Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) isn’t the only therapy beneficial for treating anxiety or depression. In fact, acceptance commitment therapy (ACT) is another great option, even for those who didn’t receive their desired results with CBT. So, in this article, you’ll learn about it, plus receive a list of ACT therapy activities for kids to empower their healing journey.
What Is ACT Therapy?
Created by psychologist Steven Hayes in the 1980s, acceptance commitment therapy is a form of psychotherapy that empowers clients to accept their negative thoughts and feelings rather than ignoring them. By accepting that their thoughts and feelings are a natural response to life events, clients learn how to move forward in a more positive direction based on six core processes:
- Acceptance – Accept negative thoughts and feelings as they are
- Cognitive Defusion – Face negative emotions without fixating on them
- Being Present – Awareness of what is happening in the present moment without judgment or the desire to control the outcome
- Self as Context – Our experiences are ever-changing and do not define who we are. In fact, our true self is our core personality without these experiences
- Values – Qualities and goals that act as a guide to work towards
- Commitment to Action – Committing to new actions and habits that will help you move forward in alignment with your values
What Is ACT Therapy Used For?
ACT was initially created for adults due to its complex principles but is suitable for older children. Yet overall, it’s effective in treating depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, chronic pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
What’s the Difference Between ACT and CBT Therapy?
While CBT and ACT are both behavior-based therapies (Check out CBT activities for kids), their differences lie in how they view thoughts. For example, CBT helps you identify and change negative thoughts, whereas ACT empowers you to observe your negative thoughts and accept them to move forward. Additionally, ACT incorporates mindfulness (Try mindfulness activities for kids) to help you focus on the present moment and accept your thoughts as thoughts rather than obstacles preventing you from accomplishing your goals. And the main aim of CBT is to identify intrusive thoughts and replace them with more rational thinking, which will also positively impact your behaviors and feelings.
6 ACT Therapy Activities for Kids
1. Water and dirt experiment
Acceptance is a vital component of ACT, and helping your child build awareness about their negative thoughts and feelings will help them defuse strong ones. Try this activity to help them increase their emotional awareness:
- Take a glass of water and explain that the water is our mind
- When we’re happy, our mind is clear, like the water
- But when we experience a difficult emotion or situation or have negative thoughts, our mind can get dirty (Put dirt in the water to express this)
- Then we become obsessed with trying to remove the negative emotions and feelings (Show them how difficult it is to remove the dirt)
- And the more we try to remove the dirt, the more energy we lose (The water empties)
- But if we learn to accept that the dirt (negative emotions and thoughts) is a part of life, we won’t lose water (energy) trying to remove them
- Instead, we can accept that the dirt is there, and over time, the water (our mind) won’t become so cloudy or dirty
2. Blow up a balloon
Since ACT involves acceptance of our negative thoughts and feelings, the lesson of impermanence can help your children learn how to accept them as temporary rather than permanent experiences. For example, take a deflated balloon and tell them our emotions and thoughts change with time, like inflating and deflating a balloon. The more we give attention to our emotions and thoughts, the more they increase in size (like blowing up a balloon). But if we take away some of their power through acceptance (or air), they will decrease. It’s also fun for them to blow it up and watch it deflate as you explain.
3. The mind monster
When we’re dealing with a particular problem, the emotions we feel as a result can make it challenging to cope with. But if you learn to accept the situation and your resulting emotions, the power the problem has on you lessens. And one metaphor to help a teen understand this is the mind monster. The monster represents the problem. If we continue to fight the monster, listen to it, or believe it, we lose the battle…every time. But if we learn to accept that it’s there by noticing the thoughts and feelings it has, the quieter it gets. We also may learn to give it compassion because it’s a sad monster that says mean things.
4. Quicksand metaphor
One of the most popular ACT therapy activities for kids, the quicksand metaphor, encourages them to use their imagination while learning to defuse negative thoughts and feelings.
- To start, show them a video of quicksand or explain when we step into it and move around, we sink further and further
- Yet the solution to getting out is to avoid fighting it or struggling
- And we can apply this same principle to a difficult situation or feeling
- The more we try to fight it, the more powerful it becomes
- And when we learn to accept that difficult thoughts and feelings are natural, we learn to survive the quicksand and come out happier
5. Traffic of thoughts
Our thoughts are not permanent, no matter how strong or awful they appear. And the traffic exercise helps us to learn how transient they are, especially when we don’t give them attention. Here’s how you can teach your child:
- Have them visualize sitting on a nearby road and watching the busy traffic
- They might notice the loud sounds, the honking, and the cars zooming past
- When we have anxiety, our mind is similar to this scene. Our thoughts keep going, never staying still and can feel overwhelming
- But if we accept that our thoughts are like moving cars, we can learn to accept that life is like traffic.
- Some days we will have days where our thoughts are constantly moving, and other days, everything will be a lot quieter
6. The chessboard metaphor
According to Dr. Russ Harris, when we’re anxious or upset, we can quickly battle our negative thoughts and feelings like a game of chess: positive thoughts and feelings on one side and negative ones on the other. As we begin to play, we move piece by piece, trying to dominate our negative feelings with positive ones. However, we will never win with this strategy. Every time we insert a positive feeling, a negative one will arise. Instead, be the board. The board watches the battle without participating. Therefore, we can step back and create space between both sides without allowing ourselves to enter the battle. This activity is for older kids who can understand the concept of chess.
While these ACT therapy activities for kids are helpful, it’s best to connect with a therapist or mental health professional to help them build skills and heal. And no matter where you or your teen is on their journey, know that every step forward is a step in the right direction.
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