TF-CBT may sound like an intense acronym and a bit overwhelming. We therapists love our acronyms! It stands for Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In everyday terms, it is a trauma-focused intervention that is specifically for people from ages 3 to 18 that are diagnosed with PTSD due to experiencing a traumatic event. The key components of TF-CBT that make it a unique intervention is it utilizes measures to track symptoms, it emphasizes gradual exposure, it includes the caregiver throughout the entire treatment, and it provides the client and caregiver with multiple skills to utilize at home to combat symptoms. Also, to become fully certified and recognized on the roster, a clinician must complete a year-long intensive training that includes multiple two-day in-person seminars, biweekly supervision with a consultant, monthly group consultation calls, and an exam at the end if the clinician chooses to become nationally certified. Throughout the training, the clinician is working with at least two cases and receiving constant supervision to ensure fidelity to this model.
Within the first couple of sessions, the clinician will ask the client and caregiver to complete some pre-treatment measures. These measures will be completed before treatment and then after treatment to show exactly how and where the client and caregiver have improved. Trauma and PTSD symptoms in a child have a significant effect on caregivers as well, so some of the measures will be specific to the caregiver. TF-CBT has a significant amount of research to back up why and how it works. Measuring symptoms before and after treatment continues to add to that research as clinicians can track symptoms with clients and provide clients and caregivers with straight numbers to show improvements. Often it can be difficult for the client to feel the changes at first, so tracking symptoms is helpful to instill hope as well.
This is another one of those therapy words that we all love. Gradual exposure means that the clinician will not dive into the dark depths of the trauma right off the bat. Flooding is a term that is used often in therapy and it means overwhelming the client by moving too deeply too quickly during trauma treatment. TF-CBT emphasizes gradual exposure every single step of the way to avoid flooding and an increase in symptoms. We want to dip our toe in the water and SLOWLY move into the shallow end and eventually into the deep end of the pool. We never want to jump into the deep end when it comes to trauma. One of the first steps of TF-CBT is teaching the client and caregiver coping skills. Coping skills are used for two main reasons: to begin decreasing symptoms and to provide client and caregiver with tools to use to calm themselves as the trauma is being processed throughout treatment.
The caregiver is an integral part of treatment for many reasons. The caregiver provides support for the client and is with the client day in and day out. The trauma the client experienced also significantly affects the caregiver. It is difficult to care for a child that has experienced a trauma. It can trigger the caregiver if he/she has his/her own past trauma, it can be traumatizing and cause the caregiver to experience symptoms of anxiety or vicarious trauma, and it is difficult to fully understand the client’s symptoms and behaviors related to the trauma. Education is an important part of TF-CBT, as well. Psycho-education is provided throughout treatment to the client and the caregiver. It is important that both parties understand the ins and outs of trauma to better equip themselves to heal from it. A caregiver can be a parent, another family member, a foster parent, a social worker, or whoever is the primary caretaker of the child at that time. It is ideal to have someone that will be able to commit to the full process of treatment to provide the greatest benefits to the child. TF-CBT treatment works to heal the child and the family because trauma often ripples farther than we realize.
As I mentioned earlier, the clinician will provide the client and caregiver with coping skills from the beginning of treatment. These skills will include calming skills, grounding skills, communication skills, and mindfulness skills. The skills will be tailored to the client’s and caregiver’s symptoms. One of the goals of providing these skills is to allow the client and caregiver to see that they can begin to combat the symptoms in a healthy way. It is ideal that the client and caregiver work on these skills together outside of sessions to increase efficiency. These skills are also important as the client continues in treatment and begins to get to the deep side of the pool that involves the details of the traumatic experience. These skills will allow the client and caregiver to be able to walk into those deep dark places knowing they can come out of them and ground themselves and calm themselves. Coping skills can provide a sense of empowerment to the client and caregiver during treatment and throughout life.