At the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) for Young People Lab we develop computer game based interventions for children with psychological difficulties that combine high quality gaming technology with high quality psychological content. Our latest game is for children aged 9-15 years with anxiety or low mood and is called Pesky gNATs. It was co-developed by Dr Gary O’ Reilly from the UCD School of Psychology and Dr David Coyle from the Department of Computer Science at the University of Bristol.
UCD Tedx talk http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfc66acv9dA
Visit our website: www.peskygnats.com
Follow us on Twitter: https://twitter.com/peskygnats
CBT is not very child friendly
CBT was developed for adults. It’s not very child friendly. At its heart is a simple but sophisticated psychological model of human functioning that proposes that when we experience strong emotions like depression or anxiety we are experiencing Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATs). These determine our feelings and in turn determine our behaviour. Therapy proceeds by helping an adult notice this. During therapy an adult becomes skilled at thinking about their own thinking (thought monitoring), learns how to pause, reflect upon, and challenge their own thinking (cognitive restructuring), plan and implement new ways of behaving, and over time identify and challenge underlying deeply rooted ideas about themselves, their world, and their future called Core Beliefs. Thinking about your thinking and its effects on you in this way is challenging for most adults. Developmental psychologists refer to this as ‘Metacognition‘ and recognise it is very difficult for younger children to do.
We used we our understanding of developmental psychology, clinical psychology and computer science to tackle the problem of translating the abstract adult therapy oriented ideas of CBT into something that is accessible to younger children. The latest version of our game is called Pesky gNATs!
Our concrete translation of CBT ideas: In Pesky gNATs we use an unfolding concrete metaphor to present the central ideas of CBT. Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATs) are described as being like gNATs or little flies that sting you into certain ways of thinking usually without you noticing. Thought Monitoring becomes gNAT trapping. Cognitive Restructuring becomes gNAT swatting. And understanding Core Beliefs becomes hunting gNATs back to their hives.
We embedded these ideas in a socially meaningful story: Children’s thinking is at its most sophisticated when it is embedded in a social context. Pesky gNATs presents the child with a social narrative within which they can develop their CBT related thinking skills. In the game the child controls a character who represents them on a visit to gNATs Island where they help a world famous explorer called David gNATenborough and his team of investigators. As the narrative of the game unfolds they learn about themselves, gNAT trapping, gNAT swatting, and hunting gNATs back to their hive by helping with experiments devised by David gNATenbourough and his team in the world’s first gNAT lab.
Providing an adult to help: In Pesky gNATs children play the game over the course of 7 appointments side by side with a suitably qualified mental health professional who understands CBT (such as a clinical psychologist, child therapist, child psychiatrist, therapeutic social worker etc). Characters in the game ask questions and set tasks that the young person responds to with the help of their therapist. This provides children with a supportive scaffolding to develop and apply the CBT ideas they learn about and is a unique feature of our programme.
An environment where children feel at home: Young people do like computer games! We think they offer a familiar and de-stigmatising context for a mental health intervention.