TF-CBT is a conjoint parent-child treatment. Sessions typically last around an hour, with the child and parent seeing the therapist separately for 30 minutes each. Later in the treatment, the parent and child will see the therapist completely together.
Successful therapy entails building meaningful rapport between the therapist and all participants. Because trauma can erode trust, this process may take time. Children need to feel like they will be safe and supported during their treatment.
The main components of TF-CBT can be summarized by the acronym PRACTICE.9
P: Psychoeducation and Parenting Skills
The therapist will spend time teaching both parent and child about trauma and its related impact. They will review common statistics, symptoms, and fears. They might also teach about common coping strategies, the fight, flight, or freeze response, and other strategies about dysregulation.
The goal is to help clients understand (and prepare to cope with) different triggers that may arise. This phase also focuses on empowering caretakers to support their children.
R: Relaxation Techniques
Learning how to relax is an integral part of trauma healing. First, the therapist may spend some time reviewing relaxation techniques the client already uses and enjoys.
Moreover, the therapist will teach various relaxation strategies like deep breathing, visual imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation. Some therapists will show clients various online tools they can use to meditate or relax. Clients can use these skills both in and out of the session.
A: Affective Expression and Regulation
In this phase, the therapist focuses on attunement to support the client in identifying and sharing current emotions. They may also use skills in modeling and healthy communication.
It’s essential to learn how to self-soothe when feeling overwhelmed or triggered by trauma-related material. Self-soothing activities may include positive affirmations, pleasant activities, and reaching out for support.
C: Cognitive Coping and Processing
This is the heart of CBT. First, the therapist will educate the child and parent on the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Then, they will demonstrate how some of the cognitive distortions (faulty thought patterns) impact healthy coping.
As the child becomes more aware of their cognitive distortions, they start recognizing patterns they want to change. Subsequently, they might start feeling more confident in practicing new coping skills.
T: Trauma Narration and Processing
This part includes discussing, reviewing, and desensitizing oneself from traumatic events. Trauma processing may consist of any combination of verbal, written, or creative expression.
During this stage, the therapist integrates gradual exposure activities. This means that they take time to slowly accustom the child to share about the trauma while checking in to make sure they feel safe and comfortable. The child decides which events they want to include. Furthermore, they can also include positive events in their trauma narrative.
Within the processing, the therapist will take note of ongoing themes and cognitive distortions. Some familiar distortions include assuming that:
- You are unlovable
- People will always hurt or abandon you
- Vulnerability is bad or stupid
- You will never be happy or successful
- Bad things will continue happening
- The world is unsafe
I: In Vivo Exposure
In vivo exposure refers to gradually exposing the child to specific stimuli or perceived threats. For example, this stage might include slowly habituating them to louder noises if the child fears people shouting. Such exposure may be real or imagined through guided imagery.
The goal is to learn how to tolerate situations that feel uncomfortable by practicing self-regulation skills. This phase entails developing a desensitization plan. Therapists may also engage support people outside of therapy to help the child.
C: Conjoint Parent/Child Sessions
This therapy emphasizes parent-child interaction and support. The caregiver does not need to be biologically related to the child. For example, therapists may work with foster parents, other relatives, group home staff, or teachers.
Ideally, the child and caregiver come together to strengthen communication and create moments for bonding. While sharing trauma may be appropriate, the conjoint sessions do not need to entail the complete narrative.
E: Enhancing Personal Safety and Future Growth
This last phase focuses on educating children on specific safety and awareness skills about healthy relationships, sexuality, and self-esteem. Finally, therapists will teach families how to prepare and cope with future triggers should they arise.