Perfect for children and teens who struggle with anxiety, depression, ADHD, anger management, and other mental health challenges, these cognitive behavioral therapy activities for kids teach little ones how to recognize their negative thoughts, and offer tips and tools to help replace these beliefs with positive thought processes.
What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is a form of psychotherapy used to help individuals understand how their thoughts and feelings influence their behaviors. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a short-term therapy technique used to help people overcome a specific challenge, and is effective in treating anxiety, panic disorder, phobias, depression, addiction, eating disorders, anger management, and more.
The goal of CBT is to help people learn that even though they cannot control everything about their lives and the world around them, they can control how they interpret the things that happen to them and how they respond.
Unlike other forms of therapy that encourage patients to speak freely about their life and the challenges they are facing, cognitive behavioral therapy sessions are very structured. Instead of focusing on the past, CBT is goal-oriented and sessions are aimed at discussing specific problems and helping patients to find solutions.
How Long Does it Take for CBT to Work?
One of the benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy is that it’s designed to eliminate symptoms as quickly as possible. The number of sessions needed depends on many factors, such as the type and severity of symptoms, but most online literature suggests CBT tends to last from 5 to 20 sessions.
Keep in mind that cognitive behavioral therapy is aimed at helping people overcome a specific challenge as quickly as possible. CBT doesn’t dig deep into the reasons behind these challenges. Many find this is enough, but others opt to seek additional therapy after completing CBT to get a better understanding of their past.
8 Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Activities for Kids
1) Make DIY stress balls
While you can buy stress balls pretty inexpensively on Amazon, making your own is one of my favorite cognitive behavioral therapy activities for kids as it’s fun to do and serves as a great ice breaker at the onset of therapy. Giving kids something to focus on will help them feel more comfortable, and they will walk away with a great tool they can use to help calm their mind and body when feelings of stress or anxiety threaten to take hold. To make your own stress ball, all you need are balloons, a funnel, and your choice of filling – flour and rice both work well. I suggest using multiple balloons to avoid a mess if your stress ball tears!
2) Create a feelings thermometer
Since cognitive behavioral therapy is aimed at teaching kids (and adults) how their thoughts and feelings influence their behaviors, creating a feelings thermometer is high on the list of ideas to consider if you’re looking for cognitive behavioral therapy activities for kids. This activity allows you to work with a child to ensure he or she understands basic feelings, and then help him or her realize that we can experience each emotion in different intensities.
A feelings thermometer is a great visual you can create with a child to help them become more aware of their emotions, understand how their thoughts, feelings, and actions are connected, and help them learn how to self-regulate.
Social Emotional Workshop offers a great resource to help you create and use a feelings thermometer, which you can read HERE.
3) Make calm down jars
Calm down jars are another one of my favorite cognitive behavioral therapy activities for kids. They are easy to make and can be extremely soothing as they help decrease anxiety and fear while also helping with anger management. The act of shaking and watching the contents of a calm down jar settle forces the body to focus, which in turn allows children to organize their thoughts and ‘center’ their nervous system. The idea is that, as the items within the calm down jar fall, so will your child’s heart rate and rapid breathing, allowing him or her to gain control over his or her emotions.
To make your own calm down jar, mix glitter glue with hot water, add a few drops of food coloring and whisk vigorously until the glue ‘melts’ and mixes properly with the water. I don’t follow a specific glue/water ratio when I make mine – I just sort of throw it all together and hope for the best, LOL, but you can adjust to your preference. Next, add additional glitter, whisk vigorously one more time, transfer the mixture into a clear jar (I use an old Gatorade container with the label removed), and top the bottle up with water so it’s completely full. Allow the water to cool to room temperature before securing the lid with glue. I use a glue gun to ensure it is properly sealed and won’t leak.
4) Teach mindful breathing
When we feel anxious or stressed, our breathing patterns change. We begin taking short, fast, shallow breaths, which can make us feel even more overwhelmed than we’re already feeling. Mindful breathing is a great tool you can use to teach children to use when their emotions threaten to take over their bodies, and there are many different techniques you can try.
If you’re looking for cognitive behavioral therapy activities for kids, the Bubble Blowing Technique is one of the best for very young children, as it allows them to learn through play. Give them a small toy soap bubble container and wand to practice blowing bubbles. They will learn quickly that if they blow too hard or too fast, the bubble will burst before it has time to take shape. But by blowing slowly and with purpose, they can blow a perfect bubble. Have them practice the technique with real bubbles before removing the soap and letting them use only their imaginations.
If you’re looking for cognitive behavioral therapy activities for kids who are older, Hissing Breath is a fun idea to try. It involves breathing in through the nose and releasing the breath with a long hissing sound through the mouth. Teach kids to try and let the hissing last as long as they can, as the longer it lasts the better they are controlling their breathing. You can turn this into a fun game to see who can hiss the longest!
5) Challenge negative thinking
Teachers Pay Teachers offers a great bundle of activities to help kids who struggle to understand, recognize, and challenge negative thinking and negative self-talk. With 13 exercises designed to challenge negative thinking, this resource helps children understand their own cognitive distortions, challenge them, and replace them with positive self-talk. Learn more about this bundle HERE.
