Philip Kendall on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Philip Kendall on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

by Deb Kory
CBT scholar and expert Dr. Philip Kendall discusses the evolution of CBT theory over the years, his work with Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck and his empirically validated treatment program for kids and adolescents with anxiety.


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Working with the Masters

Deb Kory: Hi Philip. You’re a researcher, scholar, clinician, and a professor at Temple University. You’ve done a great deal of seminal work on treating anxiety disorders in children and adolescents, as well as cognitive behavioral theory, assessment and treatment. In doing research for this I opened up your CV and noticed that it was 127 pages long. You’ve been rather prolific over the course of your career and have worked with some of the great masters in the field of cognitive behavioral therapy. This month we’re releasing two DVDs that contain interviews with Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck. Can you tell us how these guys influenced you and what it was like working with them?
Philip Kendall:
Tim [Aaron] Beck had an influence because my first job was at the University of Minnesota and I was hired to do research on children and adolescents in treatment and outcome. I worked with Steve Hollon there, whose office was adjacent to mine and he had just finished working with Beck on the first outcome study for cognitive therapy for adult depression. So I was influenced, in part, by Beck through that process.

Years later I now live about 10 or 15 houses from where Tim Beck lives here in suburban Philadelphia. He’s 91 now and moving into a townhouse in the city, but up until a few months ago we were neighbors and I’ve seen him at movies and restaurants and such. But the intellectual influence was the manualization—or manual-based approach—to treatment and its systematic, organized evaluation, which I was doing with kids and he was doing with adults.
DK: And how about Albert Ellis and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)?
PK: A number of years ago I did a paper with Albert Ellis that was intended to correct a slight trajectory difference. Tim Beck had succeeded nicely in pursuing the research side of cognitive therapy, whereas Al Ellis had succeeded beautifully in the practice side of rational emotive therapy, but not quite as much on the research.

So we collaborated on a paper that was intended to outline what was known and what were the next needed studies in REBT to try to correct its trajectory, which didn’t include as much research. I would say the focus is similar. Al Ellis focused more on neurotic styles and Tim Beck focused more on the diagnosis of depression. But, interpersonally Al Ellis was much more the New Yorker and in your face and Tim is not. And so, you have some therapist personality differences.
DK: What was it like working with Ellis?
PK: I guess I would say this: I found him to be very true to his view. His theory would say things, many of which are very insightful and smart, like, “you can’t be liked by everybody,” and “you can’t worry about what someone else is going to say if you say what you think is true.” And I found in my interactions with him around several things that he didn’t pull punches.
DK: He “called a spade a spade,” as he was fond of saying.
PK: Yeah, and I found it a likeable quality. And to be candid, in the paper that I ended up writing, it included some comments that were less than supportive, so we had a little back-and-forth and he accepted my criticisms.

I would say he was a little bit more inclined to want to look at the literature from a view that supported what he thought.
I would say he [Ellis
was a little bit more inclined to want to look at the literature from a view that supported what he thought.] And I would come from a perspective that says, “let’s look at the literature and think about what we know based on what we found.” That’s a slightly different read on how you process information.
DK: What other major intellectual influences would you cite?
PK: Don Meichenbaum was probably just a few years past his PhD at the University of Waterloo and he was working with kids. He had written some materials and they were literally printed on an old dot matrix printer and when he and I were communicating it was snail mail. So I would get these correspondences in the mail and I would send him our papers. I didn’t realize at the time that he was a leading thinker on this theme and that I was involved early in a major shift in our discipline. Mike Mahoney, Al Kazdin and Ed Craighead were colleagues at Penn State at the time and some of their work was also important and influential.

"These Kids Think"

DK: How did you come to psychology and to CBT in particular?
PK: I would say my initial training in psychology was with learning. First with animal learning, where you study the acquisition of behavior patterns in fish, mice, monkeys, white rats, that kind of thing. One of the features that we were studying was called “avoidance learning,” where animals learn to make responses that they think are helpful but, in fact, aren’t. And they just can’t unlearn those unhelpful avoidance responses, which is a very behavioral learning theory view of anxiety.

