How DBT Can Help Children & Adolescents Who’ve Experienced Trauma

By Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC | November 16, 2017

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a relatively new treatment modality that has proven to be effective with people who have difficulty regulating their mood and experience very intense emotions. The experience of trauma can bring about unwanted emotions and unhealthy ways to deal with intense emotions. Parents may find it challenging to be supportive of their child when they see their child using maladaptive behaviors to cope with unwanted feelings.

DBT includes a skills training component to help individuals cope with their extreme range of emotions while maintaining healthy social interactions. When working with teens, DBT skills training for the parents is extremely helpful and increases positive outcomes for their children’s treatment. Parents not only learn ways to implement DBT in their family setting but also gain shared vocabulary to communicate with their child and skills to model healthy ways to cope.

DBT & Trauma

Children and adolescents respond to trauma in many different ways, based on developmental level, the trauma event, cultural or family environment, etc. It is typical that most people will have some kind of change in their behavior or express distress after experiencing a traumatic event. Not all short-term responses to trauma are problematic and the changes in behavior can be a way that a person is trying to adapt to cope with his or her difficult experience.  While the majority of children and adolescents who experience trauma will eventually return to their previous level of functioning in several weeks or months, some may continue to experience psychological distress as well as heightened physical reactions.

DBT is helpful in teaching skills to manage the painful emotions that may be associated with trauma. In DBT, clients gain a better understanding of their emotions and learn to tolerate unwanted feelings in a more effective way. Once a person has the ability to safely tolerate emotional distress, he or she is better able to deal with the trauma without resorting to the use of ineffective coping behaviors.

DBT Skills training modules include:

  •  Mindfulness: learning how to be in the present moment and integrate logic with emotions to create a calm state of mind
  •  Distress Tolerance: learning how to get through a crisis without making the situation worse
  •  Emotion Regulation: learning to identify goals, functions, and models of emotions and reducing emotional vulnerability to decrease the frequency of unwanted emotions and emotional suffering
  •  Interpersonal Effectiveness: learning to maintain good relationships, self-respect, and communicate needs/wants in a healthy way
  •  Walking the Middle Path: learning to see things from different perspectives, validate, and avoid the power struggle.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy + Prolong Exposure (DBT+PE) Protocol

At Hillside, we specialize in mental health services for children and adolescents with an evidence-based treatment program. Trauma can have a lasting impact on the mental health of a child. Whether the trauma was one horrific event or an ongoing series of incidents, experience with trauma can have a profound effect on a child’s mental health and develop into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.) One of the major factors that prevent people from recovering from trauma is avoidance. People may try to push away memories, thoughts, and feelings about the trauma or avoid situations, people, and things that are reminders of the trauma.

In some cases, DBT + Prolong Exposure protocol may be beneficial. One of the evidenced-based therapy that has increasingly become the gold standard treatment for anxiety disorder and trauma is DBT+Prolong Exposure (DBT+PE.) DBT+PE protocol aims to help clients stop avoidance and instead confront trauma-related thoughts and situations so that trauma can be effectively processed. Although avoiding trauma-related thoughts and situations works to reduce distress in the short run, it actually prolongs and intensifies post-trauma reactions in the long run. DBT+PE is delivered in three stages and is introduced after a client has shown evidence of the ability to utilize DBT skills and achieve sufficient stability. This protocol teaches clients to gradually approach trauma-related memories, feelings, and situations that they have been avoiding since the trauma. By confronting these memories, clients can decrease their post-traumatic stress symptoms and regain control of their lives.

Contact Hillside Today!

Hillside has a team of highly qualified clinicians who are formally trained in DBT+PE protocol.  Based on the clinical needs of each client, Hillside’s clinicians have the ability to deliver treatment in our residential setting as well as our patient setting. To learn more about our DBT treatment for trauma contact Hillside today!


  • Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC

    Director of Clinical Education & Outreach - Gaan has been working with children, adolescents, and families for over 10 years in various settings. In her current role, she provides education and training for mental health professionals, parents, and the community. She lives in Atlanta with her husband. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, climbing, and cooking. She is a donut aficionado and a national park enthusiast!

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