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Management with Adolescents

by. Joel Farb, M.A.

This is a two part article on behavior management with adolescents. Working on behavior problems with adolescents (ages 13-18) is very different from working with younger children. This article will address the steps involved in preparing for a behavior management program with an adolescent. Parental attempts at behavior management with adolescents often fail because factors critical to effective intervention have not been met.

Step 1 – Assess the severity of the behavior. How serious, disruptive, or dangerous is the behavior? Potentially dangerous behavior such as physical aggression or assault, threats involving weapons, fire-setting, self-injurious behavior (e.g., self-mutilation), serious property destruction, running away from home, etc., calls for immediate, professional intervention; potentially in a setting outside the home. Do NOT attempt home behavior management programming when the child displays dangerous behavior. Home behavior management will be necessary, but only AFTER systematic, professional intervention. As a general rule, parents should consult a qualified professional before attempting to manage any adolescent behavior problem that is serious enough to disrupt the home. If behavior is causing problems both at school and at home, professional help is strongly advised. If parents have a history of unsuccessful attempts at behavior management programs, professional support should be obtained. While I will recommend several books at the end of this article, these are only recommended together with professional support.

Step 2 – Identify what behavior(s) you want to change. One of the most common reasons for the failure of behavioral intervention is that “target” behaviors are poorly defined. You cannot systematically change a behavior unless you can specify what the behavior is and when it is occurring. The behavior you choose must be 1) observable and 2) measurable; that is, you must be able to either count it or time it. If you cannot, then you have not defined “behavior”. Avoid terms like “attitude,” “disrespect,” “responsibility,” and similar terms. These cannot be reliably observed or measured. Instead, describe the specific behavior(s) you are talking about when you say, “attitude,” “disrespect,” “responsibility,” “laziness,” etc. Do you mean “following instructions” when you say “disrespect?” Do you mean “completing assignment book” when you say “responsibility?” Defining target behaviors is not as easy as it seems, and it is critical to the success of the program.

Step 3 – Don’t take on too much at once. In the beginning, limit your intervention to one or two target behaviors. When a lot of change is needed, one is easily tempted to tackle too many objectives at once. Behavior management is not a “quick fix;” it is a long-term commitment to an ongoing process of personal change in an effort to change the child’s behavior. Starting with one or two target behaviors gives both the parents and child a greater likelihood of success. This, in turn, can serve as a positive reinforcement for their efforts. When parents successfully manage a behavior change program, the success helps to build “confidence” (i.e., a word used to describe the expectation of success) in future efforts.

Step 4 – Remember that the first behavior management program you will run is on yourself. Changing the behavior of another person requires changing how you respond to that person’s behavior. Learning different ways of responding to the child’s behavior is your first behavior management program. 

Step 5 – Parents must work together in carrying out the program. Effective management of any behavior change program, even with a young child, requires consistency on the part of the family members. If only one parent is following the program while the other parent is continuing past (i.e., unsuccessful) practices, the likelihood of a good outcome is poor. If there are significant problems within the family (i.e., between the parents), the chances of a successful outcome are poor, and the parents may need to address the family problems first.

Step 6 – Are you ready for the work involved in changing your child’s behavior? Behavior management, like effective parenting, takes time, effort, and persistence. If a parent is depressed or if the parent is experiencing problems related to his or her own adult ADHD or other condition, the parent should get personal help first. Sure, the child’s behavior may contribute significantly to the parent’s condition, but the parent still needs to seek help first. Also, change of any type can be stressful. Beginning a behavior management program means a change in a parent’s routine and parenting habits.

Step 7 – Learn what you need to do BEFORE you start the program. Don’t try to learn the skills involved in behavior management “in the heat of combat.” Do your reading, get professional help as needed, and attend workshops or classes before you start your intervention.

Step 8 – Make a list of preferred activities, privileges, and things the adolescent likes. These begin a “running list” of potential reinforces that will be used to strengthen and increase desirable behavior. This list is absolutely essential.

Step 9 – Be prepared for the behavior to get worse before it gets better. This does not always happen, and it is much less likely when the change is driven by highly valued positive reinforcers or incentives. However, this is a common outcome when behavior, which has previously been successful (such as arguing, opposition, nagging, etc.), is no longer permitted to produce the child’s desired result. In the language of applied behavior analysis, this is called an “extinction burst.” The target behavior may increase dramatically at the start of the program, but this increase is typically short-lived.

Step 10 – Make a list of five to ten positive habits or skills you would like the adolescent to acquire or display more often. These can be very simple such as clearing the dinner table, calling when he/she will be late arriving home, washing the car, getting out of bed by a specified time, etc. These habits or skills will help to keep your program focused on increasing desirable behavior rather than just reducing or eliminating undesirable behavior. Eliminating inappropriate behaviors does not automatically result in their being replaced by appropriate behaviors. These behaviors must be encouraged, perhaps taught, and reinforced.

Part 2 – Creating a Calmer Home

When I was asked to write this article, I noted that “managing behavior” is a very broad topic; the potential content is infinite. As a result, this article will focus on some basic strategies for producing general improvement. While the behavior problems that children may present are infinite, several problems are so common that, if parents address these, the process of an ongoing behavior management program may seem less overwhelming.

