Exposure-Based Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder: An Evidence-Based Case Study

Behav Ther. 2020 Mar;51(2):320-333. doi: 10.1016/j.beth.2019.05.007. Epub 2019 May 21.


Severe, chronic irritability is one of the most frequently reported problems in youth referred for psychiatric care. Irritability predicts adult depressive and anxiety disorders, and long-term impairment. Reflecting this pressing public health need, severe, chronic, and impairing irritability is now codified by the DSM-5 diagnosis of disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD). Since DMDD has only recently been added as its own nosological class, efficacious treatments that specifically target severe irritability as it presents in DMDD are still being developed. In a recent pilot study, we described the general concept of exposure-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for irritability. This mechanism-driven treatment is based on our pathophysiological model of irritability that postulates two underlying mechanisms, which potentiate each other: (1) heightened reactivity to frustrative nonreward, and (2) aberrant approach responses to threat. In this case report, we describe and illustrate the specific therapeutic techniques used to address severe irritability in an 11-year-old boy with a primary diagnosis of DMDD. Specific techniques within this CBT include motivational interviewing to build commitment and target oppositionality; creation of an anger hierarchy; in-session controlled, gradual exposure; and parent training focusing on contingency management to counteract the instrumental learning deficits in irritable youth. Parents learn to tolerate their own emotional responses to their youth's irritability (e.g., parents engage in their own exposure) and increase their adaptive contingencies for their youth's behavior (e.g., withdraw attention during unwanted behavior, praise desirable behavior). Future directions in the context of this CBT, such as leveraging technology, computational modeling, and pathophysiological targets, are discussed.

Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT02531893.

Keywords: case report; cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT); disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD); exposure; irritability; parent management training (PMT).

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Anger
  • Attention Deficit and Disruptive Behavior Disorders / psychology
  • Attention Deficit and Disruptive Behavior Disorders / therapy*
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy / methods*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Implosive Therapy / methods*
  • Irritable Mood*
  • Male
  • Mood Disorders / therapy*
  • Pilot Projects
  • Treatment Outcome

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT02531893