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How Operant Conditioning Can Affect Adolescent Development

By Ayra Moore ; Updated June 13, 2017

If you've ever wondered how to encourage or discourage behaviors in your adolescent or why some behaviors persist while others disappear on their own, you may benefit from understanding operant conditioning. This type of behavior modification employs the concepts of reinforcements and punishments to promote positive behaviors and discourage negative ones. Adolescents can benefit from conditioning naturally or with your help. You can also apply it to your current parenting style as a means to aid your adolescent in adopting the behaviors necessary for his development.

Description of Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is based on the idea that a behavior can be learned by focusing on its consequence. For example, if your adolescent skips school and the consequence is a failed test, it is possible the negative behavior will not occur again. You can also encourage behavior by reinforcing it with rewards. Other concepts that are commonly found in operant conditioning include the extinction of negative behaviors and avoidance, which occurs when the purpose of a behavior is to avoid a negative incident.

Physical Well-Being

Bad habits in the areas of nutrition and physical health can hinder physical development and lead to issues such as obesity, deficits in essential nutrients and an increased risk of illness. Operant conditioning should include a focus on positive consequences; such as weight management and competition, says John Elder and colleagues in an article published in Health Education Resources. It is also important to limit the availability of incentives to avoid the target behavior, such as sweets and video games, which reward your adolescent for unhealthy behavior.

Mental Health

Anxiety and other mental health issues that can effect emotional development are often first detected during adolescence. The natural reinforcements that your adolescent may experience for unhealthy behavior in these areas can also be explained through operant conditioning. Anxiety or nervousness, for example, may be relieved by skipping class, quitting school or avoiding peers. When used as a coping mechanism, these methods of avoidance can hinder social, emotional and academic development.

Risk Behaviors

Delinquency, substance use and truancy are often followed by natural consequences that can either promote the behavior or discourage it. An article published in the Journal of Addiction says that alcohol consumption is commonly reinforced by the rewards of stress reduction, increased social interaction and general good feelings. It is important that you consistently punish these types of risky behaviors so that your adolescent will learn to associate them with negative consequences instead of positive.

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