DBT Skills for Parents: Becoming A More Effective Parent
Parenting can be difficult and is especially challenging when your child is dealing with complex mental health conditions. Luckily, there are strategies you can use with your child to encourage and support them at home. While a dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) program provides the roadmap for recovery, you can encourage long-term improvement and provide support in your child’s environment.
Here, we discuss DBT skills for parents and how to use them to help maintain your child’s treatment progress.
What Is DBT?
|Dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT, is a cognitive-behavioral therapy that balances change-oriented interventions with acceptance strategies. “Dialectics” refers to the assumption that there is no absolute truth and that several realities can be valid simultaneously. Empirical research supports the effectiveness of DBT for treating adolescents who experience pervasive emotional dysregulation and symptoms of mood and personality disorders including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and borderline personality disorder. DBT patients are taught mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and emotional regulation via skills training groups and individual therapy. Between-sessions phone coaching is a unique mode of DBT designed to generalize skills to the context where they are needed.
How Does DBT for Teens Work?
DBT utilizes individual therapy, skills training, and between-session contact (“phone coaching”) to effectively treat teens and adolescents who experience a range of emotional and behavioral challenges including self-harm, suicidal ideation, disordered eating, substance use, anxiety, and depressive symptoms (hopelessness, low motivation, mood-dependent behavior, etc.). DBT providers use strategies to increase commitment, understand behavior, and teach teens the skills they need to build a “life worth living”. These skills help teens manage crisis situations, regulate their emotions, and build healthy relationships.
How Effective Parenting Can Help
“Effective parenting” generally refers to a parent’s use of positive and proactive strategies that promote their child’s physical, emotional, social, and cognitive development. In DBT, this involves responding to your child’s needs with empathy and validation.
Children’s personalities are unique, as are parenting styles. Misattunement between these two characteristics can make it difficult to know if your parenting style is a good fit for your child’s temperament. Therefore, “effective parenting” looks different between families. Learning and applying DBT skills can help you effectively support your child through their mental health challenges.
DBT Skills for Parents: Responding to Your Child’s Feelings and Behaviors
DBT teaches skills and strategies for coping with stressful situations and invalidating environments. When parents model and encourage the use of dialectics (two things being true at the same time), mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness; home becomes a supportive and nurturing space for your child to implement their new tools.
DBT Skills for Parents to Encourage Their Children’s Mental Health Development
|Validate Your Child
|Model effective Communication
|Encourage Self Awareness
|Support Identity Development
By acknowledging your child’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences, you can build a healthy relationship with your child that encourages open communication at home. Attachment theory recognizes that a child’s healthy development is rooted in validation and reliable caregiver availability. When a child’s experiences are validated by their caregivers, they learn to trust themselves and feel secure in relationships. Validation also plays an integral role in emotional regulation and distress tolerance. Remember, validation is not agreement, permission, or even forgiveness. It is merely communicating to your child that they “make sense” given their lived experiences, current situation, and difficulties regulating emotions, thoughts, and behavior.
DBT Validation Skill for Parents to Know
The GIVE skill is used to build and strengthen bonds through “relationship mindfulness.” Parents can use this skill to show interest and offer validation when communicating with their children. The steps of the GIVE skill are organized into an easy-to-remember acronym:
How a person communicates their internal world can impact their emotions and related thought processes. An “all-or-nothing”, “black-and-white” approach to life can have negative effects on an individual’s mental health. DBT teaches patients, and their parents, to adopt a dialectical stance that encourages cognitive flexibility and overall adaptability. Modeling the ability to view situations objectively can help your child decrease reactivity, impulsivity, and rigidity. If your child thinks or says, “I’m a failure, and no matter what I do, I can’t change that,” DBT encourages your child to change the thought or sentence to, “I may not have accomplished what I would have liked to, AND I am trying my best and act more effectively in the future”. By developing a more effective and dialectical communication style of your own, your child will be encouraged to notice their thought patterns and communicate more effectively.
Developing a reassuring and positive communication style also helps parents build trust and boundaries with their children at home. To provide structure and consistency at home, your teen needs clear expectations identified through open communication. Have an open dialogue that encourages your child to speak their mind effectively. Building a transparent communication channel will allow your child to utilize their DBT toolset in a supportive, non-judgmental space.
