The blog

Changing behavior

Q. What is one of the most powerful tools to change behavior in teenagers?


  1. Punishment
  2. Reinforcement
  3. Critical feedback
  4. Encouragement


The answer is reinforcement, or reward. Its power is often overlooked by parents, teachers, friends and coaches. Let’s look at how it works.


Simply put, reinforcement is something that occurs after a behavior that you want to see more often, that increases the likelihood of that behavior in the future. It teaches the adolescent what to do more of by rewarding the behavior when it occurs. For example, when a teen completes a homework assignment, and we say, “nice going!”, the adolescent may do more homework (as long as “nice going!” is perceived as rewarding J). When a teen cleans her room, and we say, “let’s order a pizza tonight to celebrate”, we may see more room cleaning. When our teen child says a kind word to us and we respond with a smile and hug, we will likely see more kindness.


Keep these tips in mind:

  1. Rewards need to be rewarding. A hug may be rewarding for one teen and unpleasant for another. Some teens respond to public recognition, others shy away from it.
  2. Rewards work best when they are immediate.
  3. Rewards need to be salient. Food is rewarding when we are hungry, less so when we are full. Extra privileges are not rewarding if there are few limits in place to begin with.
  4. When the behavior we want to see is not occurring at all, try rewarding small approximations of the behavior to move towards change. For example, if you want to see your teen put his or her dishes in the dishwasher, first reinforce taking dishes to the sink.


Reinforcement is not taking something positive away, doing something unpleasant, or simply saying “stop”. It is providing something pleasant or taking away something unpleasant. Reinforcement is a powerful method for changing behavior, and when used intentionally is powerful and effective.


Punishment is much less effective; we will tackle how to use it productively in a future post.


Harnessing the magic of reinforcement will bring about change. Keep it on your radar and use it deliberately and often!