Then in graduate school, while doing a lot of behavioral work, the animals were no longer the animals. The animals were people. And it became apparent not just to me but to others that these kids think. And how they think alters their behavior. So we started talking about cognitive behavioral therapy as a way to take learning theory and still pay attention to the cognitive processing of the participants.
DK: Did you have any psychoanalytic training?
PK: I never had graduate level psychoanalytic training, but I did have several courses that were psychoanalytic and I remember reading a book that was about children and adolescents that was psychoanalytic, but it kept blaming the parents, and showed no reflection of normal development. It seemed like everything a normal kid would do or say was seen as a symptom, and that’s very disrespectful of the fact that normal development includes times of sadness, times of anxiety, times of conflict.
Psychoanalysts didn’t seem to be informed by what we know about human development.
Psychoanalysts didn’t seem to be informed by what we know about human development. So I kind of rejected it, thinking it’s a rich theory and a couple of things seem right about it, but so much of it seems not based on what we already know.

I hate to say it, but I think that was in 1974. Oh my goodness.
DK: That was the year I was born.
PK: And I was getting my PhD, oh my God.
DK: Well…and 450 publications later here you are.
PK: Yeah, it seems to have gone by quickly because time does pass quickly as you age.
DK: I’ve noticed that.
PK: But it also seems to have been relatively cumulative. What we know now is informed by studies that were done in the last two decades. And that’s a good feeling.

CBT Then and Now

DK: That leads to my next question. How have you seen cognitive therapy change over that time? Looking at Aaron Beck’s cognitive therapy and what you today call cognitive behavioral therapy, are there any majors differences?
PK: My hunch is it’s very, very similar. For example, in cognitive therapy for depression, even though the word “behavioral” isn’t in the title, it’s in the implementation of the therapy. There’s homework, there’s practice, there’s even scheduling and rewards. Those things are out of the behavioral tradition. In cognitive behavioral therapy there’s certainly practice and reward and homework, but there’s also the cognitive part. It’s just the title that was popular at the time.

As far as what’s changed, there’s the good and the bad.
One of the dilemmas is that CBT has become more accepted and more popular—that’s a good thing—but in the popularization, more people seem to misunderstand it than understand it.
One of the dilemmas is that CBT has become more accepted and more popular—that’s a good thing—but in the popularization, more people seem to misunderstand it than understand it. I think our profession is well informed, but people outside the field have some long-standing misconceptions. “CBT—Isn’t that the power of positive thinking?” No, it’s not. “Oh, isn’t that where you tell yourself not to be depressed?” There are these simplistic, if not buzz-word answers that are just wrong and a misperception.

In addition, you have a sort of knee-jerk reaction among some—“Oh yeah, I read about that. I tried it. It doesn’t work.” But when you actually ask them, they didn’t really experience it or try it. Those things are unfortunate.

What’s changed for the better, I think, is the cumulative part. Psychology and clinical psychology is not a breakthrough science. It doesn’t change overnight based on one study. It’s a cumulative process that takes decades, not days, for things to go from point A to B to C to D. And when I see the American Psychiatric Association say they require clinically supported treatments such as CBT taught to their residents, and I see empirically supported treatments reviewed at a government level or by a state like California, and the programs that qualify as empirically supported are largely CBT, it’s showing the positive progress of cumulative knowledge.
DK: You’re being generous in stating that most therapists really know what CBT is. That’s not been my experience. We didn’t get a lot of CBT training in my graduate program. I’ve found in professional circles that CBT is often conveyed as kind of wooden, lacking in spontaneity, not focusing at all on the quality of the relationship, etc. Can you speak to that conception or misconception?
PK: Sure. And I’m kind of smiling. If we were on Skype you’d see a big grin because we just finished two large and, I think, important papers on the role of the relationship in CBT for anxiety in youth. The first is based on 488 kids treated at six different universities by close to 40 different therapists. The supervisors rated the therapists. The therapists had to send us tapes, which we watched and rated. The methodology of the study is really good.

The bottom line is that therapists who are “teachy”—as in “Hi, Johnny, you’re anxious about this. Here’s what you should do”—don’t do as well as therapists who are more like coaches.
Therapists who are “teachy”—as in “Hi, Johnny, you’re anxious about this. Here’s what you should do”—don’t do as well as therapists who are more like coaches.
A coach would be more likely to say, “Johnny, you’re anxious about that. Hmm. What are some things we could try? What are some things that might have worked for other kids? Which one of those do you want to try?” And then try it out and say, “Hmm, that one seems to work okay for you. What do you think?” The coach style had better outcomes than the teachy style. Clearly that reflects different therapeutic relationships, different ways of interacting.

