Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Dealing with Teenagers

When it comes to parenting there is certainly no ‘rule book.’ Although I’d love to think that my children will be complete darlings I know that this is a pretty unrealistic wish. A particularly tricky time for any parents in when their children hit the hormone fuelled teenage years. Their behaviour is difficult to control at the best of times, but one thing that may help me if I have children is Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA).

One reason why a teenager may ‘play up’ is because they are bored. Quite often they will just pick a fight with their parents and as my dad says ‘would argue that black is white’. Although it is very easy in this kind of situation to argue back and just shout at your children, this attention could be part of what is causing the problem. If it is attention that the child craves then even bad attention could act as positive reinforcement for them to do the same again knowing that they can get a reaction from you. Maag (1996) argues that this happens in classrooms as well. Teachers expect children to behave well so they ignore good behaviour but when they behave badly they reprimand them, or send them out the classroom which often won’t punish them but will positive reinforce their behaviour, especially if they are admired by their peers for it.

One way I may be able to reduce my children’s negative behaviour is through extinction. This is where the reinforcer that is maintaining the target behaviour is removed. Hart et al (1964) tested this with a child who continuously cried, thinking that his crying behaviour was reinforced by teachers giving him attention. Teachers were instructed not to pay him any attention when he cried, and after only 5 days his crying frequency reduced. This extinction could also be combined with positively reinforcing good behaviours. In the case of a teenager, praising them for the washing up may give them the attention they are craving and show them you don’t think that ‘everything they do is wrong.’ This attention may also make them less likely to pick a fight with you. Allen et al (1964) tested this by training nursery teachers to only attend to good behaviour and ignore undesired behaviour. They found that this technique successfully altered undesired behaviour.

A type of reinforcement that may sometimes feel difficult to implement but could be very powerful, especially in teenage years in natural reinforcement, where the child learns the consequences of their behaviours themselves (Horcones, 1983). Skinner (1989) argued that these reinforcers may be more powerful as they may more rapidly shape behaviours. So, letting a teenager learn the negative consequences of drinking may be far more effective than telling them off for doing it. I for one have certainly started to learn my limits, after one to many horrific hangovers.

So, Applied Behavioural Analysis could certainly teach me a few lessons in bringing up my children during their teenager years. Shouting and nagging will only make things worse, and sometimes taking a step back and letting them learn their own lessons may just be the best thing to do.


Allen, K.E., Hart, B., Buell, J.S., Harris, F.R., & Wolf, M.M. (1964). Effects of social reinforcement on isolate behaviour of a nursery school child. Child development, 511-518.

Hart, B.M., Allen, K.E., Buell, J.S., Harris, F.R., & Wolf, M.M. (1964). Effects of social reinforcement on operant crying. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 1, 145-153.

Horcones. (1983). Natural Reinforcement in a Walden Two community. Revista Mexicana de Analysis de la Conducta, 9, ­131-143.

Maag, J.W. (1996). Parenting without punishment. Philadelphia: The Charles Press.

Skinner, B.F. (1989). Recent issues in the analysis of behaviour. Colombus, OH: Merrill. 

Laura Clarke- Blog 4

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