Got teen? Great. Good for you. Know teen? Now, that’s a fish of a different fin.

“When you’re a teenager. ‘No’ is a complete sentence.”


Adolescence is a transitional stage of human growth between childhood and adulthood, defines Britannica. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines an adolescent as any person between the ages of 10 and 19. “Teenagers,” the street name for adolescents, are numerically and legally those hormones on parade between 13 and 18 years of age.

“Adolescents are famous for giving their parents grief…openly insolent, refuses to do household chores, frequently defiant and surly…[but] it’s worth doing everything you can to solve the problem of being a teen.”

Dona Matthews, Ph.D, writing for Psychology Today, 2017

Being a teen is difficult. No one I know says they want to be a teen again. But raising a teen seems impossible. And no parent I know says they want another shot at doing that nightmare all over again.

Believe it or not, though, there are those in the mental health field who choose to work with teenagers. They specialize in adolescent behavior modification. And they like it. They love the challenge of helping troubled teens learn to solve their own problems and to grow up to be totally competent adults.

“Teenagers are predisposed towards risky behaviors. As part of their development, it takes time for the brain to begin creating those mushy centers of self-control and risk assessment that we, as adults, take for granted. Have you ever looked at a teen and wondered what in the world they were thinking?”

Tyler Jacobsen

It’s all in the mindset and the approach, says Matthews. They expect there to be “power” issues. They stay cool and calm. They know having a quality relationship is important. They smile, not out of disrespect, but out of empathy. They use humor. They remain positive and upbeat. The avoid being judgemental. They listen carefully. And they love… unconditionally.1

Who These Special Professionals Are

Behavior modification specialists are psychological counselors, helping adolescents with behavioral problems that impair learning or social functions.

They work in private offices, schools, clinics, or government agencies. And they are licensed by their state to do so.

They have earned at minimum a bachelor’s degree in human services, psychology, social work, or related field (like school counseling). However, most have a master’s degree.2

Job Duties

They observe, assess, and support teenagers who have emotional or behavioral issues. For example, they help teens who are compulsively defiant to authority. They help teens who make the same poor choices over and over again.

Education Required

The education requirements for behavior specialists are less stringent than they are for general psychologists who typically must earn a doctoral degree. But experience within a certain behavioral area or with working a certain age of patient counts for much more, regardless of the formal education achieved.2


Before you can work as a behavioral specialist, you must generally complete required training provided by your organization, school, or other external training organizations. Training may vary depending on the specific setting, but usually includes training on ethics, assessments, appropriate interventions for the population you’ll be working with, crisis intervention methods and strategies for working with families.3

Career Musts

There is no universal required certification needed to work as an adolescent behavior specialist. Most applications for state licensure require having earned a graduate degree and completing a specified amount of clinical experience.2

Voluntary Certification

Some behavioral specialists may choose to obtain voluntary board certification to show that they have met certain professional standards that go above the requirements for state licensure. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board offers voluntary certification for behavior analysts on two levels. The Board Certified Behavior Analyst, or BCBA, is a credential for those with a master’s degree in behavior analysis or a related field. The Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst is intended for candidates with a bachelor’s degree in behavior analysis or a related field.3

Clinical Experience

Clinical experience is supervised volunteer service or shadowing in programs or places where behavior modification is being performed.  It gives the budding professional first-hand experience in the daily practice of behavior modification. Its requirements for licensing vary by state. Many require 3,000 contact hours following completion of a degree program. 100 or more of those hours must be supervised by a licensed professional therapist or counselor.

Behavioral Modification Programs…What These Special Professionals Do

Behavioral modification is sometimes controversial. Developed on the principles of B.F. Skinner, it uses a system of either reward or punishment to begin encouraging certain actions or decisions on the part of the participant…in this case, a teenager.

Your teen, for instance, may be truant at school and so is placed in a summer program to make up the grade. That would be a punishment for wrong behavior. However, he or she might also be placed in a daily group where they work with their peers to make up those grades, which comes with a reward each day for finishing work as well or as early as possible.

Studies have shown that behavior modification programs based on positive reinforcement are more effective, and all the while has a more positive impact on self-esteem.4

1 “Teen Attitude, Teen Trouble,” Dona Matthews, Psychology Today, 2017.
2 “Behavior Specialist Requirements and Duties,”
3 “Training to Become a Behavior Specialist,” Ashley Miller.
4 “An Honest Look at Behavioral Modification Programs for Troubled Teens,” Tyler Jacobsen.

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