When you do an exposure task in treating anxiety, you take an anxious kid and you put them in a situation that makes them anxious. For years people thought, “Oh, that damages the relationship.” But the second study we did, also looking at the relationship, found that conducting exposure tasks does not rupture the therapeutic alliance. The challenges that are brought to a kid in CBT do not damage the relationship. It holds up pretty well. The relationship’s important. There’s variability in the way therapists do treatment. But relationship alone is not sufficient. It may be necessary, but not sufficient.
DK: There’s a lot of emphasis these days on more experiential, emotion-focused therapies that draw upon the adaptive potential of emotions and work to elicit deeply emotional responses within the framework of an empathic therapy relationship. CBT seems to focus primarily on cognitions and behaviors, but there is a fair amount of empirical support for the efficacy of emotion-focused therapies. How does CBT work with emotions?
PK: Again I have a little bit of grin on my face. Although the words are different—“expressed emotions” and “emotion focused” might not be the way we describe it—we’re doing much the same thing. For example, a child says, “I’m afraid to talk to people I don’t know.” So on Thursday at two o’clock, if she has an appointment, we set it up so that there are three other kids who are going to be there and this child is going to have an opportunity to meet one of them and have a conversation.

And we say to this child who’s coming for the two o’clock appointment: “We have it set up that you’re going to meet someone else. What do you think is going to happen? How are you going to feel? What happens if you get all nervous? What happens if you feel your heart racing? What are you going to do if you get confusing thoughts? What are you going to do if you have to go to the bathroom? What are you going to do if you can’t think of what to say? What are you going to do if they ask you a question?”

Then we’ll go into the room. We’ll have the child being treated meet a new kid and every minute or two during that experience we’re going to say, “How are you feeling now? What’s your set rating? How anxious are you?” And then we’ll keep those ratings. Then when it’s over we’ll go back to the therapy room and say, “How’d it go? We can talk about it here. That was great! You said you were uncertain about what you were going to say, but you were able to come up with questions and he had the same interests you did in comic books.”

If you were to not call it CBT, you would see that anxiety, which is an emotion, was the primary focus. We were in the experience totally. We were getting their set ratings on a minute or two minute interval and we were very much focused on how he was reacting and feeling. It’s just somebody’s lack of understanding that contributes to the misperception of differences.
DK: So you’re saying there’s not a real split here between CBT and EFT?
PK: Right. There’s a common undertaking with the use of different descriptive language.
DK: Exposure therapy throws you right there into the midst of whatever really intense emotions you have.
PK: Exactly, but with proper preparation.
DK: But there certainly are some real differences in how emotions are conceptualized and responded to. In EFT or psychodynamic or existential therapies, the therapist often will dig into the emotions to better understand the meaning underneath the emotions. Isn’t there a real risk in trying to change the emotional response before it is fully understood?
PK: There are different opinions, with many folks saying that there is a degree of understanding within CBT, but in other schools of thought, the understanding alone is not enough. I would fall in this group.
DK: What about the unconscious? We certainly have plenty of empirical evidence that there is much outside of our conscious awareness, and as you know, in psychodynamic therapies excavating and bringing to light our unconscious beliefs, desires, drives, etc. is seen as an essential part of healing and becoming an integrated person. How does CBT conceptualize or make use of the unconscious—if at all?
PK: When asked if I believe in the unconscious, I answer “Not that I am aware of." Kidding aside, the “underlying cognitive beliefs” are exposed as part of CBT. But, again, simply getting this to be more aware is not the end point, only a part of the goal.

CBT with Kids

DK: You’ve done a tremendous amount of research over the course of your career. In fact, you are one of the most frequently cited individuals in all of the social and medical sciences. I noticed that pretty much all of your research has been with children and adolescents. What’s the name of the clinic you founded and is that where the majority of your research is done?
PK: It’s called the “Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Clinic” and I started it in 1985. Every child or adolescent who comes into the clinic pays a fee, but it’s a reduced fee. In exchange for the reduced fee, they agree to participate in research and complete all of the measures. So literally every child who comes through our clinic is a participant in research. And that allows for them to get carefully monitored services, including very detailed analysis of what’s going on and what happens in the end and pre- and post- and follow-up measurement and things like that. But it also allows us to have real clinical data with real patients. We have a small group of graduate students who are doing their master’s or their dissertation with funding we receive from NIMH, who are able to do a lot of pretty sophisticated work. So I think that helps the research productivity a great deal to have external funding, a real clinic, and bright, motivated staff and colleagues and graduate students.
DK: What was it about working with children that appealed to you?
PK: There’s a professional answer and then there’s kind of a silly one. The professional answer is that if you’re going to have an impact on how someone experiences life and thinks about the world, if you wait until they’re 20 or 30 or 40 years into it and have established biases and perceptions, your task is quite daunting and challenging.

