What is Behavioral Therapy

What Is Behavioral Therapy?

Behavioral therapy is a specialized form of care that seeks to uncover the root cause of bad behavior. Once the cause has been found, sessions revolve around coping mechanisms. The goal of behavioral therapy is to change the way a person thinks and behaves and, above all else, to make them aware of their negative triggers.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy statistics show anyone with behavioral issues directly related to mental illness can benefit from the therapy. Mental illness can change every part of the body. For example, severe anxiety is tied to heart issues. As such, treating mental illness improves both outlook and quality of life. Here are some of the diseases behavioral therapy treats.

Table of Contents

Discussing Behavioral Therapy


Depression is characterized by persistent feelings of apathy, sadness, and tiredness. People with medical depression experience lower levels of joy and have a hard time motivating themselves to accomplish everyday tasks like getting out of bed, bathing, eating, etc. Depression can lead to poor relationships, limited career options, and shortened life expectancy. Behavioral therapy helps treat depression by making a person aware of their negative thought spirals to have a chance to address them.


Anxiety causes paranoia, nervousness, and a sense of impending doom. Those who suffer from anxiety will have a hard time asserting themselves, leaving the house, and having issues with self-image. Behavioral therapy counteracts anxiety symptoms by making people aware of their anxiety and teaching them methods to deal with it on the fly. For example, a standard method is to count down and focus on breathing to keep the person in the present instead of worrying obsessively about the future.

Panic Disorders

Panic disorders are known to cause persistent fear and paranoia. A person with panic disorder will experience panic attacks in which breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure will spike to unhealthy levels.

Anger Issues

Anger issues manifest as frequent and uncontrollable outbursts. Family and friends of someone with anger issues will often feel they need to constantly watch what they say or do to avoid outbursts. Because of this, people with anger issues have a hard time maintaining family and friend relationships. Behavioral therapy helps people learn to manage their anger and understand its impact on those around them.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder causes frequent mood changes, shortened attention span, and disrupts functioning in day-to-day life. Bipolar disorder is often a cause of genetics, trauma, or chronic drug use. Behavioral therapy helps make people aware of their mood shifts while teaching them healthier ways of handling them.

Origins of Behavioral Therapy

Traces of behavioral therapy can be found as far back as WW1, where doctors sought new ways to treat PTSD, known as shell shock at the time. But behavioral therapy as a school of thought didn’t emerge until the 1950s. Psychologist B.F. Skinner first studied the effects of positive reinforcement on pigeons in a lengthy experiment that, over time, changed how the pigeons behaved — this process is called “shaping.” Before long, Skinner used his methods to help shape people with mental health conditions in Massachusetts. His technique was proven effective, and he began to teach it to his peers.

Before the behavioral therapy revolution, behavioral therapy psychology lacked proven data showing a lasting change in an individual. B.F. Skinner introduced a precise method to inspire and chart change with behavioral therapy. Although Skinner is considered the most recognizable face of B.T., other psychologists did similar experiments. Joseph Wolpe studied the effects of electroshock therapy, and psychologist Robert P. Liberman began working on psychoeducation for the family unit.

Types of Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy is a broad term encompassing many specific forms of therapy. The common thread between each type of therapy is that they seek to better one’s perspective. And they all take time to become effective. Total commitment to the program yields the best results. Here are the most common forms of behavioral therapy.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, also known as CBT, seeks to uncover and treat the root causes of trauma, depression, and anxiety. Cognitive-behavioral therapy uses can be applied to any form of unwanted habits. Although concepts that would later come from CBT were discussed as early as the 1900s, the father of modern CBT is behavioral health therapist Dr. Aaron T. Beck. He began studying it in the 1950s, and by the 1980s, Beck published a work that declared CBT to be more effective than standalone medical treatments. The future of modern CBT is centered around becoming more accessible for people from all walks of life.

Cognitive-Behavioral Play Therapy

CBT play therapy is designed to get children as young as two to open up and address their feelings and outlook. Behavioral counseling therapy suggests that by keeping the child distracted with toys, they will more likely express how they truly feel without the fear of punishment. CBT play therapy is effective for children that have been through trauma or are showing signs of mental illness. CBT play therapy also helps children who have difficulty communicating due to autism, down syndrome, and other conditions that impact communication.

Behavioral health therapist Dr. Virginia Axline first pioneered play therapy. She was one of the leading forces to balance excessive play and actual therapy. The rules of play therapy are as follows.

Components of  CBT Play Therapy

When choosing the toy to play with, a psychologist or behavioral health therapist will establish specific rules such as not playing with one toy until another is put away. Special notice will also be given to which toys a child chooses to interact with. Of the toy choices, each item is split into three categories: real-life, aggression, and expression. An example of each would be a toy car, plastic gun, or coloring book, respectively.

The toy the child chooses is indicative of their mental state. For example, selecting an aggression toy is related to unresolved anger. Choosing a real-life toy is linked to timidness, and selecting an expression toy correlates with creativity.

  • System desensitization: The therapist’s role in cognitive therapy for system desensitization is to gradually expose a person to their triggers. For example, if a certain sound triggers a person, they will listen to that sound repeatedly throughout therapy until the effect is diminished. Psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe invented the method.
  • Aversion therapy: Aversion therapy is a form of behavioral counseling theory that’s has been around since the 1930s in various forms. It works by associating a negative feeling or idea with a bad habit. For example, a smoker in aversion therapy may be played an unpleasant sound while smoking. Over time, the discomfort caused by the sound will outweigh the nicotine craving.

