Telling My Story Social Learning Theory in Adolescence

Telling My Story: Social Learning Theory in Adolescence






Adolescence is a critical stage in life marked by several major developmental milestones and experiences. Adolescence is the period between childhood and adulthood where a person goes through a lot of self-discovery and begin to develop a strong sense of who they are and who they want to become. During adolescence, young people tend to rely a lot on their peers and friends for their opinions, actions and decisions. For example, many adolescents tend to copy their friend’s dressing style, ideas, hobbies, and many more. Although this peer influence may be positive and harmless, some peer interactions could lead to adolescents developing negative and harmful behaviour. A perfect example of this is smoking cigarettes, marijuana and experimenting with alcohol due to peer pressure. The social learning theory best explains the influence of peers in shaping adolescents’ thoughts, attitudes, and actions. 

What: Social learning theory

The social learning theory was initially used to explain crime and other deviant behaviour, but it is quite helpful in explaining external influences on one’s beliefs, thoughts and actions. The theory is not just about negative behaviour; it also explains positive ones. The social learning theory was proposed by Alex Bandura. One of the main ideas in Bandura’s theory is observational learning, which he demonstrated using the Bobo doll experiment. The social learning theory proposes that children’s behaviours, emotions and attitudes reflect those of people around them through imitation, observation and modelling (Rumjaun & Narod, 2020). Reinforcement is a crucial part of social learning theory as it rewards or punishes certain behaviours. The social learning theory applies to adolescents perfectly as it explains the strong influence that peers have on them. 

Adolescents are quite similar to children in the context of the social learning theory. Children mainly use their parents, guardians, teachers and other adults around them as models for their behaviour. As they grow into their teen years, the major source of influence begins to shift towards their peers. It is common to find adolescents feeling embarrassed about their parents and guardians’ actions and choices that affect them. They want to be seen as ‘cool’ among their peers, and they often rebel against their parents. For example, they resist their guardians’ choices of clothes as old-fashioned and complain about their parents being too strict. 

The social learning theory is especially important in explaining deviant behaviour in adolescents. Some of the common rebellious and deviant behaviours that adolescents engage in include experimenting with alcohol, substance use, and sexual activity. John P. Hoffman conducted a study on how social learning theory can be used to predict nicotine vaping among adolescents. The study involved 11,624 adolescents drawn from the 8th and 10th grades. It was found that the highest predictor of vaping is friends’ substance use (Hoffman, 2021). This study proves that adolescents’ behaviour is easily explained using the social learning theory, where friends and peers are the models for teen behaviour.

So What: Importance of the Topic

The topic of social learning theory is essential to people around adolescents, such as their families, teachers and communities. The approach will help these groups of people understand how adolescents behave the way they do and how they can promote positive influences around them. This topic is vital for me as I have interacted with many teenagers who have developed negative behaviours and attitudes from their peer groups. In future, I plan to work with such adolescents as a social worker; therefore, I want to learn as much as possible about the topic. Additionally, I want to advise families dealing with deviant adolescents about the causes of their behaviour and how to support them in getting back to the right path. 

Implications for Individuals and Families

The social learning theory is essential to families as they find it hard to deal with their children during adolescence. At this time, parents and guardians may not understand why their previously bubbly and engaging child has turned into a sulky and irritable teenager. All they want to do is hang out with their friends online and in-person. Parents may struggle with addressing rebellious behaviour such as refusal to spend time with family members, age-inappropriate dressing and style, rudeness and dismissiveness towards family members. The social learning theory will help families understand that adolescents most likely ape such attitudes and behaviour from their peer groups (Telzer et al. 2018) due to naiveté and that they have no solid belief systems. 

Social learning theory in adolescence has significant social, emotional, financial and educational impacts on families and individuals. On the emotional front, parents and guardians may struggle with deviant or rebellious behaviour among their adolescents. They may ask themselves if such abnormal behaviour in their children is their fault, which is a burden on them. Social learning theory allows parents to know that their teen’s behaviour is probably influenced by external factors such as their peers and friends. Understanding this will help family members stop blaming themselves for any deviance or rebellion. 

Educationally, the social learning theory will help families educate their children on the strong influence of their peers and how they can take advantage of this by choosing positive models. Spending time with other focused, responsible, and socially conscious adolescents will lead to them copying such values. Teens should therefore choose their company wisely depending on who they want to become. Socially, the social learning theory also affects the interaction between individuals and families. When one family feels that a specific individual negatively influences their child, the child might be banned from interacting with them. This creates tension between families and individuals. A group of adolescents identified as negative influences on others in a community will be shunned with adverse effects. An example of this is that adolescents will be even more drawn to those they are told to avoid in an attempt to be rebellious. 

Families will face negative consequences if the topic of social learning theory is not addressed. One of these is that families will have many fights with their adolescent children to get them in check. Parents and guardians may forbid their children from spending time with their friends whom they deem negative influences. Such an action will only provoke more rebellion from the adolescents. Rather than take this aggressive approach, the social learning theory will help parents find a middle ground. For example, parents and guardians may ask their children to bring their friends home so that they know who their children spend time with. This promotes trust and openness. Another negative effect of not knowing about the social learning theory is that adolescents will not understand the strong influence their peers on them. 

Strategies for advocacy and action

After learning about the central importance of the social learning theory in adolescents’ development, there are multiple ways to make a difference. One way is to encourage peer education among adolescents. Because adolescents spend a lot of time either in school or with their school friends, peer education would be particularly successful. To do this, a few students from each grade would be taught about the social learning theory and how it affects adolescents. After this, these students would hold informal sessions with their classmates and friends about the kind of person they want to be and the behaviour they would like others to copy from them. Increasing awareness among adolescents would help them make conscious choices about the behaviour they copy from others and what they want others to copy from them. 

Observational learning is a central part of the social learning theory; therefore, adults around adolescents should do their best to become good role models for their children. For example, parents who drink, smoke or curse a lot at home create the idea that such behaviour is acceptable, and adolescents are likely to copy this behaviour. Parents should practice what they preach by interacting respectfully with their teens, modelling the kind of thoughts, behaviours and attitudes they would like to see in their children. 

Third, there are many organizations that can help adolescents be more aware of their behaviour regarding peers and teach parents and guardians how to influence their children’s behaviour positively. Getting in touch with such organizations will help shape the attitudes and belief systems of teens. One such organization is the ‘Staying Connected with Your Teen’ program. The federal program helps parents address substance abuse problems with adolescents based on the social learning theory. The program emphasizes the importance of rewarding adolescents for interaction and engagement with positive peers (, 2021). Parents influence the positive development of their adolescent children by enforcing consequences for behaviour and being present in their children’s lives. 


In summary, the social learning theory is an integral part of adolescent development. Adolescents learn a lot from their environments, such as friends, family and other adults around them. With this knowledge in mind, we must all do our part in moulding these young people to become responsible adults in society. The best way to create a better tomorrow is to become a good role model for future generations so that they can develop the right attitudes, thoughts and belief system to guide them. 


Hoffmann, J. P. (2021). Social Learning, Social Bonds, Self-Control and Adolescent Nicotine Vaping. Substance Use & Misuse, 1-12

Rumjaun, A., & Narod, F. (2020). Social Learning Theory—Albert Bandura. In Science Education in Theory and Practice (pp. 85-99). Springer, Cham.

Telzer, E. H., Van Hoorn, J., Rogers, C. R., & Do, K. T. (2018). Social influence on positive youth development: a developmental neuroscience perspective. Advances in child development and behaviour, 54, 215-258. (2021). “Staying Connected with Your Teen.”

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