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Aversive Conditioning

Also referred to as aversion therapy, a technique used in behavior therapy to reduce the appeal of behaviors one wants to eliminate by associating them with physical or psychological discomfort.

In aversive conditioning, the client is exposed to an unpleasant stimulus while engaging in the targeted behavior, the goal being to create an aversion to it. In adults, aversive conditioning is often used to combat addictions such as smoking or alcoholism. One common method is the administration of a nausea-producing drug while the client is smoking or drinking so that unpleasant associations are paired with the addictive behavior. In addition to smoking and alcoholism, aversive therapy has also been used to treat nail biting, sex addiction, and other strong habits or addictions. In the past, electroconvulsive therapy was sometimes administered as a form of aversion therapy for certain disorders, but this practice has been discontinued.

In children aversive conditioning plays a role in one of the most effective treatments for enuresis (bedwetting): the bell and pad method. A pad with a wetness sensor is placed in the child's bed, connected to a bell that sounds at the first sign of wetness. When the bell rings, the child must then get out of bed and go to the bathroom instead of continuing to wet the bed. This method is successful in part because it associates bedwetting with the unpleasantness of being awakened and inconvenienced in the middle of the night. A related technique that further reinforces the inconvenience of bedwetting is having the child change his own sheets and pajamas when he wakes up wet at night.

In a variation of aversive conditioning called covert sensitization, the client imagines the undesirable behavior instead of actually engaging in it, and then either imagines or is exposed to an unpleasant stimulus.

See also Behavior therapy

Further Reading

Doft, Norma. When Your Child Needs Help: A Parent's Guide to Therapy for Children. New York: Crown Paperbacks, 1992.

Feindler, Eva L., and Grace R. Kalfus, eds. Adolescent Behavior Therapy Handbook. New York: Springer, 1990.

Further Information

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 3615 Wisconsin Avenue NW., Washington, DC 20016–3007,(202) 966–7300, (800) 333–7636.

Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy. 15 W. 36th St., New York, NY 10018, (212) 647–1890.

Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health. 1021 Prince St., Alexandria, VA 22314–2971, (703) 684–7710.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaTherapy and Treatments