Behavior Therapy

When a child has a developmental disability, no matter what the severity, it can place very real stresses on both the child and the family. Sometimes children who are coping with a disability from early on in life can develop negative behavioral traits, such as aggressive behaviors (e.g. biting, hair-pulling, hitting, throwing things), episodes of out of control anger, poor tolerance or excessive frustration and/or self-injurious behaviors. Other children might develop what are referred to as “internalizing behaviors” characterized by things like social withdrawal, refusal to participate, somatic complaints or bowel issues (e.g. severe stool holding). These negative behaviors may further impact the family’s quality of life and impede the progress of other therapies.

Behavior therapy is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on reducing behavior problems and promoting adaptation skills. Behavioral therapy uses psychological techniques to improve physical, mental and communicative skills. The activities used vary greatly according to age and disability. Some techniques will be used to discourage destructive behavior, others to encourage self-sufficiency. Behavior therapy can complement other therapies. For example, physical therapy by encouraging children to master tasks that promotes muscular and motor development. Praise, positive reinforcement and small rewards can encourage a child to learn to use weak limbs, overcome speech deficits and stop negative behaviors like hair pulling and biting. Sometimes this is called behavior management or behavior modification therapy.

How does Behavior Therapy Differ from Cognitive Therapy?

Behavior therapy is the opposite of cognitive therapy. Cognitive therapy focuses primarily on the thoughts and emotions that lead to certain behaviors, while behavioral therapy deals with changing and eliminating those unwanted behaviors. However, some therapists practice a type of psychotherapy that focuses on both thoughts and behavior. This type of treatment is called cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Behavior therapy is based on the simple concept of positive reinforcement for desired behaviors, consequences or planned ignoring for undesired behaviors.

General Behavior Therapy

Some children and families will benefit from referral to a child psychologist or social worker trained in general behavioral techniques. Some children by nature of their characteristics such as personality, tolerance of frustration, willingness to comply with parental requests are simply more challenging to parents. Children with conditions such of ADHD and anxiety can also present a challenge to parents. Parents may need guidance on how to support these children’s development while managing some of the difficult behaviors that may be occurring.

In some cases, parents might learn some of these techniques through seminars. Often local organizations such as school districts and parent support organizations will offer seminars free or low cost for a parent to learn about additional behavioral approaches. Sometimes these “parenting courses” might focus on specific populations (e.g. children with ADHD).

In other cases, parents will benefit from working one on one with a behavioral therapist. A behavioral therapist can help the family understand the factors that are contributing to their child’s behavior, help the family pick specific behavioral challenges to target, and help the family design a program to address it including reinforcing what they want a child to do, planning to ignore certain behaviors in an effort to not reinforce the behavior, and develop consequences for other behaviors. The behavioral therapist and parent may work together over a period of time to continue to target various behaviors. Similarly, with a parent’s permission, a school behavioral therapist might work with a teacher to help her understand what is driving a child’s behavior and design a program to support the child in a positive way to develop more adaptive behaviors.

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