6) Don’t Go Bananas!
If you’re looking for cognitive behavioral therapy activities for kids that don’t require a lot of setup and can be used both in therapy and at home to help support children, Don’t Go Bananas is a great CBT game to try. It helps kids work through 5 strong emotions – anger, sadness, worry, fear and jealousy – and helps them identify what triggers these feelings, how they react to them, and prompts them to look for ways to change their thought patterns.
7) Mad Dragon
If your child struggles with anger management, Mad Dragon is a great therapeutic game designed to teach kids they have choices when it comes to how they express anger.
8) Read together
There are lots of fabulous age-appropriate books that can be used as a follow-up to the ideas and lessons taught during cognitive behavioral therapy. Here are some of my favorites!
- Wilma Jean the Worry Machine. This is a fun book that tackles the concept of anxiety in a child-friendly way and offers creative strategies kids can use to feel better when big emotions strike. I love the Worry Hat idea, and the Wilma Jean the Worry Machine Activity and Idea Book offers fun ways for parents and teachers to engage with kids who are plagued with worries.
- I Like Myself! I think every child should own this book as it reminds them to love all of the things that are unique about themselves, and it can be especially helpful to kids who struggle with anxiety and depression.
- What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety. Perfect for kids aged 6-12, this is more of a self-help book for kids and parents, and it walks through the cognitive-behavioral techniques used to treat anxiety in an engaging, child-friendly way.
- Zola! This is another fun book about a girl who worries about EVERYTHING, how she sought help, and what she does to cope.
- How To Get Unstuck From The Negative Muck: A Kid’s Guide To Getting Rid Of Negative Thinking. This is a great book to teach kids that everyone has negative thoughts and while we can’t make them go away completely, we can learn not to allow them to control our mood and behaviors.
6 Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Worksheets for Kids
Because cognitive behavioral therapy is intended to be a short-term therapy technique aimed at helping individuals overcome a challenge as quickly as possible, homework assignments are often recommended to help patients practice new skills, coping strategies, etc.
I recently stumbled upon an awesome resource on Amazon that I wanted to share. It’s called, CBT Toolbox for Children and Adolescents: Over 200 Worksheets & Exercises for Trauma, ADHD, Autism, Anxiety, Depression & Conduct Disorders and I highly recommend it. With hundreds of worksheets, exercises, and activities designed to help kids with trauma, ADHD, autism, anxiety, depression, and conduct disorders, this is a great all-in-one package for those looking for cognitive behavioral worksheets for kids! The tools in this book will help your child learn how to cope with and overcome his or her challenges, and I highly recommend it.
There are also tons of cognitive behavioral therapy worksheets for kids you can purchase for a small fee online to help support your child at home, and we’ve curated some of our favorites below. I pulled all of these from the Teachers Pay Teachers website as I find they offer fabulous resources from trained professionals with relevant experience.
1) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Bundle for School Counseling
This is a fabulous bundle for school counselors, school psychologists, and school social workers who work with students in individual and/or small group counseling and includes: cognitive behavioral therapy worksheets for kids, changing negative thoughts activities, think-feel-act worksheets, recognizing and challenging negative thinking, CBT problem solving maps for school counseling, and a feelings check-in and poster.
2) Cognitve Behavioral (CBT) Art Therapy Worksheets to Improve A Bad Mood
With 18 background scenes to choose from, these CBT worksheets are a great tool to help kids turn a bad day into a good one!
3) Cognitive Behavior Worksheet Pack (CBT)
Designed for kids in grade 1 to grade 6, this set includes CBT worksheets, posters, and journal pages to help kids understand that our thoughts and actions have a direct impact on our feelings. I particularly love the ‘This is how I WANT to Feel; This is how I NEED to Think’ worksheet as it’s a powerful visual to help kids realize they are in control of their own feelings.
4) Ten Minute CBT Worksheets and Handouts for Depression and Anxiety
These worksheets and handouts teach kids to manage feelings of anxiety, depression, and anger by practicing 10 minutes of CBT per day. The material in this bundle will lay the foundation for CBT, and teach kids how to challenge and change cognitive distortions while also building their self-awareness and self-confidence.
5) CBT Animals:Stories and Worksheets to Teach Children about Cognitive Distortions
If your kids or students struggle with cognitive distortions, this package can be used to create a 12-week program in a small group or individualized setting.
6) Trash Talkers: Building Positive Self-Talk for Confidence and Self-Esteem
Perfect for kids in grades 1 through 4, these cognitive behavioral therapy worksheets for kids help children learn the difference between positive and negative self-talk, and help change their inner dialogue to boost their self-esteem, self-confidence, and mood.
Whether you’re a therapist, parent, or teacher of a child who struggles with anxiety, depression, ADHD, anger management, and/or other mental health challenges, I hope these cognitive behavioral therapy activities for kids help you teach the little ones in your life how to recognize their negative thoughts, and offer tips and tools to help them replace these beliefs with positive thought processes.
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