Problem Behavior Syndrome: Definition, Theory & Examples

Instructor: Leanne White

Leanne has a master's degree and an independent licensure in chemical dependency counseling. She has extended experience in corrections and post-secondary education.

Problem behaviors are defined as patterned behaviors that cause serious issues. This lesson will explore Problem-Behavior Theory and Problem-Behavior Syndrome. We will discuss the link between Problem-Behavior Syndrome and juvenile delinquency.

Problem Behavior Theory

Problem-Behavior Theory defines problem-behavior as any behavior that causes issues or is seen by society as undesirable, usually causing some sort of negative response (e.g. verbal disapproval, incarceration).

Problem-Behavior Theory (PBT) suggests that there are factors, both internal and external, that influence problem behavior within an individual. PBT explains three systems: the perceived-environment system, the personality system, and the behavior system. There are factors within each system that are responsible for either encouraging problem behavior or protecting the individual from problem behavior. PBT suggests that it is the balance of instigation factors (encourage problem behavior) and protective factors that determines whether or not the individual will exhibit problem behavior.

Three Systems under PBT

The Perceived-Environment System includes environmental factors that influence problem behavior. Instigation factors within this system include:

  • peers that support problem behavior or engage in problem behavior
  • parents who do not disapprove of problem behavior
  • minimal parental support and control over adolescent
  • lack of positive parental influence

The Personality System include factors within the individual that can contribute to problem behavior. Influential personality traits include:

  • low self-esteem
  • low value on academic achievement
  • low religiosity
  • enjoys being alone
  • high value of independence

The Behavior System includes behaviors that contribute to problem behavior. Influential behaviors include:

  • experimental or regular use of substances
  • risky sexual activity
  • irresponsible driving

Problem-Behavior Syndrome

According to Problem-Behavior Theory, an adolescent who exhibits problem behaviors or any risk-taking behavior (e.g. alcohol and drug use, truancy, delinquency) is said to have Problem-Behavior Syndrome (PBS). Research suggests that even when an adolescent exhibits only one or two problem behaviors, the likelihood of developing more over time is fairly certain. Adolescents with PBS can have substance abuse issues, educational underachievement, unemployment, and a higher rate of suicide than adolescents who do not have PBS.

Experimental vs Patterned

It is important though not to confuse experimental behavior with patterned behavior. Below are two case studies. One exhibits experimental behavior and the other exhibits patterned behavior.

  • Case Study #1: Suzie (15 years old) has been to two parties where she has engaged in alcohol use. She's also tried marijuana once, but did not like it. She has been sexually active with her long-term boyfriend for several months, but they have always used protection. Despite these behaviors, she stays active with her basketball team, keeps her grades up, and maintains employment.
  • Case Study #2: Ben (16 years old) started drinking at the age of 13. At first, he drank occasionally, but then it turned into every weekend. By 15, he was smoking cigarettes and marijuana. He occasionally skipped school, but his grades were never affected. By 16, he had been sexually active with 5 different girls.

Which case study do you feel exhibits experimental behavior? You'd be correct by choosing case study #1. Suzie has experimented with problem behaviors, but has not let them influence important areas in her life. Even though she is sexually active, she used protection and has only been sexually active with one person.

Ben shows a pattern of behavior. Do you think his drinking pattern could cause further problems? What types of problems? His drinking, drug use, and precocious sexual behavior have the potential of causing serious issues, such as further illicit drug use, sexually transmitter diseases, impregnating an adolescent girl, and problems in school.

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