If you get to them early you can prepare them for these life experiences and catch—if not correct—some of the potential misperceptions when it’s developmentally appropriate. A first sleepover at age 12 is a meaningful social event; a first sleepover at age 30 is a different thing, you know.

DK: Indeed.
PK: The silly answer—and I have to be careful how I use the word patience here—is that I lose patience with adults. They can be rigid, misguided, less motivated and not quite as willing to try things. And I find with kids, they’re more willing to try things when they’ve got an adult who’s giving them some confidence to give it a try. And then it’s their own experiences that convince them to go forward. With adults there’s a lot of interference and baggage.
DK: I don’t automatically think of kids as having a lot of meta-consciousness around their thoughts and ideas. I think of therapy with children as being play therapy, where the therapist is making meaning of symbols and introducing ideas and concepts through a reparative relationship based in play. Do you still play with kids in CBT therapy? How do you incorporate concepts like homework and exposure into the play? Do they get homework?
PK: I’m going to do the homework part of the question first. We definitely have homework. Kids are accustomed to workbooks at school. They have math problems or other homework. So they also have homework in the “Coping Cat” workbook we developed, which they use as they go through their anxiety treatment.

Rather than making treatment complicated and difficult, I try to make it acceptable to kids. So we’ll talk about a cafeteria of things like relaxation or talking back to your anxiety or trying things out to see how they work. You kind of walk through the treatment as a cafeteria, where you don’t have to eat everything that’s offered.

At first the homework is easy: remember your therapist’s name; write down a time that you had fun; write down a TV show that you’ve watched and enjoyed. You know, simple things.

But gradually that homework becomes the very challenge they need to do to overcome their anxiety. So homework later on in treatment, let’s say after 14 weeks, might be to enter a new group at school. Join the drama club, join the chess club, try out for a play, start a club with remote control cars. The aim is to do something that’s an initiation that might have been something they were so afraid of even thinking about months before.

So the homework becomes the practice of the skills that we teach them. It’s a very important part of CBT, because one hour a week sitting with us in a safe environment isn’t the real world.
So the homework becomes the practice of the skills that we teach them. It’s a very important part of CBT, because one hour a week sitting with us in a safe environment isn’t the real world. But if they’re out there doing what they’ve learned with us multiple times a week in the real world, that’s got some punch.

The other half of it you mentioned was play. And I have to be careful how I say this because I often put my foot in my mouth, meaning I misspeak. We do play with kids. But play is not the goal or the vehicle that’s crucial. Play is just part of what you do with kids to communicate with them. It’s more the context of building a relationship onto which you’re then going to add the challenges.

So as an example, if we’re talking about a misperception, a social misperception or a probabilistic misperception—and I wouldn’t use these words with kids—but the kid will think, “Oh, I can’t do that because lightning will strike me.” We might say, “Oh, yeah, lightning. What would happen if you got struck by lightning? Let’s look it up on Google or let’s do some homework. What are some things that increase the chances? What are the things that decrease the chances? Holding a metal rod increases the chance. Golfers hold golf clubs. Let’s see how many people play golf, how often, that have how many clubs,” and then you’re playing. But in the game you come up with the conclusion that it’s one in 64 million people who might get a bolt of lightning on a golf course with a golf club. The probability isn’t that high.
DK: So you’re disconfirming the fear.
PK: Right. And again it goes by that coach notion. When a kid comes in and says, “I can’t call a friend on the phone. I don’t interact with peers at school. I don’t raise my hand. I’m scared of what’ll happen,” we think of it as, okay, in 16 weeks we want the kid raising his hand, calling a friend to ask about homework and having a sleepover.

In other words, the things that are difficult are the things we’re going to do. And how would a coach get there? A coach wouldn’t say, “You have to do it today,” because you haven’t taught them how. Just like a piano teacher wouldn’t say, “Perform your recital” the first day of your lessons. You have lessons, you practice and then you have the recital at the end.

