What 2 hours of Brain Games + Couch Surfing Reminded me about therapy

Does your teen lack confidence? 

This past Tuesday I closed the office for a #snowday and spent the whole day at home with my family.  And, while there was definitely down time and snow throwing fun to be had by all, I actually learned a few things during the day too!

It takes 10,000 hours to gain mastery over a skill 

This means that in no less than 10,000 hours can someone gain complete confidence and control over a skill and behavior and create the brain patterns required to make this activity routine and easy for them.

This fun fact is something I learned while watching Brain Games on Neflix with my almost 9-year-old.  And it really got me thinking...

If it would take someone almost 5 years of full time work (like 40 hours per week) in order to truly master a skill, then...

...doesn't this mean that it takes more than a few therapy sessions to change a deeply entrenched troublesome behavior?  YES!

... doesn't this mean that it takes more than just a few redirections or consequences for your teen to learn how to manage difficult situations in a new way?  YES!

... doesn't this mean that if your teen is engaging in activities in which they don't feel competent that they need more practice and more time, rather than to give up and try something new (or try nothing at all?)  YES YES YES!


Build Mastery with DBT 

In the DBT Emotion Regulation module, we work on the skill called Build Mastery.  This skills encourages your teen to do something every single day that makes them feel good about themselves.

And this activity should not be outcome based.  For example, completing homework may give your child a sense of accomplishment and lead to better grades, but grades are based on external validation and don't teach your teen to feel confident as a person unless they are producing a certain end result that pleases others.

What is something that makes your teen feel good WHILE THEY ARE DOING IT? 

This could be...

  • Working out
  • Joining a theater production
  • Cooking
  • Doing makeup
  • Drawing
  • Creating music
  • Playing a sport

The key is to help your teen build an inner monologue in which they will begin to naturally think, "I'm good at this!"  And to have this self-talk come from a place that's completely intrinsic and not outcome-based.

What if my teen is depressed and they don't like to do ANYTHING? 

Depression can absolutely lead to a loss of interest in activities that your teen once enjoyed.  In this case, be mindful not to nag and create resentment and distance in the parent-child relationship.  Walk the fine line between encouragement and pressuring by tuning into your teen's body language and responses.

It may be time to temporarily lower the bar while your teen is seeking treatment.  You wouldn't expect your child to perform the same in gym class with a broken leg and this is no different.  It's perfectly reasonable to ease up on expectations until your teen gets back on track.

This may mean getting up and showered and off to school for the day is the max for what your teen can do to feel good right now.  Give them credit for the small steps of progress and they will start to accumulate into bigger successes.  But... send the message that it's not enough and you'll impede progress and reinforce a negative thought pattern that contributes to low self-esteem.

It takes 10,000 hours to build mastery 

Your teen's negative self-talk CAN change but it will take time.  If you want to help your teen shift unhelpful patterns into positive ones, start by helping them identify activities in they engage in and already FEEL good.  Repeated positive actions lead to paving new pathways in the brain and new patterns and routines that will make both you and your teen happier and more confident.

Find Balance by Accumulating the Positives in Your Life

When life gets hard or when difficult feelings arise, it can seem impossible to recognize the positives in your life.  The Accumulate Positives skill in DBT is all about finding something pleasurable and fun to do to balance out difficult emotions.  There are several ways to build positive experiences into our lives.

Being mindful of the positive experiences that are already present in your day is super important.  When you are not mindful or go through the day on autopilot, you may overlook small positive events that can accumulate into overall happier feelings.  Begin to take note when you are walking to the car from your home on a gorgeous sunny day.  Pay attention to how you feel when you interact with people who you care about.  Notice the body sensations when you laugh at a funny video.  Being mindful of these seemingly insignificant events can create more joy and pleasure in your everyday life.

It's also important to recognize what short-term experiences you can create for yourself right now in order to enhance feelings of well-being.  Remember that creating positive experiences may feel challenging when you're anxious or depressed, but when you can use your Opposite Action skill (acting in ways opposite to your destructive emotion) you can begin to chip away at these difficult feelings and develop a more balanced view of the situation.  Some ways to create short-term pleasant feelings include reaching out to a friend to talk or listening to uplifting music.

Planning positive experiences and creating larger pleasant events that can be accomplished in many smaller steps are also great ways to give your mood a boost!  Life goals and planning parties are great examples of how looking forward to something will help you create a life that you are excited about living.  One fun way that I help teens plan for fun activities is by creating a "Bucket List" of everything they'd like to experience in their lifetime.  


When we are able to choose and engage in pleasant activities, it helps to create balance that allows us to recognize that even when something is difficult, we can still find a reason to make life worth living.  It's important to give yourself permission to enjoy life, even when you're anxious or depressed and to be mindful of the positives as they arise.