Just as well-behaved children make it easier to maintain a calm home, a calmer home can also facilitate better behavior on the part of the kids.

Step 1 – The first step to creating a calmer home is to create a quieter home. Behaviorally, this means reducing the incidence of shouting. Whenever I meet with parents for the first time and ask, “Would you like to create a quieter home?” the universal answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

A highly “emotional” environment is one in which reasoning and problem solving will be very difficult. Talking to a highly emotional person (child or adult) is similar to talking to a drunk – there is, so to speak, “Nobody home in there.” As a result, it can be very helpful to establish a quieter environment with less emotional behavior, and shouting is one of the most frequently displayed behaviors in an “emotional” environment.

To start your program of creating a quieter home, go to a sporting goods store, go to the golf section, and purchase a score-counter that is worn on the wrist. If possible, both parents should use one. For the next two to three days, simply count every time you catch yourself raising your voice; whether to your children or your spouse. For these two to three days, all you have to do is count your shouting. This will give you a “baseline” or pre-intervention frequency of shouting. Now you know your starting point. This exercise will not only establish your baseline of shouting, it will also teach you to catch yourself shouting (and becoming “emotionally” less self-controlled).

Don’t be distracted or disappointed if your baseline level of shouting is high. This is the starting point. It is very helpful when both parents do this as, occasionally, shouting is far more frequent for one than the other. This is not about assigning blame but about changing behavior. If you want a quieter (and less emotional) home, it is very important to reduce the incidence of shouting.

Next, make a chart, and graph the daily frequency of shouting you recorded during those two or three days. Get the involved family members together, and discuss what you’re getting ready to do. For example, “We’re going to work toward making a quieter home with less shouting.”

Explain that, in order to do this, whenever you hear someone shouting, you will tell that person, in a calm voice, “You’re shouting.” You’re also going to count it. Likewise, when someone else (i.e., your child or your spouse) catches you shouting, they will have a perfect right to tell you, “You’re shouting,” and you will count it. Other than the one prompt (i.e., “You’re shouting.”) and counting it, nothing else will be done. The parents must make every effort to ignore shouting on the part of the child, and to respond quietly, if at all, to a shouting spouse. If the person who is shouting continues to shout after the prompt, say, “We’ll talk when everybody’s calm,” and end the conversation. If necessary, leave the area and go to a different room. Do not engage in an argument. When the person addresses you in a quiet voice, you may respond, but if the volume begins to escalate, return to the prompt, “You’re shouting,” and, if necessary, once again end the conversation until the person is quiet. Each incident of shouting should be counted and graphed on the chart daily. It will be easy to see how your program is progressing. The next two days will give you a second baseline which includes everyone’s shouting.

Also, during your family discussion, tell everyone that if the chart shows reduced shouting, at the end of the week you will do something special (i.e., some preferred activity, family or otherwise). Note that this “reward” or reinforcer at the end of the week must be something desirable. The parents should decide, in advance of the family discussion, what the first week’s reinforcer will be. It can also be helpful to include older children in selecting this reinforcer. While the chart will cover the frequency of shouting for everyone (i.e., the goal is a quieter home overall; not just a quieter individual), the parents and children may select different reinforcers if a “family” activity cannot be identified.

Don’t be distracted or disturbed by a day with an unusually high level of shouting. The objective is to establish a trend; a new pattern of behavior, and this will take time and practice (e.g., two to three weeks).

In running this program, both the parents and children are learning to catch themselves shouting, to respond to shouting in a controlled way (i.e., “You’re shouting,”), and to replace shouting and loud, “emotional” arguing with calm conversation. These are critical skills to establishing a quieter environment in which problem solving will be easier. As you make progress in creating a quieter home, be careful not to discontinue the program too quickly. This can result in a quick return to the previous patterns of behavior. This reversal can be avoided if, as you discontinue the program for shouting, you select one or two other behaviors to address.

Step 2 – Reducing the Incidence of Arguing

When you begin the program to create a quieter home, one result can be a reduction in the amount of arguing. Arguing often, if not most of the time, involves shouting. When parents learn to respond to shouting without being drawn into a “shouting match,” many arguments can be avoided or cut short. In any family, there will be differences of opinion. Calm discussion and problem solving can only occur when more disruptive behavior, such as shouting and arguing, are managed.

Step 3 – Using this Program as a Self-Test

The program described above can serve as a self-test for parents. If you are unable to carry out or follow through with this program, you should definitely seek professional assistance before attempting any further behavior management interventions. While this program is very basic, it is not appropriate with all children or all families. Whether the problems arise from difficult behavior on the part of the child or from difficulty in your own follow through, you will probably need professional assistance in order for your future efforts to be successful. This should not be considered a personal failure, it’s just a fact.

Behavior is driven by its consequences. When shouting and arguing are effective in achieving a desired result, they are strengthened (i.e., reinforced) and become more likely to occur in the future. When they achieve only occasionally, they become more resistant to change. When calmer, quieter voices are heard in your home (in place of shouting and arguing), be sure to reinforce this behavior with praise, attention, acknowledgement, andresponsiveness. If quieter, calmer voices get no attention in your home, shouting and arguing will almost inevitably result.

The two books referenced below provide a very good description of similar intervention procedures and excellent guidelines for problem solving.

Joel Farb, M.A., The Center for Behavior Therapy

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