An investigation into children's developing ability to identify and link thoughts, feelings and behaviours : implications for cognitive behaviour therapy for children
There is increasing evidence supporting the efficacy of cognitive behavioural therapy
as a treatment for a wide range of adult psychological disorders. The use of cognitive
behavioural therapy with young children has however been questioned, as it is
deemed that they lack the cognitive abilities required to engage with this treatment
approach. There is however no empirical evidence to support this assumption and
recent research has focused upon identifying core skills which young children may
require to engage with cognitive behavioural therapy.
The current research examines the presence of core cognitive behaviour therapy skills
in a non-clinical population of 96 children aged 4-7 years. It examines young
children's abilities to distinguish thoughts from feelings and behaviour and the effect
of providing visual cues to assist with this task. Children were read 6 stories and
asked to sort different parts of the stories into categories of 'thought' 'feeling' and
'behaviour'. Half of the children were provided with visual cue post boxes to assist
with this task and half were not.
The research also examines young children's abilities to link thoughts to feelings and
thoughts to behaviours in the context of prior experience. Children were told 8 stories,
elaborated with picture cards, and asked to explain why focal characters felt a
particular emotion or performed a certain action / behaviour at the end of the stories,
when they saw a cue which reminded them of a previous experience. All of the
measures used in this study were designed specifically to test the abilities being
researched, apart from shortened forms of standardised intelligence tests (WISC III UK
and WPPSI-R UK) to measure ability level.
The results indicated increased competence in these skills between the age of 4 and
years. In particular children aged 6 and 7 possessed considerable skill at these tasks.
The findings also demonstrated that visual cues significantly improved children's
scores on a task requiring them to distinguish thoughts, feelings and behaviours. The
effects of visual cues and age band remained after adjusting for the effect of IQ on all
of the tasks.
It is suggested that cognitive behavioural therapy may be an appropriate form of
treatment for young children, once cognitive tasks have been adapted to the child's
developmental needs. The findings are discussed with reference to a broad range of
clinical and theoretical implications and further research ideas are proposed.