Techniques of Behavioral Therapy

Being able to manage everyday stressors is essential to leading a productive life. All forms of behavioral therapy are effective, but few are common behavioral therapy techniques.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is the way all of us learn. It’s comprised entirely of 100% natural reactions and thoughts specific to the individual. For example, seeing a scary movie at a young age and then developing a fear of the villain is classical conditioning. However, home life, culture, economic status, and genes all factor into someone’s automatic responses. The benefits of behavioral therapy are centered around uncovering those responses and changing them.

Aversion Therapy

Behavioral therapy techniques for aversion therapy includes.
  • Shock therapy: Weak electric shocks used to cause discomfort.
  • Sound therapy: A discomfort-inducing sound is played at sight or mention of the unwanted habit. Sound therapy will almost always be a short sound or phrase.
  • Bitter/unpleasant-tasting food: An unpleasant food is given during bad behavior.
  • Temperature changes: Gradual temperature changes can be used to root out bad habits. A form of this occurs when people quit smoking during winter months.
  • Unpleasant visual therapy: Uncomfortable images are shown when discussing the bad habit.


Flooding, similar to systematic desensitization, overwhelms the person with whatever causes them anxiety. In flooding, they’re exposed to such a high level of their stressor that eventually it doesn’t affect day-to-day life. This process takes time as exposure increments are slowly increased. It’s an effective tool for people that are triggered by familiar sounds. For example, a person with PTSD may flashback when hearing brakes, car horns, etc. Through flooding, they gain control over these triggers.

Healthy coping mechanisms are another essential part of managing triggers. Coping mechanisms happen unconsciously and manifest as binge eating, shopping sprees, etc., which can make a person feel poorly about themselves. Healthy coping mechanisms cause no harm to the individual or those around them, are easily accessible, and typically benefit the person somehow. Examples of healthy coping mechanisms include journaling, breathing exercises, hobbies, art, etc.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is a behavioral counseling theory that directly punishes or rewards a specific behavior. It was categorized initially in the 1930s by B.F. Skinner. It works by establishing set rules to obtain rewards and avoid punishment. For example, getting a bonus at work for meeting a quota is a form of operant conditioning.

Contingency Management

Contingency management works similarly to operant conditioning in that it rewards and punishes specific behavior. However, to obtain the reward, individuals must meet a long-term goal of behavioral therapy, i.e., maintaining sobriety for a certain amount of time or completing a week of workouts, etc. An effective contingency management plan has controls in place to make success easier, like not watching T.V. or playing video games when there’s still work to be done. Contingency management excels at instilling positive core habits in both children and adults.


Extinction plays on the concept of negative reinforcement. An example would be a smoker encouraged to smoke or otherwise held in esteem for their habit. This causes them to smoke more, adding another layer of reward and reinforcement. In extinction, reinforcement of negative habits is removed. For example, instead of being rewarded for smoking, the habit is ignored by those around them. By removing this extra layer of reinforcement, it becomes easier to see the negative attributes of a habit.10

Behavior Modeling

Also known as role modeling, it encourages exposure to positive influences that a person should mimic. For example, children from a loving home with caring parents are more likely to become loving and caring themselves. Behavior modeling also plays a factor in what’s healthy for a child to see at a young age. T.V. and movie ratings stem from the concept of behavior modeling.

Token Economies

Token economies are most prevalent in rehab facilities. They work by providing a person with a token or resource used to obtain goods in return for maintaining positive habits. Special care must be given to not reward a person with something they can exchange for their bad habit. For example, actual money is rarely, if ever, used as a person can exchange that for cigarettes, alcohol, etc.11 

Signs Your Child May Need Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy activities can help prevent and treat all the following.


Headbanging is a sign of attention-seeking and extreme frustration with their surroundings. This can be a symptom of trauma or an inability to deal with challenges. Should a child exhibit these signs, therapy is needed to ensure they aren’t a danger to themselves or others. Headbanging can lead to concussions, learning disabilities, trouble with memory, and sleep issues. It’s a sign that they can’t process their frustration healthily and turn to self-harm instead. This can lead to issues with self-image, negative ideation, and more.

Repeated Biting, Hitting, or Kicking

These symptoms fall in line with angry outbursts and a poor life outlook. It can begin once a person reaches the toddler stage. A behavioral health therapist can help a child control these transgressions while educating the parents. Without treatment, biting, hitting, kicking, and other physical outbursts can lead to poor social skills, academic dysfunction, and injury.

Physical outbursts are symptoms most associated with a child that’s undergone trauma. But it can manifest for a variety of reasons. Only a trained behavioral health therapist will be able to uncover the cause. Behavioral therapy interventions are possible if their behavior proves to be too much.

Constant Fighting

Behavioral therapy techniques exist for children who engage in constant fighting. Fighting is often a sign of anxiety, anger issues, or underlying trauma. This is a symptom that must be treated quickly as it can result in disciplinary and legal action as they age. Constant fighting can also lead to head injuries that impede mood, learning, and emotional maturity.

Keep in mind that in behavioral counseling theory, constant fighting differs from being bullied. Given no means of escape, anyone is subject to fighting when attacked. If your child is in fights because of being bullied, getting them into therapy is paramount.

Childhood bullying can lead to aggression, insecurity, depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. As a parent or guardian, it’s your responsibility to listen and uncover the root cause of the altercation.

Frequent Nightmares

Frequent nightmares are the result of unresolved trauma. Nightmares can result in poor sleep, making it harder for a child to concentrate. This can also cause behavioral issues due to the irritability associated with poor sleep. In behavioral therapy techniques for children, the focus is on uncovering and addressing the trauma that causes the nightmare. Behavioral therapy creates a safe space for a child to express their concerns without fear of punishment.

Behavioral therapy techniques have a long and proven history as effective for various illnesses. Like any form of recovery, a person must be willing to commit to the process. The goal of behavioral therapy is change, and that change is possible with commitment and the right team. If you have questions about behavioral therapy options, then reach out to Alta Center for more information.