There are few things more crucial in life than learning how to take care of yourself, and this is first learned in childhood.
Early in life, a child begins to learn how to relate to themselves, and this can affect them in profound ways later on. For highly emotional children, also known as “supersensers”, this is even more true.
Here’s how DBT-C (DBT for Children) and DBT How-Skills can help children manage their emotions and adapt to their environments in healthy ways.
The Goals of DBT-C and DBT How Skills
According to the Child-Mind Institute:
“DBT treatment is designed to help with extreme emotional instability, which clinicians call “dysregulation — the inability to manage intense emotions. Dysregulation leads to impulsive, self-destructive, or self-harming behaviors.”
This is the intention of DBT treatment in adults as well. At any age, one can be taught to manage their emotional reactions and adress the world in more effective ways.
That is the “what” of DBT. The “how” is the practical skills element, which includes learning how to…
Use mindfulness practices to stay present with one’s emotions before you get swept up in them.
Learning how to self-soothe when feelings become overwhelming.
Learning to take a non-judgemental stance against your emotional reactions and accept them fully.
Choosing to be effective in one’s interactions with others, as opposed to being combative or dismissive.
Recognizing thoughts and urges that lead to ineffective results (self-harm, angry outbursts).
Learning to respect others’ perspectives in addition to your own.
With DBT-C however, treatment goes deeper. DBT-C involves addressing the barriers that arise when a child struggles with their self worth.
DBT-C and Core Problem Analysis
“Being cut off from our own natural self-compassion is one of the greatest impairments we can suffer.” — Gabor Maté
In addition to presenting DBT How-Skills to children in appropriate ways for their age, DBT-C focuses on helping a child develop a healthy sense of self.
DBT-C looks at this through the frame of conditional vs. unconditional elements of self. Conditional elements of self include accomplishments, disappointments, actions, and decisions.
Unconditional elements of self are those that guarantee self-acceptance before conditional elements.
A child (or adult) who learns only to judge themselves on the conditional elements of their lives without seeing their natural worth as a human being cannot truly value themselves. Adults living through the condtional paradigm often struggle with self-loathing and never feeling like they’re “enough.”
DBT-C seeks to synthesize the conditional and unconditional elements of self. The end goal is to have a child feel that they are fundamentally worthy, that they deserve to live, and that they have value just by being alive.
It does so by addressing the three “core problems” of self:
Sense of self-love, sense of safety, and sense of belonging.
SENSE OF SELF LOVE
“If my aim is to prove ‘I am enough,’ the project goes on to infinity — because the battle was already lost on the day I conceded the issue was debatable.” — Nathaniel Branden
Self-love is a popular term in the psychology and self-help world. But what does it mean in DBT-C?
Sometimes the life experiences, surrounding culture, or natural predisposition of a child will cause them to believe that their worth comes only from what they do.
They are only “enough” if they get good grades, score enough goals, or have enough friends.
An ambitious child seeking to fulfill their potential is a wonderful thing, however, there is a trap here.
A child has to learn to accept that they are worthy before what they do defines them. They need to accept themselves as they are; a human being, worthy of love, affection, forgiveness, and a chance.
Without this fundamental understanding, their accomplishments will never fulfill them, and their errors will come to define them.
The end goal of DBT-C is to create the belief: “I am at peace with myself, AND I feel pride or disappointment in my decisions.”
Self-love needs to come first.
SENSE OF SAFETY
“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Sense of safety for a child is not just feeling protected. It is feeling like their needs are being met in a secure and reliable way, and as a result, developing trust in themselves and the rest of the world.
Conversely, lack of trust develops in environments where a child’s needs are addressed in inconsistent or unreliable ways.
A child with a fractured sense of trust may be more likely to develop an anxiety disorder.
This is because anxiety is characterized by a relentless internal search for certainty in life. A child who cannot trust themselves may feel like they are never standing on certain ground, so they may start searching for certainty in the form compulsive, unhealthy behaviors.
SENSE OF BELONGING
“Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.” — Brené Brown
Sense of belonging is feeling like you are part of a loving group, usually a child’s immediate family. This can also come in the form of friend groups or “chosen families.”
A child consistently being reminded that they are loved and accepted and boosts their sense of belonging to a high degree.
When a child is punished excessively, dismissed when they speak, or otherwise have their needs ignored, this communicates that they are not welcome in that group (or any group).
This could increase a child’s fear of abandonment, which can make their future relationships feel unstable. When this instability occurs, a child will be more likely to value others’ approval above their own.
DBT-C + DBT How-Skills Are Lifelong Tools
It’s best to think of DBT skills as tools for maintaining robust mental health.
A child can learn to manage any internal, interpersonal, or life challenge by taking a proactive approach to dealing with their emotions. These are skills they can carry with them forever, no matter their level of sensitivity.
The ability to harness one’s strong feelings, and the empathy and creativity that accompanies them, can become something like a superpower.