have settled down.

Ride the wave

Riding the wave allows your child to experience an emotion without having to react to it. This technique encourages children to recognize the emotions that they feel and ride them out until they pass naturally — just like riding on a wave. 

Suppressing emotions isn’t healthy. Nor is reacting negatively to them. By accepting that they can’t change their emotions and they’ve just got to wait until it passes, young people can manage and regulate their emotions without negative behavior. 

We’re here to help

The studies don’t lie — DBT can help children who struggle with regulating their emotions, controlling their behavior, and maintaining healthy relationships with friends and family. Before you begin looking into therapy options for your child, it’s important you’re committed, too. DBT techniques aren’t just something your child will have to learn and practice — you’ll have to work on them, too.


If you’re ready to do the work to help your child feel better and grow into a healthy, happy adult, make your first appointment today. We have many therapists who specialize in DBT and can help your child acknowledge that they can’t control everything, while also helping them modify their behaviors related to the things that they can control.  

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. If you are in a crisis or any other person may be in danger,  these resources can provide you with immediate help:
Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 988
24 Hour Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1.800.273.8255
Crisis Text Line Text TALK to 741741