Using DBT to Regulate Teen Emotions

By Eve Kessler, Esq.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a research-based cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy, teaches coping mechanisms to transform patterns of negative thoughts, self-destructive behaviors, and painful emotions into positive outcomes. DBT provides skills that are particularly useful for adolescents and young adults with ADHD and LD, who are prone to quickly escalating arousal levels and extreme responses in emotional situations.

One of the keys to DBT is learning to validate your child’s experience rather than dismiss it, or minimize it. When you tell a child who is upset about losing a soccer game, “It’s your own fault. If you hadn’t missed that shot, your team would have won” or “Stop worrying, it’s not a big deal” you are negating your child’s legitimate feelings.

Ignoring or belittling a reasonable low-level emotional display may unwittingly encourage a more intense emotional response: reasonable feelings of sadness over losing the game may escalate into excessive crying or some other out-of-control reaction. Likewise, when you oversimplify how easy it is for your child to meet a goal or solve a problem – “Just focus on the game and you’ll do great” – you are invalidating your child’s feelings and dismissing the amount of work it takes for him to concentrate, hold it together, and be successful on the soccer field. Either way, you are dismissing legitimate, reasonable feelings, which generally leads to a heightened emotional response.

Validate Rather Than Negate

Validation, on the other hand, helps your child feel better. When you validate the importance of the problem, the difficulty of the task, or your child’s emotional pain, you strengthen your relationship. You show him that you care: you’re listening, you understand his feelings, and you are being non-judgmental.

Validation demonstrates that the two of you can disagree without your child falling apart emotionally, and conflict is possible with less intensity.  

Once you and your child are on the same page, you can move forward together to solve the problem, a process that may take trial and error but can happen once emotions are under control.

The Language of Validation

Let your child feel heard. Validation does not necessarily mean you agree with what your child is saying or feeling. What you are validating is how important your child’s problems or emotions are to him.

“You’re crying. You must really be sad about this. I understand where you’re coming from.”

“It makes sense that you’re feeling frustrated. It doesn’t feel good when you can’t do something you want to do.”

“I can tell that this video game is really important to you. You can’t keep playing right now, but after you finish your homework, you can get back to it.”

“You’re having some big feelings. Can you tell me how much you’re feeling and what the emotion is?”

 “Hey, what can we do together to figure this out? I would do it like this:_________; I don’t know if that will work for you. What do you think?”

“Here is the problem: _______. I see it’s really hard for you. What do you think we can do together?” 

This blog post is based on How Parents Can Help by Not Helping Too Much: A DBT Perspective, presented by Melville M. Francis, Psy.D., a psychologist with Cognitive & Behavioral Consultants, LLP, White Plains, New York. Eve Kessler, Esq., a former criminal appellate attorney with The Legal Aid Society, NYC, is co-founder of the not-for-profit SPED*NET, Special Education Network of Wilton (CT),, and a Contributing Editor for Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities.

Related Smart Kids Topics