Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT, is a form of therapy designed to help people struggling with behavioral challenges as a result of trauma. There are four primary goals of DBT that are proven to help young people rethink their behavior and manage stress.When young people are exposed to toxic stress or childhood trauma, such as living with someone with a mental illness, parental separation or divorce, witnessing domestic violence, or experiencing physical or emotional neglect, it affects how their brains and bodies react to stress and conflict.
Young people from such backgrounds are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, fits of rage, and difficulty maintaining healthy relationships with others.
That is why Idaho Youth Ranch uses Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) to help these young people. DBT is a skills-based approach that has been evidence-based and used since the 1980s. DBT works by teaching clients important skills that help them reach four primary goals: mindfulness, improved interpersonal relationships, emotional regulation, and distress tolerance. In this article, you will learn five of these important skills that parents can use at home to help their kids manage stress and regulate their emotions.
The skills we cover are square breathing, radical acceptance, ride the wave, fail forward, and a moment to pause. Read on to learn more.
1. Square Breathing
Square breathing is one of the most basic DBT skills and one of the most effective. Square breathing is a guided breathing exercise that can be used by anyone to manage stress and anxiety.
Here’s how it works:
- Inhale to a count of 4
- Hold your breath to a count of 4
- Exhale to a count of 4
- Hold it for a count of 4
Square breathing is a simple and very effective technique for calming down when a person is angry or feeling overwhelmed. Learning how to take a breath in an emotionally charged situation is an important skill for managing stress and maintaining healthy relationships because it gives the participant the opportunity to calm down before they react.
If you are working with smaller children, another way to teach this technique is to ask them to blow slowly into an imaginary bubble.
Parents hold their hands in front of the child's face with palms closed together like a prayer. Then you ask the child to “blow a bubble.” You do this by forming an imaginary bubble with your hands. Every time your child blows into the bubble, move your hands slightly more apart as their imaginary bubble gets bigger. The slower and deeper your child blows, the bigger the bubble gets. If they are doing small, fast breaths, continue to grow the bubble, but not as much.
As the child visibly calms down, grow the bubble in your hands until you can see that your child is calm. When you feel confident your child is calm, ask him or her to pop the bubble and blow it away.
This is a way of introducing controlled breathing at a young age and distracting your child from whatever is upsetting them. It also gives you the opportunity to teach your child an important skill at an early age and buys frustrated parents a few minutes to take a breath themselves.
2. Radical Acceptance
Radical acceptance is a learned practice by which a person makes the choice to accept a situation as it is. However, radical acceptance is different from saying that you like a situation. Radical acceptance is about recognizing that the situation is out of your control and deciding how you're going to react to it. For example, in the COVID-19 crisis many people are experiencing stress and anxiety because they do not have any control over the situation, they are experiencing unemployment, and/or they are worried for their health and the health of their loved ones.
Radical acceptance means accepting that we do not have control over the situation regarding the pandemic and then making the decision to take the situation as it comes. This allows people to step away from a situation and identify the variables that they can control.
Radical acceptance is giving your mind permission to let go of a situation even if we don't like the situation.
This is an important skill as it regards the concept of distress tolerance. Young people will find this useful when dealing with conflict at school or coming into a stressful situation like testing. Radical acceptance gives them permission to accept the situation exactly as it is and exactly as it comes and then make choices about how they will react to it.
3. Ride the Wave
Riding the wave is a mental practice by which you allow yourself to experience an emotion but not necessarily react to it.
Take anger, for example. Rather than trying to suppress that emotion, riding the wave allows you to recognize the emotion and choose to ride it out until it passes naturally.
Try visualizing a literal wave in the ocean. The wave is the emotion itself, and your job is to simply ride it until it calms down as it approaches the beach. You cannot change the wave and you cannot control the wave. You must ride it out until you return to safety.
This visualization is especially important in dealing with volatile emotions like anger or grief. Rather than trying to teach a young person to suppress that emotion, riding the wave is about teaching them how to experience that emotion without reacting to it in a destructive or dangerous way. The concept of riding the wave is an important tool to help young people learn how to regulate and manage their emotions in healthy ways so it does not become destructive to their relationships. Riding the wave in conjunction with other exercises like radical acceptance and square breathing gives young people the skills they need to cope with more difficult situations that create stress and anxiety.
4. Failing Forward
Failing forward is a difficult skill for most parents, because failing forward is the idea that we use our failures as a launch point for learning and growth.
As a society, we have a tendency to focus on success and only success. Failure is treated as something to be ashamed of or something to avoid, but failing forward is about taking our failures and celebrating them as an opportunity to move forward. This skill is especially important for parents.
For parents, failing forward means letting your child accept the natural consequences of his or her decisions. If your child forgot their homework because they were not organized or did not prepare the night before, you let them take the lower grade for not turning it in on time rather than bringing them their homework at school. That “failure” will give them the internal motivation they need to be better prepared next time.
In this example, rather than chastising your child for not having been organized, you would ask them about their experience of not having their homework ready and how they felt about the lower grade. The internal sense of conflict will create a stronger motivation to be better organized next time, more so than anything parents can say. It also gives young people the chance to learn from their mistakes, which will help them long term.
Failing forward takes the fear out of failure by celebrating it as an opportunity for growth. It is a great way to help kids deal with stress and anxiety because it takes the expectations out of most situations and lets your child know that failure does not mean they have failed as a person and that growth is always possible.
5. Moment to Pause
Taking a moment to pause is an important DBT skill, because DBT is about recognizing how your body responds to stress and building internal systems to recognize and re-route stress or frustration in healthy ways.
A moment of pause is all about giving yourself or your child a moment to take a breath, stand back from a situation, and decide how to move forward. In some families, this is called “going to your corners.”
This skill is focused on recognizing that a situation or confrontation is getting too intense and emotions are starting to run high. Taking a moment to pause means recognizing the situation and choosing to step away from it until everyone involved has calmed down. A moment to pause is a simple concept to understand but harder to practice.
Parents can use this skill to help teach their kids about managing stress and anxiety by offering them a code word. For example, imagine that siblings are having a heated conversation that is quickly turning into a fight; then, someone calls, “Code red!” When that code word is said, everyone agrees to stop the argument right away and go to different rooms to calm down for a few minutes, giving the siblings time to step back from the situation.
Moment to pause is a difficult skill to learn and practice but probably one of the more valuable skills you can teach your kids as they grow up.
An Important Note on DBT Skills
For parents teaching the DBT skills to their children, there will be a lot of reminding. It is important for parents to model this behavior as well and to be patient as their kids learn. When families have moments they could have handled better, it is a good idea (once everyone is calm) to ask the kids how the situation could have been better and what they (and you) will try to do better next time. By identifying and naming the skills, parents will give their kids an emotional vocabulary and skillset to maintain healthy relationships, manage emotions, practice mindfulness, and tolerate stress.
For parents teaching kids any kind of resilience building or relational skills, it will take lots of practice and intentional conversations. It is okay to tell your kids that you are trying to teach them a particular skill and why. This will help them recognize that behavior and emotions are something they get to control and choose how they react to. If you have questions or want more information about how DBT or any of the other proven therapies offered by Idaho Youth Ranch might be able to help your family, click here.