DBT Communication Skill for Parents to Know
Communication is a two-way street that requires skillful behavior from all involved parties. It is essential to establish reasonable boundaries and expectations while clearly asking for what you want. DEAR MAN is an interpersonal effectiveness skill that encourages a direct and assertive approach to communication.
DBT encourages mindful self-awareness because it allows individuals to identify and understand their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Identifying one’s emotional responses and thoughts in various situations can help when learning to manage those responses. Allowing your child to achieve mindful self-awareness requires an environment where they can pay attention to their reactions in the present moment without judgment.
DBT Mindful Self-Awareness Skill for Parents to Know (“STOP”)
Modeling this distress tolerance skill before reacting to your child increases your ability to practice mindfulness of thoughts, emotions, and action urges. When stressful situations arise as a parent, it’s important to take time before responding to your child when emotional intensity is high. This skill will help you pause, assess the situation, get into a “wise mind”, and act effectively.
DBT encourages identity development by helping individuals develop a sense of self and belonging. Invalidating a child’s emotions, thoughts, and experiences contributes to identity dysregulation whereas acceptance and validation promote the construction and consolidation of a healthy self-concept.
Identity development for DBT patients is achieved through various techniques, including the exploration and identification of personal values, strengths, and goals. By identifying what is important to them, individuals develop a clearer sense of self and a greater sense of purpose.
As a parent, supporting and validating your child in their identity development and journey is essential. Let them know that what they are experiencing makes sense. When your child is suffering through difficult emotions, they need a way to foster independence. This can be done by encouraging self-expression, respecting their individuality, and providing praise and encouragement. Let them know that their feelings of identity are validated and normal to experience.
DBT Identity Development Skill for Parents to Know
The Wise Mind skill helps individuals access their emotional and logical minds simultaneously. Using this skill is a way for individuals to experience their current reality by taking a step back and evaluating the situation rationally while also honoring their emotional experience. This act helps decrease assumptions and judgments and promotes an effective approach. As a parent, modeling your own use of the “wise mind” skill encourages your child to consider their thoughts and emotions, as well as the facts, when experiencing a stressful situation.
Like all mindfulness skills, accessing your Wise Mind takes practice. While sitting in a comfortable position, try noticing your breath without making any judgments. After a few moments, think the word “Wise” as your inhale and “Mind” on your exhale. After several repetitions, you can try asking your Wise Mind “what do I need”, “what is my goal” or any other question that may help you proceed effectively. Try not to force a response and be mindful not to judge any thoughts, suggestions, etc. that Wise Mind offers. It’s okay if you don’t get an “answer”… it’s called mindfulness “practice” for a reason.
Compass Behavioral Health: Gold-Standard Dialectical Behavior Therapy
BPD is a diagnosis of complex trauma, a lifetime of chronic invalidation leading to chronic dysregulation. DBT was developed, in part, from Dr. Linehan's own experience in recovery from profound skills deficits in living and the traumatic invalidation she received from her environment in response to her skills deficits. The answer to how effective is DBT for BPD will depend on the program you choose. Compass Behavioral Health provides a program led by DBT-Linehan Board-Certified™ experts in the delivery of the research-based protocols in the delivery of DBT Treatment.
Compass’ residential program is ideal for complex BPD adolescents, with individual treatment plans developed on a DBT curriculum that helps them learn to regulate their emotions and overcome self-destructive behaviors. Our program also includes family support through DBT Multi-family Skills group training, Parent Effectiveness Training, and intensive DBT Informed Family therapy.
If you would like to learn more about how effective DBT is for BPD, and how it can help your BPD teen, reach out for a free consultation.
Megan Plakos Szabo
Associate Director at Compass. Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist
Megan is a DBT-LBC certified clinicians who provides evidence-based treatment to adolescents and their families at Compass Behavioral Health. She shares her passion and expertise through clinical supervision to pre-licensed clinicians and practicum students. Currently, Megan is pursuing a doctoral degree at Loma Linda University where she studies the effectiveness of DBT and the role of family/caregiver involvement in successful treatment.