As a parent, you want to find the best methods for shaping your teenager’s actions in order to help him or her grow into a happy, healthy, successful adult. According to behavioral therapists, using positive reinforcement appropriately is a highly effective way you can encourage correct behavior, and give your teenager the incentive to repeat it. In fact, there are even strategies for eliminating unwanted behaviors in your teen simply by using positive reinforcement in the recommended way, rather than resorting to criticism and punishment.
What Is Positive Reinforcement?
“Positive reinforcement” refers to a reward that is given after pleasing behavior to encourage its repetition. The reward can take various forms: giving verbal praise such as saying “Good for you”; showing other signs of approval like a smile, a pat on the back, a high-five or a hug; or bestowing a material treat of some sort, like a toy or cookie for a younger child, or spending money or a ride to the mall for a teen. Using positive reinforcement lets parents communicate their greater wisdom and experience about what choices and behaviors are likely to be successful in life to their teenaged children by demonstration, without “lecturing” and risking that the teen will tune them out.
Teens Need Both Freedom and Guidance
The human brain does not typically reach full maturity in its decision-making functions until an individual reaches his or her early twenties. Clearly, your teen of any age still needs your assistance in learning how to make healthy, life-enhancing choices in his or her life. Yet it is also imperative to treat your son or daughter with respect, and to allow him or her greater responsibility both for making decisions and for accepting the consequences of those decisions, which allows the process of necessary psychological development to occur.
An adolescent with too much freedom and too little supervision may make bad decisions with irrevocably harmful consequences, and may get the message that the parent doesn’t care. On the other hand, a parent who is overly controlling risks alienating a teenaged son or daughter and prompting a rebellious, deceitful or dependent attitude. Studies show that applying negative reinforcement (punishment) has only a short-term effect on reducing an undesirable behavior, and only works if you are constantly present to monitor your teenager's actions and punish them. Positive reinforcement is an excellent parenting tool, given these concerns, since it permits your teen to have a high degree of freedom to practice making good choices (and the inevitable mistakes), and simultaneously gives you the opportunity to influence your teen’s behavior without being a dictator.
Encourage “Baby Steps”
When your goal is to shape a certain behavior in your teenager, it is helpful to see the goal as a series of smaller steps that each deserve acknowledgment and reward. Whatever the “problem area” of your teen’s behavior is, your job is to find something good to praise or reward about your child’s actions in that area, which will encourage further effort in that direction. For example, if your teen has been slacking off on doing homework, you should wait to speak until you have the opportunity to say something positive. Then you might praise your child’s handwriting, or say something like, “Wow, you are so well-organized, with your pens and paper so neatly laid out. I wish I could be that prepared when I pay bills.” Spontaneously offering a treat your child likes, such as ice cream or chips, or giving a friendly and supportive back rub, are other options for positively reinforcing the choice to do homework without even using words.
The Power of Immediate and Unanticipated Rewards
A key part of using positive reinforcement to get the results you want is to promptly offer a “surprise” reward when you see your teen making progress towards the goal. Making your child a promise beforehand that you will deliver a certain treat if a certain action is performed, or delaying the positive reinforcement too long after the desired behavior is performed, will make it less effective. Studies have shown that receiving an unanticipated reward has a greater ability to motivate behavior, as does a reward applied close in time.
It can be assumed that you, as a mother or father, have already discussed your opinions on morals and values in life numerous times with your offspring, and that you’re doing your best to set a good example by practicing what you preach. According to Jane Nelson and Lynn Lott, the authors of "Positive Discipline for Teenagers," a child has absorbed the majority of his or her systems of values from observing the words and actions of adults by the age of five, and it is unlikely to change significantly after this time. (From pages 86-87 of the second edition of the book.) At this point, further discussion about the behavior you want from your teen and the reasons why, and promising a reward if the teen performs to your satisfaction, is likely to be seen by your child as nagging and manipulative, and may actually discourage them from developing their own natural motivation to adopt healthy behaviors. Instead, try the preferable parenting strategy of watching for good behavior, and being quick to surprise your teen with positive reinforcement when you see it.
Build Your Teen’s Self-Esteem
Knowing that he or she has a parent’s love and approval is crucially important to a teenager, even though he or she may have difficulty acknowledging this. The teen years are a time when a person is forming a sense of their core self-concept – their relative value in the world. Teenagers face the pressures of being judged for their intelligence and scholastic ability, their suitability as a friend and romantic partner, their productive ability and worth as a worker or employee, and their skill at such things as athletic, musical and artistic pursuits. With all these uncertainties and potential disappointments in their dealings with other people, teens will benefit greatly from a sense of security and stable self-esteem if they’re confident that the people who have known them the longest and most intimately – their parents – have good opinions of them.
Avoid Criticisms and Punishments
It may be tempting to try to shape your adolescent’s actions by criticizing him or her, or by grounding or withholding allowance or other privileges when your teen behaves in an improper way, but studies have shown that these types of negative reinforcement are not the best way to discourage an unwanted behavior. According to the principle of “amplification” used by Thomas Gordon throughout his book, "Parent Effectiveness Training," you will amplify – or increase – whatever behavior you focus your attention on, even when the attention is in the form of a punishment. If you are on the lookout for mistakes by your teen, and quick to lavish attention whenever they mess up, you are actually encouraging your child to repeat those types of behavior.
Behavioral psychology studies have demonstrated that, though it may be tough, the best way to discourage incorrect behavior is often to ignore it completely. There is wisdom for the parent of a teenager in the familiar advice: “If you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” When you need to make the occasional critical comment, Thomas Gordon's "Parent Effectiveness Training" recommends that you try to give four compliments or positive comments for each negative one, on average. A teenager who hears frequent criticisms and few expressions of appreciation is likely to feel resentful and abandon hope of ever pleasing you. On the other hand, a teen who has received sincere compliments more often than complaints will trust your judgment to be fair and loving, and will be encouraged to choose actions that are likely to maintain your overall good opinion.
Set Limits When Appropriate
Although positive reinforcement can be very helpful in resolving many of the behavioral issues you encounter with your teenage daughter or son, there may also be times when your teen needs the reassurance that you are there to set firm limits because of your care and concern for them. Adolescents can sometimes be impulsive and reckless, and can be tempted to give in to peer pressure. When this occurs, the knowledge that a parent has reasonable standards that forbid certain dangerous behaviors like using drugs or alcohol, and that the parent will enforce them with negative consequences if necessary, can actually be a relief and give a teen the excuse he or she needs to abstain: "I can't do that, my parents would kill me!" A parent should discuss seriously risky behavior, explain the negative consequences that can result, and clearly communicate the expectation that a teen will not engage in such actions. Failing to address such issues with your teenager, or not applying significant negative consequences for breaking the rules on major issues, could send the message that you either aren't that concerned about your son or daughter's well-being, or that the behavior isn't truly harmful.
While parenting a teenager, you try to walk a fine line between appropriately controlling your teen’s behavior to prevent harm, and simultaneously allowing him or her to develop the healthy independence and decision-making skills needed to grow into an ideal adult. Employing positive reinforcement on most issues, and setting clear limits on serious misbehavior, offers you an excellent strategy for effectively guiding your child’s behavior without being disrespectful or domineering. Remember to look for and promptly reward even small instances of progress in your teen’s behavior, and minimize punishments and criticism. Share your love and your belief that your teenager is competent and capable of good behavior, and your teen will be motivated to fulfill your expectations.