So in our 16 weeks we’ll have lots of practice at pretend-calling people, at pretend-raising your hand, actually raising your hand in front of a staged audience, having catastrophes happen and helping you deal with them. So that when the kid goes to school and part of their homework is to raise their hand and ask a question, they’re kind of into it and practiced and know what to do. And that’s part of that coach notion that we allow them to have practiced at the things that may or may not happen so that they know how to deal with them if and when they do happen and it’s no longer so frightening or new or novel, it’s, “I’ve done that before.”
DK: Well that sounds different from one of the conceptions or misconceptions that people have about CBT, which is that the therapist is the “expert”–as opposed to, say, a more non-directive Rogerian approach or even the semi-directive approach of motivational interviewing, which guides clients with open-ended questions and seeks to “meet clients where they are.”
PK: In our approach we look at it a little differently. We say, “You’re the expert on you, Johnny. I’m sort of the expert on what other kids have tried and learned from. But I can’t do it without you and maybe you can’t do it without me. So we have to really collaborate on this. And I can give you some ideas for you to try out, but you have to tell me what works and what doesn’t work.”
DK: These approaches certainly make a lot of intuitive sense, especially when there is some clear behavioral change that is desired. But how does CBT think about situations where the emotional response of the clients seems appropriate—e.g. a girl is understandably distressed about her parents’ divorce, and she really just needs someone to talk to and work through her own feelings. Does CBT have anything specific to say about a situation like this?
PK: In general, the goal of “treatment” is to remediate an identified problem. For emotional disorders, for example, there may be irrational thinking or illogical processing that is interfering and maladaptive. These problems need to be treated.

In cases where someone has a “genuine and real” reaction to a real situation that is not excessive (though reasonably distressing), the rationality isn’t faulty nor is the thinking illogical. Rather, these are relatively normal processes that don’t meet criteria for disorder and don’t necessitate treatment.

If someone wants to have “personal growth” and learn about their thoughts, feelings, and behavior, that’s fine, but it’s not the same as effective treatment for an identifiable problem.

"I Must Be Doing Something Right"

DK: Of your many roles—teacher, researcher, writer, clinician—what’s your favorite?
PK: How do you pick a favorite child?
DK: Well, parents usually secretly have one....
PK: I don’t think I can pick a favorite. I can maybe rank them on different dimensions. I get a great deal of satisfaction from mentoring and seeing people go on and have their own careers flourish. I get a great deal of pleasure out of kids who were scared shitless (pardon my language) when they came in, going on to do things and 16 years later we’re in touch with them and they’re doing well. I like that stuff. That’s very satisfying. And then professionally I like doing good research and publishing it in good journals because I feel like that communicates to my colleagues, even though I recognize that the impact takes a long time.
DK: Okay, final question. I’m just starting out. I’m about to get licensed and I’m just wondering what advice you have for new therapists in the field.
PK: Every happily married person had been turned down prior when asking for a date. Every successful book author has had a proposal not go perfectly well. Every successful scientist has had a paper not accepted on first submission. And the best basketball player on the planet, Michael Jordon, shot 49.9 percent for his career. So having things not go well should be expected. And doing the best treatment you can might mean four or five out of ten get better. And if you do that, you’re doing better than most. Our profession is such that we remember the ones that don’t work and we blame the treatment we’re doing for its failures, rather than an objective view which states that this treatment response rate of 60 percent is 20 percent better than anything else, so I must be doing something right.
DK: That’s lovely. Thank you.

Copyright © 2012 All rights reserved. Published August 2012.
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Philip Kendall Philip C. Kendall, Ph.D., ABPP is a researcher, scholar, and clinician, professor of psychology, and director of the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Temple University. His CV lists over 450 publications, including over 30 books and over 20 treatment manuals and workbooks. He is one of the most highly-cited individuals in all of the social and medical sciences. Dr. Kendall has designed and evaluated treatment programs for youth, including the Coping Cat child therapy workbook series. His programs has been identified as empirically-supported, have been translated and implemented in over a dozen countries, and are the focus of numerous federally-funded research initiatives in treatment and prevention across the globe.
Deb Kory Deb Kory, PsyD, is the content manager at  She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from the Wright Institute and has a part-time private practice in Berkeley, CA. She loves both of her jobs and feels lucky to be able to divide her time between therapy, writing and editing. Before deciding to become a psychotherapist, she worked as the managing editor of Tikkun Magazine and published her writings in Tikkun, The Huffington Post and Alternet. Currently, she is working on turning her dissertation, Psychologists: Healers or Instruments of War?, into a book. In it, she describes in great detail the historical context and events that led to psychologists creating the torture program at Guantanamo and other "black sites" during the War on Terror.

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • List the core premises of Kendall's approach to CBT
  • Describe the use of CBT in treating various disorders
  • Plan treatment around the principles of CBT

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